Pivoting in Crisis #7: Why expertise is the answer right now



3 April 2020

About pivoting in crisis

As the Covid-19 outbreak continues to spread behaviours are continuing to change. Just as the 2008 crash saw the birth of thousands of new businesses, Covid-19 will undoubtedly mean pivoting marketing strategies and ways of working. Several of the changes that coronavirus is causing will create new consumer needs. It is these changing needs that we are highlighting in this ongoing content series. In this piece we’ll look at how issues around trust and misinformation surrounding the coronavirus are creating the conditions for a return to the status of experts and the value of expertise.

The trust equation under unprecedented scrutiny

Trust is a two-way street. Brands (and, of course, governments, corporations, NGOs, individuals, etc) must act in a trustworthy way, that’s part one. But the audience must also be in the right, receptive frame of mind to trust the messages that they hear. That’s part two.

Trust = Trustworthiness (of message and source) + Trusting audience

Right now, both parts of the trust equation are compromised. Brands are struggling to demonstrate their trustworthiness since the sheer scale and seriousness of what we are all facing has caused an explosion in corona-content. While some of this content is genuinely helpful, legitimate and informed, there is, unfortunately, plenty that is wildly speculative or deliberately and mischievously wrong.

Simultaneously, consumers are struggling to give their trust. There is simply so much information coming in and so much social media amplification that they are simply overwhelmed, confused and anxious.

A constant demand for Covid-19 information

The public across the world, understandably, have been desperate for accurate information over the course of the infection so far: Information about the seriousness of the threat; about how to avoid infection; about how to correctly self-isolate; about how best to support the vulnerable in our society; about how long the outbreak is likely to last, and so on.

7 in 10 citizens across ten countries are following coronavirus news daily. In the UK the figure is 65%, of which 22% are checking in several times per day (link).

The drivers of trustworthiness

Why are some brands and some individuals regarded as trustworthy, while others are not? Where does trust come from and how do you build it? Prevailing academic research suggests four key components drive perceptions of trustworthiness:

  1. Credibility: We need to regard the originators of messages as having the experience, competence and expertise necessary to enable them to come to an informed point of view about the issue at hand
  2. Reliability: We also need to feel that the organisation or individual in question will “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”. Will they deliver on promises, will they do what they say they will, and will they do that repeatedly, on an ongoing basis
  3. Intimacy or empathy: Does the organisation understand the world of those to whom it is directing its messages? Do they have empathy and understanding of the lives of ordinary people? Do they have a long-term vision into which this messaging fits?
  4. Lack of self-interest: Is the message all about promoting self-interest or is it, at least partially (or, perhaps, mainly in the current climate?) communitarian?

Key learning: Trust is a powerful asset that can drive performance, enables organisations to be proactive in times of challenge and is the first step in overcoming scepticism (link). It is also the first step in making authenticity a systemic part of who you are. It is hard won, and easily lost so must be carefully nurtured and protected. Audit all of your comms efforts right now against these four drivers. Only when you are sure you pass the test of each of them should you press go.

The drivers of public distrust

That scepticism has been rising amongst consumers has been recognised for decades (link). As individuals have become more empowered and information more freely available, consumers have grown aware of what advertising is and how it works: information with a paid agenda and a remit to manipulate. Consequently, they have become harder than ever to convince, with their default setting now being a healthy scepticism – “well they would say that, wouldn’t they?”. I’d argue that our innate disposition to trust what we are told has been replaced with the exact opposite.

If anything, this trend has accelerated over recent years, with a whole new set of vocabulary from “fake news” to “alternative facts” evolving to capture our increasingly fraught relationship with facts and the truth. This was seen in dramatic style over recent election campaigns here and in the US as one side and then the other argued over how to interpret a so-called “fact” – the £350 million a week for the NHS bandied about during the Brexit vote campaign is a very famous example (link). Further back, our American friends were treated to Newt Gingrich telling CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota that he didn’t care about what the facts (relating to crime in several of America’s biggest cities) said, he just cared how people felt (link).

This scepticism can, though, be overcome by circumstance. We’re, therefore, in the midst of a perfect storm. People are hungry for information. They are avidly consuming news media from a variety of sources. And they are scared. No wonder then that rumours are spreading wildly. We’re being inundated with myths about coronavirus: It can be killed by hot water; Chloroquine is a proven cure; Garlic and hot baths can stop you catching it; Drinking lots of water helps; Vodka can be used as hand sanitiser; and so on (link).

