Donovan RocheDonovan Roche

The year 2020 was one for the ages. If an unprecedented pandemic was the only crisis to befall us, that would’ve been enough. But we also endured racial injustice and protests, political discord from a never-more-divided nation and job loss mounting to an economic recession.

The common thread connecting everything—COVID-19, civil unrest, our government and the election results—is a massively overwhelming lack of trust: in our scientists, our law enforcement, our leadership, our media and even our fellow man.

Of course, the thought that America is suffering from a “trust crisis” is nothing new; the buzz term has surfaced often over the past few years, particularly with respect to consumers’ lack of trust in the corporate world. In fact, one Gallup poll found that two-thirds of adults worldwide believe corruption in business is widespread. But the perfect storm of national and global crises we experienced, and continue to, have shown just how pervasive the trust problem is.

Iconic investor Warren Buffett once said, “Trust is like the air we breathe—when it’s present, nobody really notices. When it’s absent, everyone notices.” Indeed, whether a government, business or individual, the currency of trust is the most valuable asset we have. It’s hard to earn, challenging to maintain and incredibly difficult to regain if lost.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '21 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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As we embark on this very uncertain year, let’s look at some key pillars for building trust during a crisis. If you incorporate these into your go-forward communications strategy, you will be poised to increase confidence in your constituents while safeguarding your brand’s reputation.

Speak the truth

Silence might be golden, but not during a crisis. If people don’t hear from you, particularly those impacted by the crisis, they will grow concerned from lack of information and begin to develop their own story. By being consistent in your communications, you not only drive the conversation, you also instill trust in your audience.

Consider this: A Business Insider study found that Dr. Anthony Fauci and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo were the most trusted coronavirus communicators in the country. Why? Because every time you turned on the TV, you would see one or the other addressing the pandemic’s constantly changing evolution.

Of course, you must be more than just consistently visible to build trust. You also have to be comfortable delivering difficult news—that’s the nature of the game—and being direct with your audience, even if you’re telling them something they won’t want to hear. Trust begins with the truth.

Recall that President Trump said he made the decision to not tell the American public the gravity of the coronavirus because he didn’t want the country to panic. Whether you believe his intentions were pure or not, from a trust and how to handle a crisis standpoint, this was the worst thing he could do. Withholding the truth or making the situation seem less severe than it is doesn’t help those impacted by the crisis, it robs them of the ability to properly prepare and behave, which ultimately breeds distrust.

It’s not about you

When bad things happen, and people are put on the defensive, the natural tendency is fight or flight. One way or the other, they want to protect themselves—not show vulnerability, take accountability or demonstrate concern for others. As counterintuitive as it may seem, this is exactly what one should do when a crisis hits to build trust. Rather than thinking of just themselves, or their brand, leaders need to show responsibility for the broader universe of those affected by the crisis, from employees and customers to society as a whole.

How the National Basketball Association and its commissioner, Adam Silver, responded to the COVID-19 pandemic was a monumental undertaking, but it serves as a textbook example of keeping all stakeholders in mind with your crisis response. When a player tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11, the NBA set out to develop an innovative way to safely resume the season. The answer was to hold all games in one location—the bubble, hosted at Disney World in Orlando—and follow strict precautions, including daily testing and not allowing any visitors, from family members to fans. Not only did the NBA come up with a creative solution to address the crisis, they collaborated with and deftly communicated to all stakeholders—teams, players and fans—throughout the three-month season, finishing with a remarkable zero COVID-19 positive tests.

Another good though very different example is when Starbucks had to confront a charge of racism in 2018 when two black men were kicked out of one of its Philadelphia stores for not purchasing anything. The event was captured on cell video—as so many incidents that escalate into crises are—and it quickly went viral on social media. Following a lackluster apology, which led to employee dissonance and public protests, Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson recognized the need to take full responsibility for the incident. He posted a heartfelt video apology to the brand’s website and shared the same sincerity on multiple TV news interviews. Most importantly, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores across the U.S. to conduct racial bias training. While this cost the brand more than $12 million in lost sales, the action showed that Starbucks was committed to addressing the real problem head-on, and not at one store but holistically throughout its organization. This level of follow-through is the most effective way to build trust.

Humanity hits home

One of the biggest mistakes a crisis communicator can make is to get so wrapped up in delivering the message that they forget to be human. At the end of the day, all people—whether an employee, customer or the public at large—want to know that you care about their wellbeing and, following a crisis, you are focused on making it right.

One of the hardest hit industries impacted by COVID-19 was travel and hospitality. When President and CEO of Marriott International Arne Sorenson had to inform employees of how the crisis would affect their jobs, he elected to speak to them directly via video, against the better judgement of his advisors. It was the right move. In the anguished message, Sorenson doesn’t just display empathy, he is on the verge of tears. No employee—or any of the many YouTube viewers, for that matter—is going to think this leader doesn’t care greatly for his people.

The glue that holds it together

So much goes into building trust: exuding credibility and consistency, being transparent and truthful, showing vulnerability and accountability, expressing empathy and compassion, and much more. But, as the events of 2020 made clear, when trust breaks down in any one of these areas, connections fall apart. Never underestimate the power of trust—and how it can impact your brand if gained or lost, particularly in times of crisis.


Donovan Roche is Vice President of Havas Trust, the crisis communications practice of Havas Formula, named one of America’s Top PR Agencies by Forbes in 2020.