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Communications Leadership and The Trust Factor

Metal Compass Concept with red needle

It’s not news that we’re in the middle of a global public health crisis, and though the word is overused, this situation truly is unprecedented. From the beginning, mistakes have been made and rectified on a regular basis, though no one doubts the good intentions of the leaders.

But more recently, as policies shift regularly in response to data, people are questioning the policies and actions that have sent dangerous and mixed messages to the public.

The public health crisis has generated a leadership trust crisis:

Mixed messaging on COVID-19 pandemic is leading to distrust in Ontario, experts say

— The Canadian Press, Oct. 6

Canada’s public health communications meltdown here just in time for Thanksgiving

— The Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 6

It’s disheartening:’ Perth doctor on the front lines of COVID-19 and misinformation

— The Perth Courier, Oct. 7

And so on…

Meanwhile, social media is rife with anecdotes from families as they struggle to find reliable and consistent guidance to keep loved ones safe. Since the school year began, confusion and chaos has reigned about what do and what not to do, when to do it and how, and where to get it done.

What we have seen in the past two months is a severe breakdown in communications among our leaders in government and health care.

The Trust Factor

When it comes to trust, public sector institutions were already on thin ice well before the pandemic. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer from surveys conducted in October and November of last year, only 42% of Canadians trusted government leaders, versus the 69% who trusted the health care system itself.

Overall, the Canadian population lacks confidence in our public system by 53%. The levels of trust in our health care and education sectors specifically dropped by 3-4% from the 2019-2020 study.

If this isn’t telling enough, the report provides the following recommendations:

  • Redefine leadership
  • Embrace stakeholders, not just shareholders
  • Partner across institutions
  • Realize the battle for trust hinges on integrity, dependability and purpose

Why is trust more important than ever for our public sector? Because they depend most heavily on positive reputation and goodwill to enhance their service delivery. To quite literally fill in the funding gaps to meet the demands of our increasing population.

The ROI of building trust means greater advocacy for the cause, more resiliency in times of crisis, ability to attract the right talent, achieve greater volunteerism and enhance employee engagement.

“When trust is the fabric of an organization, the recipients of the donor funds are the true beneficiaries. When trust is lost, the beneficiaries and the organization both lose.” states Deb Comuzzi, Principal of Comuzzi Consulting who specializes in strategic leadership for the non-profit sector.

Right now, the cause is protecting the health and safety of as many citizens as possible, particularly those who are most vulnerable to this virus. If trust is lost, more lives will be lost.

Recognizing the true strategic power of communications

To build trust, strength in strategic communications is now more essential than ever for our health care system and its institutions. While communications alone cannot fix controversial policy decisions or political imperatives, it can have a huge impact on building reputation, affecting goodwill, building trust and readying audiences for change.

Unfortunately, in large, complex institutions, “communications” is far too often considered a support function, a department that the rest of the institution relies on to communicate policy and distribute timely and effective messaging to its stakeholders and the public. This function is typically executed through media relations, social media channels, websites, etc.

We witnessed the results of this mindset during the pandemic response. Each institution was deploying its own response to delivering its own part of the testing service. The result was that there appeared to be very little strategic understanding of the environment, audience needs, or even the necessary staffing requirements to deliver a program safely and effectively.

Effective strategic communications are, in fact, a management function and must be recognized as such. A CCO is just as important as a CFO, with an equal seat at the leadership table. The purpose of this role is not just to shape the response message and manage the media to protect an institution, but to intimately understand the business environment in which an institution operates and the people (shareholders/consumers) it serves.

The role of strategic communications, is to create a culture that mobilizes the organization and its partners around the cause to ensure the organization delivers on its promises – and builds trust.

A recent article from McKinsey talks about leaders needing to lead from the front and to bring their greatest strengths to bear, especially now during the pandemic:

“Executives are uniquely poised at this pivotal time to bring corporate power, guided by social purpose, to the aid of millions of dislodged and vulnerable lives. Done well, their actions in this crisis can bridge, in unprecedented ways, the divide between shareholders and stakeholders in the communities they serve—and leave a lasting, positive legacy on their corporate identity.”

Put in this context, it’s clear that leaders in both communications and other management roles must ensure that they take a strategic approach that will best serve their communities and restore trust in their brands.

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