Our politicians have declared the fact extinct. You can say what you want, disparage the experts and claim to be an anti-establishment billionaire. It doesn’t matter. They know we’re living in a post-truth world.

Politicians lie because in the short term, it’s effective. In the same way that fun beats data, the well-told political lie trumps the fact-checked rebuttal. Politicians also have a single objective: winning the vote. Once in power they know they’ll be judged on what they do, not what they said to get there.

The erosion of trust is dangerous for business

Political lies work but they’re also corrosive. Survey after survey shows politicians are among the least trusted people in society. If you can’t trust your leaders, who can you trust? Even charities are finding trust is at an all-time low.

This is dangerous territory for businesses.

IPSOS Mori’s survey at the start of this year found that only 35% of British adults expected business leaders to tell the truth. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that while trust in business is at a post-crisis high, that’s only true for the better off. Among people earning more than £100,000 a year, trust in business stands at 67%. Among people earning less than £15,000, that falls to just 35% – a trust gap of 32 percentage points.

As Edelman noted:

“Those with lower opinions of the corporate world make up the bulk of customers for many businesses, yet the Edelman Trust Barometer research suggests they feel little trust in the companies that they deal with.”

This matters for all businesses, not just those who sell to consumers. People with low opinions of business are also employees, members of local communities and voters – all vital groups for business success. Another striking and concerning fact is that the trust gap for business is even bigger than the trust gap for government, and we only have to look at the referendum to see how that played out.

Edelman points to greed as the reason for low trust in business, from excessive executive pay to corruption and fraud. The referendum also tells us that economic insecurity is a factor. The people who trust business the least are the people most at risk of losing jobs which are replaced – if they are at all – with low-quality work on zero-hours contracts.

So what can be done? According to Edelman, paying the right tax, responsible behaviour and – pertinently for this piece – increased transparency were the ways businesses can regain trust, ahead even of better customer service or job creation.

Rebuilding trust: the copywriting implications

Rebuilding trust is a profound challenge. Better communication won’t be enough on its own but it is an important part of the mix. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean learning new tricks, just careful application of some copywriting basics.

1. Know your audience

You can’t write well unless you know who you’re writing for and what they want to hear.

If there’s one clear lesson from the referendum, it’s that society is much more complex and fragmented than we thought. In politics, the old certainties no longer hold. The division isn’t between left and right but between people who benefit from globalisation and those who suffer from it.

Edelman’s research tells us that businesses also face a divided audience. We need to get out of our bubbles and understand other perspectives.

2. Say what you mean

As we’ve argued before, plain talking is powerful. Skip the euphemisms and verbal gymnastics and give it to people straight. This is particularly important when the news is bad. If you demise jobs, you deserve all the ridicule you get.

3. Back up your claims and be consistent

BT infinite possibilities

When trust is low, it’s more important than ever to show you’re telling the truth. Provide the facts, figures, case studies and testimonials that support what you say. Don’t fudge them or over claim.

If you’re reporting on your business performance, use the same metrics every time. Don’t chop and change when the trend looks unfavourable.

And think hard about what you’re saying. BT’s ‘infinite possibilities’ barely add up to one short paragraph. It’s a harmless exaggeration, which makes the company look silly. But remember that what you perceive as a harmless exaggeration, your audience may perceive as a lie. Why take the risk?

4. Take responsibility

There are hundreds of posts out there on active versus passive voice and we’re not going to rehash them here (although this one from the Economist is good). Suffice to say that your writing has to make clear who is doing what, especially when it’s a message your audience won’t be happy to hear. Hiding behind passive constructions may feel more comfortable but it won’t help you to win people over.

5. Sound human

This is important. You’re not a company communicating to its stakeholders. You’re one person talking to another. If you can’t imagine saying something face to face, don’t write it. A simpler, more conversational style is easier to read and understand, and helps people feel you’re being open with them, so you stand out from the faceless corporations they no longer trust. It’s also much easier to write, once you get used to it.

Talk to us

To find out how our copywriting services can help you, get in touch.