We’ve blogged recently about different aspects of trust, and its importance for leaders – and those who are (at least for now) following them. Today, I’d like to look at a particular aspect of trust and the ways in which we can earn it – or lose it. This being political party conference season in the UK, a few examples from the main political parties may rear their variously believable heads by way of illustration, and I hope I will – by and large – avoid the tendency to use third-party quotations to add a veneer of credibility to my arguments.

This is a legitimate practice, as Plain Text points out, but you do have to do it right. Relying exclusively on second-hand credibility is risky: if the credibility of your testimonials become questionable, so – by extension – do you. As rules exist to be broken, here’s Jean Baudrillard’s justification for picking on the politicians:

Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility. It is like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved – commitment to a scenario.”

As we’ve pointed out previously at Don’t Compromise, our pasts have a longer shelflife and greater distribution in the digital age: so much of what we say and do is now available online, we can’t simply shred a document or ‘misfile it’ to put particular past moments behind us. Our words come back to haunt us more powerfully than before, and can make us all look slippery no matter how we protest that things have changed or ‘that was then, this is now’. (Chris Anderson may have identified The Long Tail as a by-product of the digital age in retail, but the same applies to what has been called ‘the attention economy’). The “pretty straight sort of guy” quote in the title was, of course, Tony Blair speaking way back in November 1997 about the first ‘scandal’ of his premiership (Formula 1 funding, for those with short memories).

As The Independent reported at the time, Blair’s defence was “a polished performance”. It did, however, flag up an important point about communicating credibly: it’s not what you believe, it’s what your audience believe that determines your credibility. Here’s a fuller version – if we trust the journalists’ transcription of it – of what he said:

I think most people who have dealt with me think I am a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am. I am sorry about this issue. I should have realised it was going to blow up into this type of importance, but I have honestly done what I thought was best for the country … I would never, ever, do something wrong or improper or change a policy because someone supported or donated money to the party. I didn’t in this case.”

Two famous quotes immediately spring to mind: Mandy Rice-Davies’ “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” (Wikipedia gives a brief summary for our younger readers), and Samuel Johnson’s “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. Good points, but Rice-Davies’ is perhaps the more potent: when we listen to someone presenting a case, we usually analyse their motives as much as their words.

It doesn’t matter that Mr Blair thinks most people think he’s a pretty straight sort of guy: what matters is what most people think. (Indeed, some years later, he would – in the minds of many – use a dossier as a fig leaf, prompting them to wonder quite how much he had to hide, and a few of them to wear t-shirts with the simple slogan ‘Bliar’. In as far as he was a ‘straight sort of guy’, by that point some people just assumed he was talking about his sexuality.) Maintaining your credibility is a key part of managing your reputation and retaining trust.

In an age of sponsorship, one hurdle to clear in your campaign for credibility is the audience’s question “Who’s paying you to say this then?” Our probable reaction in earlier times – “What’s the big deal here?” used to be metaphorical; nowadays, our suspicion may be more bluntly commercial. Philosopher Alain de Botton has previously written about The Art of Travel (as well as The Pleasures and Sorrows of Workread our review here), but his commissioned post as writer-in-residence at Heathrow airport raised eyebrows here, here, here, here and here (and Google will find you another 1,385 more furrowed brows in a mere 0.32 seconds). No matter how carefully you ‘brand’ your ‘conversations’, it’s how your readers brand them that matters. And the Internet (and other media) lets them talk too.

With that many eyebrows crowding our collective hairline, the protestations of editorial neutrality and ‘free rein’ don’t necessarily have the effect that they might: people start to question the motives of both the sponsor and the sponsored. By which stage, even one section of the media (print journalist Terence Blacker at The Independent) start writing about blogging, veracity, credibility and “the heavy hand of corporatism”. As mere members of all these peoples’ audiences, we will have to draw our own ultimate conclusion. But how many of the writers’ realise that we don’t just read their lines: we read between them too. (We’ve ordered a copy, but not yet read it so there’s no review here: more importantly, we recognise that your faith in our credulity would influence how much faith you might place in any commentary or opinion we offer.)

With all of that in mind, a few hints, tips and warnings.

That big grey thing in the corner – acknowledge it: We’re talking about elephants, of course. If silence speaks volumes, to trundle out an old cliché, an elephant can trumpet them. And stamp it’s not-so-little feet. (Looking at the party conference season, things as diverse as budget deficits, the Lisbon Treaty, possible homophobia or Nazi-sympathising among partner parties, past opinions on regulation can all suddenly turn into something large, grey and wrinkly. For a reminder of what can happen when even carefully managed ‘elephants go bad’, there’s an old clip from Blue Peter at the end of today’s post)

Cry ‘Wolf’ if there’s one at the door: one of the oldest stories about credibility and communication is the Aesop fable about the shepherd boy and the wolf. The conclusion could be the ‘punchline’ to this whole piece, but here it is for the impatient:

There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.”

