Trust at the beating heart of communications

More than ever, government and the public sector must commit to building trust with citizens.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. For communication between government and citizens to be successful, there is one ingredient that’s non-negotiable: trust.

Trust within the triangle of social media outlets, the democratic process and the public is what has broken down in the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (that, and in Australia, we’re still licking our wounds over the Australian cricket ball-tampering saga… shudder shudder).

Trust is a hot topic in Australia and around the world right now.

The Edelman Trust Barometer this year revealed that globally, nearly 7 in 10 respondents worry about fake news or false information being used as a weapon, and 59 per cent say that it is getting harder to tell if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization.

That, and 63% of people said they don’t know how to tell good journalism from rumours, and their concern of fake news is making them disengage with current affairs.

Enter the Cambridge Analytica data breach. We won’t take you through how it unfolded play by play, but if you need the background on this story, the UK’s Guardian/Observer, who first broke the news, is a good place to start:

Trust and Cambridge Analytica

In a nutshell: UK based consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, whose bread and butter is data mining, data brokerage and data analysis to inform strategic communication around the electoral process, improperly acquired the personal data of 50 million Facebook users. It is alleged that this data was then used to, ultimately, sway the result of the 2017 U.S election by creating specific psychographic profiles of voters.

Christopher Wylie, former employee and whistle-blower of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, described Cambridge Analytica’s data, in this instance, as a “psychological warfare weapon… the weapon Steve Bannon wanted to build to fight his cultural war.”

The Cambridge Analytica debacle flies in the face of communication targeting being a force for good.

The method behind the madness? “Websites will be created, blogs will be created, whatever it is that we think this target profile will be receptive to, we will create content on the internet for them to find. And then they see that… they click it and they go down the rabbit hole, and so they start to think something different.”

Worried yet?

Reinstating trust through transparency

For public sector communicators, transparency has arguably never been more important. Trust is earned by saying what you will do and doing what you say; by consciously living up to each and every promise that you make. And this includes being honest about the use of [legally acquired] data.

Transparency is difficult to quantify. As defined by Transparency International “transparency means shedding light on shady deals, weak enforcement of rules and other illicit practises that undermine good governments, ethical businesses and society at large.”

If it’s difficult to quantify, it’s similarly tricky to provide guidelines on how government and the public sector can improve transparency in their communications noting the current trust climate. However, now and always, communication needs to focus on being:

  • Honest: government departments are run by humans and humans can make mistakes. Being authentic and admitting failure when it occurs is humanizing and helps build trust.
  • New: seek to challenge existing views through content, not simply telling people what they want to hear.
  • Engaging: the conversation is what deepens the relationship between you and your audience. Always follow up.

Rising from the ashes

Post-Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has promised to do more to protect user data. CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued apologies (interestingly, via traditional media outlets) in the form of ads in seven British newspapers and three American ones.

“This was a breach of trust and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time. I promise to do better for you.”

While the Cambridge Analytica scandal does, of course, represent both a breach of data and trust, watching Facebook take (some) responsibility for what unfolded is the first step in reinstating trust in their brand. Facebook knows it has alienated their audience and they now need to find a way to fix this.

According to Managing Director of Facebook ANZ William Easton, “from a user perspective, we are going to be very transparent about which users across the world have been affected by some of the issues.”

For users, this is promising and hopefully a sign of what’s to come in the following months.

By September we will see stricter rules surrounding privacy and advertising on the platform, focusing on the use of third-party data. Other changes include increased transparency on what data they have about their users and how/why they’re targeted.

Facebook (as well as Cricket Australia… but that’s another blog post) is on the path to transparency and have been dealt a valuable lesson we can all learn from. While making a promise is a good place to start, following through is much more important.

Bringing it all together

The ramifications of the breach will continue to be investigated by respective governments, with eyes around the world glued to the American and English investigations into how the data was used to influence the 2017 US presidential election and the Brexit campaign respectively. You would hope that any misconduct will continue to be highlighted.

Importantly, governments and the public sector must act to assure citizens that privacy is on their agenda and that breaches of data and trust such a breach won’t happen again. As we are seeing now in Europe with restrictions being put in place regarding social media and the use of citizen data, this issue is firmly on the public’s agenda and won’t be going anywhere soon.

The value of transparency and honesty is key to public sector communications and trust between government and citizens is infinitely harder to gain than it is to lose.

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