Trust Is the Great Intangible

It is, increasingly, about the Great Intangible. As the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook case shows, beyond the significant stock price drop or possible fines the company may be facing, we are witnessing a greater loss—more sensitive and strategic, delicate and valuable: Trust. In the new economy, born from the digital transformation, and hence itself a child of Facebook, trust is the Holy Grail—the asset which determines a company’s worth.

And Mark Zuckerberg knows this all too well, as he sat under intense scrutiny from US Senators on April 10, and as he acknowledged in an earlier interview to CNN’s Laurie Segall: “So this was a major breach of trust and I’m really sorry that this happened.

If we take a look at our industry, we should reflect and ask ourselves, have we lost anything in the midst of this global scandal? Cambridge Analytica defines itself on its corporate website as a company that “uses data to change audience behavior.” And perhaps a little more than data. In a video published by British news program Channel 4, Chief Executive Alex Nix and Alex Tayler, the company’s chief data scientist, admit they set “honey traps” for political candidates to influence election outcomes. They mention specific instances carried out in Mexico and Malaysia. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is not the only one affecting the industry, which recently lived through the Bell Pottinger disaster. Founded in 1998, the company had become one of the biggest PR firms in the world when it collapsed mid-2017 after a number irregular practices came to light, including inciting racial hatred in South Africa through disinformation campaigns designed to favor certain political interests.

These cases are enormously relevant to us as communication professionals. Our reputation is at stake; namely, the trust society has placed in our role as legitimate moderators in the relationships between communities, companies and people. And trust is a delicate, fragile and valuable thing we need to nurture, protect and defend with determination.

We need to decisively demonstrate that when performed well, our profession serves to improve society. We generate trust, support meaningful communication between people, institutions and companies and facilitate interaction and understanding. We safeguard our clients’ reputations and sometimes try to influence public opinion or positively predispose an audience toward certain attitudes, products or services. When that is our purpose, we perform it with honesty and transparency, based on real facts and opinions, without using deceit or device and without invading spaces reserved for confidential or private interactions. We work toward improving our clients’ reputations and those of the causes they represent, emphasizing their positive aspects and finding ways to enhance their roles in society. Our raw material is communication, not private personal information. The compass that guides our actions is ethics—never the notion that “the end justifies the means.” Our work is based on a solid foundation of facts and truth.

Now more than ever, we need to underline the importance of our role as communication professionals in building a better—better informed and better prepared—community in which individuals and groups base their interactions on trust, honesty and reason. We firmly believe we are part of the solution to the problems of our digital age, making it our duty to react quickly and decisively by censoring actions like those perpetrated by Cambridge Analytica and the like.

This hyperconnected society is also hyper-vulnerable, as are the individuals who live in it—and we include ourselves in this. Although communication professionals play a leading role in this scenario, we must also be aware of our vulnerability. We are also hyper-vulnerable and must take the necessary precautions.

We witnessed the birth of the internet and social media, entering the digital age with a certain degree of innocence, eager to communicate, listen, share, publish and inhabit these new online spaces. It is only recently that we have begun to realize online anonymity can be problematic, and “bad actors” can take advantage of this freedom to target us, using and misleading us for their own purposes and deceitfully influencing our opinions. Fake news, Brexit, the U.S. election, the situation in Catalonia, Russian interference in elections around the world…. There are too many readily available examples.

The age of innocence is over, and we have learned it is extremely important to know who to trust. Professional, responsible and ethical companies will triumph in these trying times, in which trust has become a priceless intangible asset. As communicators, we could not be operating in a more decisive and challenging time.

Jose Antonio Llorente, member of the Arthur W. Page Society since 2016, is the Founding Partner and CEO of LLORENTE & CUENCA, the leading communications consultancy firm in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, and the driving force behind the think tank Developing Ideas. Jose Antonio recently published El Octavo Sentido (The Eighth Sense), an essay on the relevance of communications in the 21st century. He is on the board of directors of the Human Age Institute, a nonprofit talent initiative made up of more than 450 organizations.