74% of citizens across ten countries worry that there is a lot of fake news and false information being spread about coronavirus (link)

45% of citizens across ten countries agree that “it has been difficult for me to find reliable and trustworthy information about coronavirus” (link)

In fact, while we probably feel such claims are laughable, there are plenty who lap them up – around one-in-three, for example, believe the Vodka hand sanitiser claim (link), while one-in-four believe that the virus can live on surfaces for up to one month or that facemasks can protect against the virus. This willingness, for some, to believe what we see and hear online reinforces the need for absolutely trustworthy, reliable, credible, authoritative information.

Key learning: There has been something of a growing feeling that truth is a fluid concept. But, now more than ever, truth does matter. Untruths, lies and exaggerations may cost lives. Brands have a moral duty to be “on the right side of history” here and must not be seen to knowingly play fast and loose with the truth.

The changing face of trust

As Irene Adler said to Sherlock Holmes (at least in the Benedict Cumberbatch version of the tale) “Brainy’s the new sexy”. When all these factors come together – a growing trust deficit between communicators and their audience and a serious issue of concern to all that is generating a huge amount of “fake news” – that’s when that’s when citizens want to listen to people they can trust. In such a situation they are looking to the scientific community, to our government and to certain trusted news sources.

The changing face of trust: scientific community

There has been something of a resurgence in the idea of expertise. While, over recent years, a feeling had been growing that expertise was only a YouTube how-to video away, we’re now leaning more than ever on those who know what they are talking about as a result of deep knowledge, expertise and experience:

85% of citizens across ten countries agree that “we need to hear more from scientists and less from politicians when it comes to coronavirus” (link).

Major news organisations are now, by far, the #1 go-to source for coronavirus information. Some 67% of the UK is getting most of their information about the virus from that source (link).

Edelman recently assessed the credibility of fifteen sources of commentary about coronavirus. Scientists, ”my doctor”, the CDC (or local equivalent), the WHO, and doctors online were uniformly perceived to be the most trustworthy, in terms of the proportion of the population who trust each information source to tell the truth about the virus. Journalists come in at #15, government officials at #13 and “my country’s leader” at #11 (link).

The changing face of trust: trusted news sources

While the number of news providers has multiplied greatly, when the chips are down, we turn back to trusted providers. Havas Media has released research showing that BBC, Sky and Guardian are now the most-trusted news brands, thanks to their coronavirus coverage and (link).

53% of Brits are using BBC News more than before Covid-19 hit the UK – more than double the proportion of people for any other channel.

The changing face of trust: some politicians (but not others)

And last, but not least, our politicians. Here the story depends on which politician, what we thought of them before all this blew up, what they are saying and how and why they are saying it.

58% of citizens across ten countries agree that “Certain people are making the situation seem worse than it is for political gain” (link).

Trump on coronavirus: ‘People are really surprised I understand this stuff’.

[During a visit to the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday, President Trump touted his own understanding of the coronavirus outbreak. “Maybe I have natural ability,” he said, referring to a “super-genius” relative who was a scientist (link)].

Key learning: there is a huge trust deficit, now more than ever. The coronavirus outbreak seems to be reversing a long-term trend for the democratisation of expertise and placing it back in the hands of those with hard-won credentials.

The role for brands

Brands have been in two minds about how to respond in the new climate. Should they cut back their advertising totally? Should they adjust their messaging to focus solely on corona-related topics?

However, there is a clear expectation amongst consumers that companies should not stay silent – just 8% of consumers in key global markets think that brands should stop advertising right now (link). Instead the perception is that brands should play their part, but in a responsible way:

  • Some 78% believe brands should help them in their daily lives
  • 75% feel that brands should inform people of what they’re doing
  • 74% think that companies should not exploit the situation
  • More than 50% also think brands should talk as they always have done

Key learning: brands are expected to be part of the communications and information mix. They must do so in a way that contributes positively, supportively, truthfully and expertly into the public debate.

What next?

As the story of the coronavirus outbreak continues to unfold, new challenges will emerge and these, more than likely, will also represent the need for brands to quickly pivot to support a society under pressure. We’ll be continuing to explore more impacts of the coronavirus outbreak so be sure to check back in from time to time.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group.


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