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Transparency is not a Substitute for Trust
By Brendon Cropper, Chief Data and Digital Officer, Carat Australia
The world has a trust problem, we all know that.
People expect ethical, reliable, and consistent data protection from governments and brands—an expectation those institutions are apparently falling well short of, if the latest Edelman Trust Barometer is anything to go by.
There is a collective desire for at least minimal protection of personal data and protection from bad actors, whether they’re in Russia, Nigeria, or their mum’s basement around the corner; whether they want to empty your bank account or convince you that democracy doesn’t work.
These developments have heightened awareness of the potential risks of our rapidly evolving digital world, and just how central transparency is to its functioning and survival.
But transparency and trust are not synonymous.
There has been a lot of talk recently about transparency being the solution that will restore trust in institutions and brands, but is transparency really the answer?
In a recent Harvard Business Review podcast, leading trust expert Rachel Botsman questions transparency as the ultimate end within the current climate of distrust. “I understand how we got into this conversation around transparency being the end goal, but when you think about it, transparency and trust are not synonymous. Because if we need things to be transparent, we’ve kind of given up on trust.”
Trust implies an element of blind faith, of letting go. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
Transparency means openness and clarity; quite the opposite to blind faith. Transparency is one of the pillars that plays a role in driving trust, just like credibility or reliability. Some research argues it can merely be a ‘hygiene factor’ and does not contribute to higher levels of trust. It can even lead to lower levels of trust if people are disappointed with the degree to which a government, for example, is transparent.
David De Cremer, KPMG professor of management studies at the Judge Business School, Cambridge, agrees with this concept, in his article ‘When transparency backfires and how to prevent it’, explaining how too much transparency can increase distrust.
“At first this seems paradoxical— wouldn’t transparency increase trust? But consider the micromanager who asks you to document every step of your calculations so that he can be sure you got the right answer. Would you feel trusted by that person?”
Technology is also driving developments in transparency within the advertising and media industries
Could this be the typical case of ‘too much of a good thing’?
Perhaps radical transparency is not the remedy, because all it confirms is the scale to which trust has broken down within society, in areas such as government, social media, or data handling.
Transparency may not, in fact, be the ultimate end, but a means to an end.
A dose of transparency is a good thing if it exposes wrongdoing and contributes to a more accountable society and honest, respected brands. Some of the world’s most advanced societies (e.g. New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Norway) top the rank in the transparency international index). Similarly, SAI Global’s inaugural Consumer Trust Index found that 8 percent of consumers rate transparency and ethical behaviour as the greatest trust builders.
New technologies make transparency inevitable.
As movements like #metoo use social media to drive accountability and positive social change, dark forces manipulate social media and personal data with relative impunity. Governments and society struggle to control these failures, to achieve transparency or act on it when we do achieve it. We have a long way to go, but transparency should be central to the management and activity of brands and organisations who wish to be trusted, and new technologies can help achieve this goal.
Blockchain technologies, for example, will increase transparency, exposing every step of the manufacturing, delivery and transactional processes. Ad-notice technology such as Evidon gives consumers transparency into the data brands collect, and control over the ads brands and agencies serve.
Transparency will become critical to brands, and has the potential to be an important differentiator.
Technology is also driving developments in transparency within the advertising and media industries. The introduction of ads.txt has increased transparency and reduced fraud in the programmatic advertising ecosystem.
A recent Mumbrella article, ‘The state of transparency in 2018: we’re in for a bumpy ride’ stated: “Ad fraud stands at just 4 percent, so with every additional initiative we move closer to zero.”
Agencies across the board have made efforts to develop more open and collaborative relationships with clients— working as true business partners.
With the decline of trust, transparency is unavoidable and employing proactive strategies to ensure the right levels of transparency is essential. However, transparency alone won’t guarantee higher levels of trust from your customers or clients. A long-term trust-building strategy is required, to proactively work on all the building blocks that make up trust.
Trust needs to be an integral factor for all brands. Are you recognised as legitimate and authoritative? Are you able to deliver consistently? Are you responsive to consumers’ feedback? Are you open and honest in your communications with your customers?
Frank Sonnenberg, author of Follow Your Conscience says: “Trust is like blood pressure. It's silent, vital to good health, and if abused it can be deadly."
So in a way, transparency is like exercise—if you want to live a long, happy, and healthy life as a brand or organisation, it pays to exercise transparency. It should be part of a balanced program aimed at managing and growing the trust that is the lifeblood of our personal and commercial relationships..