Listening & Trust

Enterprise social media means pretty much nothing without trust. Without trust it is nothing more than another song-&-dance marketing ploy. While it isn’t as simple as I am making it sound, a big part of trust is:
1) Listening,
2) Telling folks you heard them, and
3) Respecting each others point of view even when you disagree.

Just yesterday, Mashable had a post about building and earning trust in your community.

Mendelson, Brandon. 10 Things You Must Do to Earn Your Audience’s Trust. Mashable August 12th, 2009.

The list of ten things is provocative and worth pondering closely (and read the post for the full explanation of what is meant by each of these topics).

1. Tell us who you are.
2. Choose your best picture
3. Don’t setup a profile on every network.
4. Own your subject.
5. Don’t be fake.
6. Be available.
7. Be transparent.
8. Write for the web.
9. Document everything.
10. Answer every message.

For myself, I think I agree with about half of these, and find the rest about half problematic and half depend on circumstances. I’m not going to say which are which, at least not today. I will share some thoughts to encourage you to think more deeply about the issues of trust and presence in social media.

I am a big fan of Onora’ O’Neill, and especially of the Reith Lectures she presented in 2002 on BBC Radio4.

BBC Radio4: Reith Lectures 2002: Onora O'Neill, Trust
O’Neill, Onora. Trust and Transparency. Reith Lectures 2002. BBC Radio 4.

Onora O’Neill would be likely to add another line to my three points above (listen, dialog, respect), probably something along the lines of setting and respecting appropriate boundaries. What do people want to know about you, what do people need to know, and what do you want them to know? Which gets back to the listening part. After all, how do you know what people want to know about you, what to share with them, unless you are listening and asking questions, unless there is a real give and take in your dialog with them?

Transparency is the buzzword of the year. Despite that it isn’t a new word, and Onora O’Neill did a lot of work several years ago thinking about the significance of transparency in building or destroying trust. Here are a few of her thoughts.

“This high road is built on new technologies that are ideal for achieving transparency and openness. It has become cheap and easy to spread information, indeed extraordinarily hard to prevent its spread. … Openness or transparency is now all too easy: if they can produce or restore trust, trust should surely be within our grasp.” (Onora O’Neill, 2002)

In short, being open and transparent may start the process of building trust, but like building a diet focused around one food, the picture is more complex than just that one factor.

“Those holding public office in the UK are required to conform to the seven ‘Nolan’ principles. These principles, as many of you know, demand selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.” (Onora O’Neill, 2002)

There is a lot to be said for the idea of including the Nolan principles in marketing and social media. For myself, I find I tend to place more confidence in companies who have somehow gathered my trust, and held onto it. Lots of times, that has nothing to do with whether their ads are glitzy or clever, and more to do with my sense of them as someone I’d be proud to have as a neighbor.

Right now I’m thinking of Wendy’s. Yes, the burger chain. Around the area where I grew up it was common knowledge that Dave Thomas had been adopted, was a hard worker, and had named the business after his daughter. Early on he made a commitment for Wendy’s to support the communities in which they lived and to support adoption and the best welfare for children. He was consistent with this over several decades, and I grew to respect him and his vision and principles. In my eyes, Dave Thomas consistently showed all the Nolan principles, and everything about the company seemed to reflect this. I don’t know much else about him, though. I have no idea how old his daughter is or whatever happened with her. I don’t know Dave’s hobbies, if he had any. I don’t really know anything about his personal life aside from the few core facts that he chose to share publicly as having shaped his vision and mission. Onora O’Neill, I imagine, might find that appropriate.

“In fact, our clearest images of trust do not link it to with openness or transparency at all. Family life is often based on high and reciprocal trust, but close relatives do not always burden one another with full disclosure of their financial or professional dealings, let alone with comprehensive information about their love lives or health problems; and they certainly do not disclose family information promiscuously to all the world.” (Onora O’Neill, 2002)

So, in our work in social media, do we really want full transparency? How do we select what is shared and what is not? We don’t want to be found keeping secret relevant facts that would impair our trustworthiness, but at the same time, for example, it isn’t necessarily relevant to your public persona whether you fancy dark chocolate or milk chocolate or are allergic unless chocolate is the topic of your discussion.

That doesn’t mean it is inappropriate to talk about chocolate, though. If someone asks, or if the moment seems to call for it, sharing those kinds of tidbits might help you present yourself as a human rather than a sterile corporate presence. It will depend. As a rule of thumb, you might stop and imagine yourself chatting over the fence with your new neighbors shortly after you move into a new home, or what you might share in a brief conversation after church or a community event with someone you just met, and limit yourself in social media to those types of communications. If every now and then you slip up and say something that isn’t quite appropriate, don’t make a fuss over it but be prepared to apologize.

How do you know what’s appropriate to share? Listen and watch. Be part of the community. Observe the people around you, both the highest common denominator and the lowest, then aim somewhere a bit higher than center.

“We can place trust beyond face-to-face relationships when we can check the information and undertakings others offer. … There are no guarantees. But informed consent can provide a basis for trust provided that those who are to consent are not offered a flood of uncheckable information, but rather information whose accuracy they can check and assess for themselves.” (Onora O’Neill, 2002)

I love this. It provides a real baseline for trust. Don’t just trust me because I say I’m a good person. Don’t just trust me because I talk a lot and say the right things. Don’t trust me just because I tell you all my little “secrets.” Trust me because I say I’m a good person, I say the right things at the right time, AND because I’m consistent, I know where to draw the line, my actions and public record match my words (I behave like a good person), I make things right when I make a mistake, and there is public information easily accessible to show that I really am who and what I say I am.


One response to “Listening & Trust

  1. Pingback: Conversation Tips & Best Practices « Emerging Technologies Librarian

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