Lessons from Trump Article icon


Trust in traditional media has dropped to new lows according to Edelman’s most recent annual barometer of trust.

With just 43 per cent of people around the world saying that they trust the media, the Trump administration‘s brazen disintermediation of the fourth estate in reaching the public seems like a shrewd move in tune with the direction of sentiment.

The President of the United States can now suggest with seeming impunity that traditional media outlets have conspired to conceal terrorist attacks in Europe while his team posits ‘alternative facts’ about record-breaking crowds at the inauguration despite clear evidence to the contrary.

While the idea of aping Trump’s tactics might seem uncomfortable, there is no doubt that his team has mobilised his supporters extraordinarily effectively and understood that the public now has greater – and increasing – trust in content accessed via search engine algorithms or shared on social media over properly sourced, checked and verified content provided by traditional media.

A key question for business is whether we can draw any insights from the seismic changes revealed and exploited by Trump without imperilling long-term trust and confidence.

Remarkably, confidence in corporates is actually higher than politicians or the media, with a positive net rating and second only to non-governmental organisations. Edelman’s data also reveal that within that overall score, companies also possess a significant advantage because their own employees are among the most trusted by the public of any group measured. They beat company chief executives by more than ten points overall as well as for every individual category measured – including on topics of financial earnings and operational performance.

This represents a tremendous opportunity for corporate communicators if employees can become supporters and mobilised effectively to advocate for a business and what it delivers.

Crucially, this means blurring the boundaries between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ communications and creating owned channels which are dynamic hubs of relevant stories which are well-connected within the online ecosystem.

Sweating content across multiple channels has always been important but using owned channels in a way more akin to a news agency becomes critical. When content is shared by an employee or another stakeholder with a direct line into a business it is automatically more credible.

Content also needs to come higher in search engine rankings to be noticed, trusted and shared.

With that in mind, a key lesson from Trump is that for stories to be shared, they need to elicit an emotional response. Simple engagement is no longer sufficient in a world where audiences routinely expect to be entertained and excited. There is no place for bland or dry company missives when competing with politicians using hyperbole or exaggeration.

Corporate communicators’ showdowns with cautious executives or company lawyers more concerned with taking emotion out of what is said rather than generating cut-through, take on an even greater significance.

What are the limits? Could companies deploy their own alternative facts? On the contrary, if the aim is to create stories and narratives which excite and motivate stakeholders – particularly employees – to generate value then this requires more openness and honesty rather than less.

While Trump’s team might be able to run roughshod over the evidence, employees are trusted precisely because they have access to facts about the way their part of the business is run. They are the first to detect a lack of authenticity or credibility and tell their peers when a business fails to do what it has promised or set out to do.

Trump’s victory and approach hold lessons for communicators around the world. It has exposed and shone lights on the changes to the way people consume information and who they trust. The demise of the expert and the rise of trust in people’s peers is beyond doubt.

While it’s unlikely we’ll see CEOs looking to shop floor colleagues to manage results or merger announcements, it’s clear that in the battle to build trust and confidence, corporate communicators need to look again at how an organisation’s messages are delivered and who is best placed to make its voice heard.