I’ve just returned from visiting my alma mater, Northeastern University, where I’m honored to say I’m a member of The Northeastern Corporation, a body constituted to provide counsel on a variety of strategic issues. (And, in the interests of transparency, I should also note that I’m helping the school communicate its amazing value proposition).
During my full day on campus, I had the opportunity to lunch with five or six of the most impressive undergraduates I’ve encountered at any college or university (and, I’ve literally met thousands). Each shared his or her personal Northeastern journey with me, and some of my fellow ‘corporators’ and, I must say, each story was more compelling than the last. These ‘kids’ were not only committed to finding new ways to help make the world a better place, they were also racking up some amazing international work experience courtesy of Northeastern’s unrivaled cooperative education experience (a.k.a. co-op).
After listening to their tales, we were invited to ask questions of the students. I wanted to know their feelings about the society in which they’d grown up. After all, as I said to them, the one fundamental difference from the world I knew at the Northeastern University of the late 1970s and the world of today could best be summed up by the word ‘trust’. While The Vietnam War and Watergate may have eroded my generation’s trust in certain political leaders, we still believed in The American Dream. Today, though, every single pillar of society is either immersed in a major scandal or recovering from one. Be it religion, sports, politics, entertainment or business, kids today are growing up in a world without trust.
So I asked the undergrads if they trusted anyone and, if so, who. They all said the same thing: they trusted their friends and family first. Then, as we’ve seen in some of our audience research on clients’ behalf, the students said they trusted objective sources such as Consumer Reports. From there, they turned to bloggers and what we PR types call influencers. Next came local and regional news, followed by national news and, finally, advertising. To a person, the students said they no longer trust leaders. One volunteered that she’d actually quit her co-op job in state government because of the sleaze factor. She’s now considering an alternative career path as a result. (Note: that’s one of co-op’s many strengths; it can not only provide deep, practical experience in one’s chosen career path. It can also red flag a professional pursuit that doesn’t make sense).
After word: The world’s largest independent public relations firm has gained notoriety for its annual Trust Barometer, which measures peoples’ trust in various sectors. Based upon what I just heard at Northeastern, though (and, what has been echoed by many other students with whom I’ve spoken), the time is right for someone to create a Distrust Barometer. We need an index that will regularly take the pulse of pre-Millennials; the kids who’ve grown up in an era marked by a complete erosion of trust in everyone and everything. If Peppercom represented brands seeking to reach that demographic and how to re-build trust with it, I’d fund the study immediately. As far as I’m concerned a Trust Barometer can no longer be trusted; at least not by anyone under the age of 21.
Thanks for the insightful words, Johanna. I agree that a company can re-build trust with its constituent audiences if it treats the original breach as a learning lesson. I believe money, in many cases, is at the center of what I call The Distrust Barometer. Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for short-term results rewards otherwise trusty executive to cut corners and look the other way when they should do the exact opposite.
I think the subject of trust in society is an important topic to bring up. Whether it be a relationship with a friend or a company, full trust in something holds major significance. Through political, personal or media scandals, the foundation for trust in younger generations is slowly diminishing. However, if a company can maintain the trust of a customer, I believe it can feel safe its shopper will easily develop into a lifetime consumer. Trust should be central for every company, for trust is what firmly holds a relationship together. Companies need to look at each of their internal and external interactions and view them as a personal relationship in order for them to be represented in the best light. Success naturally falls into place from there.