In the fable, of course, the shepherd boy is raising false alarms (and doing so out of self-centred boredom or mischief). In an age where there is a strong temptation to massage bad news into a more attractive shape (or, more damagingly for everyone’s credulity, to find ‘a good day to bury [it]’), there’s a contradictory error: not mentioning an imminent wolf as wolves have negative connotations that we seek to avoid attaching to our ‘brand’. Which is understandable.

But – in a challenging economic climate where many people’s working lives carry a fear of redundancy, short hours or pay cuts – a failure to have brought up the wolf topic before the wolf metaphorically savaged a group of people in the next office or at the next desk, may make your next ‘positive’ message more of a strain to take on board. Bad news needs to be sensitively and thoughtfully handled, but a clandestine burial is taking the approach too far.

Synchronise the songsheets before the performance: the people you lead expect to hear ‘the news’ before the wider world – it’s symptomatic of feeling that you and they are playing for the same team. Effective communication in any organisation is about keeping its people ‘onside’; when their reaction to a breaking message is ‘why didn’t I know this before’, it’s unlikely to be positive.

That should be a very simple lesson, but life is littered with examples of it not having been learned – partial or whole workforces finding out about redundancies from tv news, the Lib Dems faithful hearing about Vince Cable’s ‘mansion tax’ as their conference was being broadcast live (as The Spectator commented, thereby damaging the reputation of the ‘Sage of Twickenham’ in two ways), and – as the media were only too happy to pounce upon – yesterday’s gaffe when Chris Grayling, Shadow Home Secretary, unaware of the likely appointment of Sir Richard Dannatt as a Conservative advisor and peer and assuming the question related to his political opponents, dismissed the news with the damning comment “I hope that this isn’t a political gimmick.”

Something of a communications double-whammy there: firstly, no-one had updated Mr Grayling’s songsheet. (BBC Political Correspondent Nick Robinson castigates him in his blog with the sign-off “Moral of the story – don’t open your mouth if you don’t know what you’re talking about” when he would at the time of been unaware that there was a story at all.) Secondly, it’s hard to finesse your way out of something being a gimmick where your competitors do it but a noble and laudable thing when you do. Are you having that cake or eating it? And speaking of Sir Richard …

People will wonder who’s paying the piper – or the ferryman: although I’m not pinning my reputation on it, the now widely-quoted phrase from the world of investigative journalism ‘Just follow the money’ came from the film All The President’s Men (cue the obligatory link to an article questioning the quote’s veracity: if you can’t be bothered, just enjoy the irony of the film being about Nixon and Watergate – perhaps the biggest moment of loss of faith in a leader in recent times). As members of society – even when we’re wearing our ‘work hats’ – we accept that we live in a world of marketing, PR and spin. We know that presentation skills are applied to make things appear as palatable as possible. (Sit in on a photoshoot for a cookbook sometime if you want to cure your hunger.)

But too much spin makes us giddy: indeed, overdo the spinning and it’s the audience who may turn into whirling dervishes rather than the speakers. Even our propensity to see not just journalists but business leaders and politicians as a form of vermin with an inbuilt tendency to be ‘economical with the actualité’ [sic] – as the Ipsos-MORI Annual Veracity Index documents – hasn’t diminished our ability to worry that we may have just detected a whiff of rat.

If the trust that you have hitherto enjoyed has depended on particular attributes – say, impartiality – then calling those attributes into question calls your credibility into question too. And if previously concealed associations come to light, the agenda(s) of those you are now known to associate with may taint perceptions of you.

You may be continuing to speak entirely factually, and have nothing but the most honest and honourable intentions. But it might not look like that to those listening to you. Despite the Daily Mail might be a natural constituency for a Chief of Staff, Sir Richard may have noticed his credibility being unexpectedly questioned. This effect also cuts both ways: although neither party were targeting a ‘white man speak with fork tongue’ reaction, the piper’s paymaster may not be thought entirely beyond reproach either. 

It’s the future, stupid: not commented on, as far as I’ve noticed, by the media, but at least two of our party leaders have used conference season to make it powerfully clear to us that their message is ‘about the future!’. One wonders quite where, given the uni-directional and linear nature of time they’ve been leading us until now. Less facetiously, anyone seeking ‘commitment to a scenario’ – whether they be a business leader defending the profit motive or a politician seeking to grasp the prophet motif (ok, maybe still a touch facetious …) – is seeking their audience’s buy-in for where everyone will then collectively head. We’re not all lucky enough to put our past entirely behind us, but not even a skilled historian can truly put the past in front of us. Even if ‘onward and upward’ isn’t available as a slogan due to mitigating circumstances, the message can only be ‘forward’.

There’s another factor we can’t offer that much clear advice on, however, and probably the one most likely to hole even the best-intentioned promises below the waterline. As Harold MacMillan pointed out, the things most likely to blow a government off course – and to make leaders’ past comments seem inappropriate or ridiculous are:

Events, dear boy, events.”

With that in mind, a film clip to remind us to watch where we step and to tread carefully …

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