The Importance of Building Trust Within Your Company Amid Coronavirus

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On this episode of Culture, Comms, and Cocktails, we have Tamara Rodman, Executive Vice President of Employee Experience at Edelman.

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up, so settle in, drink in the knowledge. Some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top shelf guest I have lined up for you. I’m your host, Chuck Gose, Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. On this episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, we have Tamara Rodman, Executive Vice President of Employee Experience at Edelman.

Edelman is a global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations. They have 6,000 people in more than 60 offices working to deliver communications strategies that give their clients the confidence to lead, act with certainty and earn the lasting trust of their stakeholders.

“There is so much misinformation and concern globally that we felt that it was our obligation to understand how can we help, how can business, government, media, and other institutions actually help to allay some of these spheres by leaning into the strengths that they may have as an institution.” —Tamara Rodman

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, brought to you by SocialChorus. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #28 Transcript

Chuck Gose: We’re going to skip the usual intro here and get right to the business. My name is Chuck Gose, host of Culture, Comms & Cocktails and Senior Strategic Advisor at SocialChorus. I just found out about this new research conducted by Edelman, which is a special report from their usual trust barometer, but this one focuses specifically on COVID-19 which is on top of mind of everyone, but especially for communicators and I think it’s critical for communicators to hear about, but also should be inspiring. I reached out to a friend at Edelman to come on the podcast to talk about this research and the findings, so hope you enjoy this conversation and I will obviously direct you to where to get the rest of it. So to introduce my guest here, your name is?

Tamara Rodman: Tamara Rodman.

Chuck Gose: And your job is?

Tamara Rodman: I’ve executive price vice presidents of the Edelman’s employee experience practice based in Chicago.

Chuck Gose: And your favorite cocktail is?

Tamara Rodman: Moscow Mule all the way.

Chuck Gose: All right, we couldn’t forget the cocktail part of this, but let’s dig right into the research. I want to know, give people a lay of the land of the overall report. How many people were interviewed from where? And why did Edelman think it was important to focus specifically on trust around COVID-19?

Tamara Rodman: Right, so this study specifically, was conducted on March 6th through 10th with 10,000 respondents online to an online survey in 10 different countries globally around the world and we, this is a subset of Edelman’s annual trust barometer, which looks at trust in business, government, media and NGOs. We’ve been doing this study, the overall annual study for 20 years now because we truly believe that trust is unlike reputation, a forward looking metric that really defines to the extent which you believe an institution like business, government, media will do the right thing going forward. So that’s why we study trust overall. But why did we study trust right now? Because this is a defining and quite frankly unprecedented moment in our history and we know that there is so much fear, there is so much misinformation and concern globally that we felt that it was our obligation to understand how can we help, how can business, government, media, other institutions actually help to allay some of these spheres by leaning into the strengths that they may have as an institution.

Chuck Gose: And I think some key points there for communicators is that it is global. All the research and data is from this month, so it is very new, it is very real. And as we know this new story in this world we live in is changing by the day. So the information is fresh, the data is fresh. So use this as guidance. And what I liked about when I first saw the report is the organization identified eight key findings and how they impact not just communicators but I think also leaders of the organization. So Tamara I want to go through these one by one and talk through how they impact communicators and leaders.

Chuck Gose: And I think the first one when I mentioned that I think it’s critical for communicators to hear this research but should also inspire them, is that definitely that inspiration point for them. And what you guys found is that the most credible source during this time of COVID-19 is employer communications.

Tamara Rodman: Yes, absolutely Chuck, so this actually mirrored what we saw in the annual trust barometer study that came out in late January, which showed even then that my own employer is more trusted than the media and the government. Which that finding in itself stems from the fact that trust is truly gone, right? It used to be historically in public authority figures like CEOs and government officials, so on and so forth. Then sort of five to 10 years ago, social media turns turned really to peer peer influence now that those institutions have essentially become mistrusted. Really who we trust now globally tends to be the people around us. And trust is really gone global. So think about where you spend the majority of your life, probably at work or working in some capacity, wherever that may be these days.

Tamara Rodman: So the most recent coronavirus specific study very much affirmed that overall finding that essentially people believe and are looking to their own employer as a credible source of information about the coronavirus. And in fact, there is an expectation that their company and their organization be talking about, what are we doing to safeguard employees? What protocols are we putting in place to ensure that as few people as possible get sick.

