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Friday, January 15, 2010

Regaining Public Trust

The public’s trust in corporations is low and we all want to do something about it. I would like to suggest two connected issues that are worth attention. Truthfulness in communications and how we resolve some of our differences.

Truthfulness in our communications; don’t confuse the telling of true facts with truthfulness.

The December 4th edition of Politico carried an advocacy ad from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity addressing the importance of coal to power, jobs and a healthy economy. But power, jobs and a healthy economy are not the primary issues in question. The primary issue in question is climate change. An ad from a coal industry coalition with facts about power, jobs and a healthy economy, but no comment on climate change isn’t portraying a truthful position. A truthful ad would state clearly the ACCCE’s perspective on climate change before commenting on the other impacts of the sector.

The previous example originates in politics and advocacy, but the approach extends into the commercial world too. On December 20 ‘09 the major papers carried dueling ads. One encouraged the public to sign up to demonstrate support for Time Warner’s position; “some TV networks want massive price increases or they’ll pull the plug on their programs. We think that’s unfair….” The dueling ad encouraged people to go to to demonstrate their support that Time Warner shouldn’t increase their rates. “Time Warner Cable is using programming costs as an excuse to raise your bill while they continue to rake in billions in profits”

The ads tell truths, but in telling only part of the story, neither is a truthful portrayal of the situation. Moreover as the ads do not address the same issues (Fox didn’t actually comment on whether it was trying to increase its rates, Time Warner made no mention of profitability) a consumer reading each can make no reasoned determination. These ads can serve only to reinforce preconceptions.

Which gets me to my second issue. I wrote a post early last year “Legal Is Not Sustainable” that explored the adversarial approach we take to dispute resolution.

A headline in the NYT a few weeks back “Are Advertisements True” referred to advertising disputes from AT&T and Verizon, Campbell Soup and Progresso, Pantene and Dove, UPS and FedEx, GE and Bracco.

I see an underlying theme through many of the disputes. The facts in the positions are true, but the facts chosen tell only part of the story.

When companies duke it out in public like this, they demonstrate a lack of trust in each other. If companies don’t trust each other, why should Joe public trust companies?

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