Trust, transparency and business

Declan Mordaunt
Member with Delegated Authority
Affiliations, Civil Society Network and T20 Professional Services Network

Declan Mordaunt
TINZ Member with Delegated Authority for T20 Professional Services Network

Under the title of “the Trust Crisis”, the April/May Edition of Acuity (the magazine of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand) contains two articles on the topic of trust and business. Each emphasises the important role of trust for businesses and the need for transparency. The days of “trust me” on a say so, are well gone.

The first article titled “Who can you Trust?” by Susan Muldowney looks at the impact of recent high profile corporate scandals such as the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). It refers to the annual Trust Barometer Report prepared by the global communications and marketing firm, Edelman, which shows a continual global decline in consumer trust in businesses over the past five years.

This is no real surprise considering the range of scandals that have hit global businesses over the past few years. The article goes on to question if the problem (lack of trust) is unfixable or is it simply a by-product of modern society where so much information is available at the touch of a screen. The transparency of information, often required by regulators, leads to the consumer having a greater understanding – or perceived understanding – of business practices. Equally in a world requiring more and more startling headlines, the media seek to deep dive into the data to gain a better understanding and even better headlines. Headlines are what sells news and further fuel the consumer perspective on business. Rarely is it the case that good news sells papers.

The second article is titled ‘The Barometer of Trust’ by Tim Dean. He notes that in Australia trust in business fell 3% since last year, to 45%. The surprise here is that the decline was not more significant.

Tim notes that less than half the population trust business to “do what is right”. He goes on to note that trust is the “lubricant of reciprocal exchange and reciprocal exchange is at the heart of commerce. Our society and commerce cannot function effectively when the community lacks high levels of trust.”

Importantly for New Zealand, less trusting countries tend to have poorer performing economies and lower average incomes. Foreign investors are far less likely to invest in such countries and they require higher returns when they do.

Dean goes on to note that transparency can make businesses uncomfortable. By visibly incurring a cost or taking a risk intended to benefit customers and stakeholders, a business is sending a significant message that it takes trust seriously. Importantly, businesses need to note the old adage that “trust is hard won and easily lost” and be ever vigilant in their pursuit to remain “trusted”.

What does this mean for New Zealand?

The recent damage done to and by businesses in Australia has so far mainly missed New Zealand. In broad terms, there is a higher level of trust in business here and so far, we have avoided the major crisis created by the likes of CBA and AMP.

Many believe that trust is core to the “Kiwi Way.” This applies as much to the business world as it applies to politicians and the Government sector.

To maintain this trust, we need to embrace changes in society referred to earlier about the availability of information, and the plethora of journalists anxious to deep dive for information in the pursuit of creating a headline.

This is not a criticism of journalism but a reality based on the availability of information and the consumer needs for headlines. A bad headline is enough to damage trust and often there is little opportunity to protect the brand after the headline has been made, whether guilty or not.

More Business Transparency

This brings us to the need for more business transparency. We understand the need for business to protect trade secrets or key competitive information. We accept that this is imperative to maintaining effective competition.

More business transparency is needed however, when it comes to issues which impact consumers or society more generally (for example tax). They need to tell “the good, the bad, and the ugly” – regularly. Then, businesses need to be seen to be working to offset the bad and ugly by demonstrating the plans in place to rectify the issues. Failure to report transparently will lead the general public to the conclusion that they are not facing up to their corporate responsibilities with a resulting backlash on their brand.

There is no choice – businesses must be transparent to embed trust and protect their value. The alternative is lost value and, ultimately for some, failure.

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