Chuck Gose: And I think digging deeper into the data, I think another key point for internal communicators is there’s this adage, cliche, saying, whatever you’re going to call it. People need to see a message multiple times to internalize it and believe it. And what you guys found is that for most people, they saw it once or twice from their company and they were good. They believed it and they understood it. So especially for those communicators out there who you had all kinds of other priorities in January to mid February and now your life is probably all COVID-19, the message here is that all that work you’re doing is worth it. It is making a difference in that relationship and trust between your colleagues in the company in general.

Tamara Rodman: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that it’s interesting that the gulf between employer communication and then between government website and traditional media sources in terms of how many times do I need to hear from those sources to believe the information, it is significant. With employer communication, very much leading the way in terms of, If I hear once or twice, I will believe what my company is telling me.

Chuck Gose: The second key finding that you guys found is the most relied on source of information is mainstream news organizations. And I don’t think that that’s maybe necessarily a surprise given the volume of news organizations we have. But what can an internal communicator take away from that?

Tamara Rodman: I think the big finding here, the big takeaway simply is to use this to your advantage and site the most up to date and credible news that you have. And it’s okay to not be health experts as internal communicators, no one expects that of you. But if you are, let’s say, issuing new guidance and I hope you are doing that regularly within your own organizations, just simply point people to click links, to established, respected, mainstream news organizations on the current topic. You do not have to be the expert, you’re not the expert, by backing up the policy decisions and decisions that you make overall is only going to go better if you simply point to those sources of information that you know have credibility.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, I think here, especially with, again as you mentioned, it’s okay to acknowledge that maybe no one in the company is that health expert and just simply pointing people to places or citing the research and data that maybe you’re including in communication so people know where it’s coming from, that it is from another trusted news organization or somebody out there. So they can almost do some verifying because as we know, fake news is something that is very prevalent in today’s world and people want to know that the stuff they’e reading, they can rely on it to be true. The third finding here is the most trusted spokespeople are scientists and doctors, MDs. Now some companies, if you’re large enough, you might have a chief medical officer, you might have scientists that work in organizations, some do not. So what did you guys find in this area, Tamara?

Tamara Rodman: Well, let me answer that by giving you an example of what Edelman internally has done because we do not have scientists and doctors like you said on staff necessarily. So we actually have access to a number of global town halls that we have done virtually and we have brought in Dr. David Nabarro who is the special Envoy from the World Health Organization on COVID-19. He has joined the two global webcast that we have had, town halls for employees and been fairly generous with his time frankly in answering employee questions, which there have been many. We’ve been submitting virtually through the app and really talking about how the situation has devolved, where he is in Europe, what we can potentially expect to see here in the United States, where I’m based and what business should generally be thinking about.

Tamara Rodman: So I applaud Edelman as my own employer for having done that. And I’m not suggesting that every company has the ability to sort of bring in and have direct access to someone from the WHO, but I think there are resources available and looking, even if it’s just like we were saying a moment ago to be able to link to sources of credible information. I think that is still much better than not doing that. But if you do have the access and the ability to have an appearance or communication with someone that is a respected figure of authority in the medical community, do it.

Chuck Gose: What you guys found too is that the CEO, the trusted spokespeople there was just kind of in the middle of the pack, which I think shows that people do want to hear from the experts and they know that most likely your CEO is not an expert. In fact, they said they want to hear more from scientists and less from even people like CEOs or politicians. So it is a chance to perhaps reach out to your network. I have found that especially in this time, we need to rely on and lean on those experts even more. And that’s why in an upcoming episode of this we’ll be interviewing a physician, an MD, to talk about what he is seeing on the front lines of this and the advice he has for organizations. So even here on the podcast, I’m trying to bring about a truly trusted spokespeople to be on here.

Chuck Gose: The fourth finding you found, which I think really speaks to communicators, is this need for frequency. So right away it says, seven in 10 respondents, they’re following coronavirus news and media at least once a day. I imagine now, again this data even being just a week or two old, that number might be even higher because it says 33% are checking several times a day, I am definitely part of that 33% of checking that several times a day. But I think this speaks to communicators around staying visible with messaging and being top of mind for employees.

