Barbara Nonas is a strategic communications & PR consultant. She was previously head of communications at Digitas.
It’s an undeniable fact: Trust isn’t easy to come by today. According to Deloitte, we’ve entered the “Trust Age”— a time when information and misinformation is omnipresent and perceptions reign supreme. A 2022 Ipsos poll found that 67% of Americans say most people cannot be trusted.
The conundrum for PR professionals is that without a client’s trust, it’s very hard to do our jobs well. The American Psychological Association reports that business partners who trust one another spend less time protecting themselves and more time working on things that will make their business successful.
When clients trust you, they’re more likely to share information openly and honestly. They’re also more inclined to be vulnerable, which can be difficult for leaders who believe they need to project an image of strength at all times. But it’s exactly that vulnerability, that willingness to trust and share personal or professional struggles, that can lead to the most compelling and inspiring stories.
A client who trusts you will heed your counsel because they know you’re always acting in their best interest. When the coronavirus hit, a CEO I worked with agreed to adopt a different approach for her all-hands meetings. Instead of focusing on company business, she talked candidly about the mental, physical and emotional challenges of working during a pandemic. She stressed the importance of selfcare. She encouraged employees to seek mental health support if they needed it, and told them about company-provided resources, including access to free counseling sessions. As a result, employees felt seen, heard, and supported. And unlike the case with many companies, the retention rate remained high when the Great Resignation started.
So how can a communications practitioner go about establishing trust with a client, especially one they’re meeting for the first time?
According to the Harvard Business Review, trust has three main drivers: authenticity, logic and empathy. Clients tend to trust you when you’re being your genuine self (authenticity), when they have confidence in your ability and judgment (logic) and when they feel you care about them and have their best interests at heart (empathy).
Here are five action steps that help build client trust:
- Avoid making preconceived judgments. Instead, be genuinely curious and open-minded. I approach every client with these questions in mind:
- What can I learn about them?
- What are they passionate about?
- What new discoveries can I uncover?
- What makes them unique?
- Do your homework. I scrupulously research a client’s business and that of their top competitors, and I familiarize myself with relevant industry trends. Showing clients that you are thoroughly prepared helps them feel respected and more likely to share information that will make it easier for you to succeed at your job.
- Be an active listener. In 1957, psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term active listening. It’s a communication technique that involves giving your full and undivided attention to the speaker. It means keeping an open mind and listening without judgment. For those of us who are easily distracted or tend to interrupt when others are speaking, we can practice our active listening skills by being fully present whenever we have a conversation with someone.
- Establish your expertise, but don’t show off. A client needs to feel confident that they can trust you with their business, especially at the beginning of the relationship. If they face a challenge that is similar to one you’ve overcome with another client, share the insights that led to your previous success. If you have certain skills that are particularly relevant, let them know that, too. But keep it brief. Focus on listening more than speaking.
- Keep your word. Be reliable. Follow through on commitments, and if you make a mistake, admit it. Being reliable and keeping your word not only increases the level of trust between you and your client, it also enhances your reputation as a PR professional who acts with integrity.
Once I’ve established trust with my client, I find it much easier to uncover new opportunities, discover potential risks that need to be mitigated, and challenge potentially limiting beliefs. I’m then in a strong position to craft a communications plan that will help them get famous — for all the right reasons.