Tamara Rodman: What I would wish and hope and we strongly advise organizations if you’re not already talking proactively with your employees on a at least weekly basis, start doing it immediately as Chuck, as you pointed out, the expectation is I really want to hear from my employer actually daily would be ideal. That of course is a very high bar to clear, but the reality is people are looking, are hungry and very desperate for information. So, they want to hear what are we doing to respond to the crisis, even if, and it’s interesting in some of the clients that I’ve been counseling on this issue, they’ve said things like, well, what could I possibly add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said, I’m not an expert. And you’re not expected to be if you’re the CEO of course.

Tamara Rodman: But the reality is just the act of simply acknowledging that people are expecting to hear from you and to address that even if it is a daily round up of what is being said, the news media, any changes or decisions that have been made by the company around your travel restrictions or meetings that they had been planned previously that might be either posts or conducted virtually. There is something that you can say and contribute. Simply it’s truly to continue to build trust with your own employees who are expecting to hear from you regularly, very regularly on this topic.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, I think about it and I know you and I both been busy as are the listeners in this time, either giving instruction, advising, counseling, brainstorming ideas, and it is really that consistency of it and it doesn’t always have to be critical news updates, it could be leaders being very vulnerable about what’s on their mind or recognizing people during this time and recognizing the challenges that some people might be facing during this time and what they are doing and what others can do. So it’s not just the, here’s an update, here’s a policy update. But recognizing the world we all live in is very strange for a lot of people. And I think that’s a chance to maybe put some leaders in there even though they might not be that spokesperson for this weird world we’re in, they could certainly be a spokesperson for the employees.

Chuck Gose: Number five which is, my employer has better prepared than my country. And I think this shows amazing trust that the people, we’ve seen this play out not even in a political way that companies have been able to react sometimes much quicker than countries are, which makes a lot of sense. But what can a communicator take from this one?

Tamara Rodman: Yeah, well I think… Yes, there’s definitely the upside here, which is the positive in that there is a lot of trust in employers to be able to react more quickly. I do think this also speaks to the fact that this year’s overall trust parameter study found that the levels of trust in government have pretty much bottomed out, right?

Tamara Rodman: So, I do think it’s partially kind of an indictment of governments in many of the countries that we spoke with. But what I think you can take from this though is that really employers are seen as having a certain agility and an ability to move quickly because their business typically depends on it, in most of the sectors that folks work on and therefore companies and employees are used to have to acting swiftly and quickly to respond to the normal course of business conditions in the ever changing marketplace. So really people have seen this as, look, my company has the ability to enact a travel ban almost immediately versus it may take the government days or weeks or perhaps even months to be able to mobilize that. So I think the fact that again, people see employers as having the license and the ability to move quickly and decisively has really played into the high level of trust they have behind the coronavirus.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, I think it speaks to… I wonder how many of those red crisis binders got dusted off this week and last week of people going back through their plans and perhaps realizing maybe how out of date it might have been, but I do think, kind of what you were saying, a company can do and react to what’s right for their people and what one company might do that’s right is going to be different than another company. So as long as they were prepared and doing the right things and I think… And we’ve seen that play out in a lot of organizations who are very forward thinking and very responsible thinking in how, whether it’s employees work from home or travel restrictions or telling people to stay home if you’re not feeling well. Even thinking about weeks ago, government wasn’t necessarily saying that, but companies were doing what was right for their employees, I think that’s great to see.

Chuck Gose: But then the next one’s kind of a little bit of a spin off of that where it said government and business is expected to team up. And I think we have seen that play out in the response both from a government standpoint and business standpoint where there is that working together, which I think should only increase the trust in what’s happening.

Tamara Rodman: Absolutely, and I think that pretty much speaks for itself that finding, but the fact that look neither business nor government is expected to solve this health crisis independent of the other. Certainly employees don’t have the expectation that their CEO is an expert in pandemics. And I think similarly the sense is that governments have the ability to enact wide ranging widespread regulations and laws but knowing that there’s sometimes there’s a lag and business sort of lends the agility and the ability to… so it’s this idea of synergy, right? So it’s parts working together equal more than each of them working individually. So it’s very much seen as partnership and an opportunity for business and government to work together.

Chuck Gose: Yep, and then the seventh one again is this great trend around the role of business in that employer/employee relationship where the employees have high expectations of the actions that business is going to take both internally to protect employees but also the local community. And that speaks to the relationship that businesses have, not just with the people that work there but the surrounding communities. Again, this is something we have seen a play out quite frequently here in this world we’re in.

Tamara Rodman: Absolutely no it’s close to eight out of 10 respondents expect, not just want, but actually expect their business to protect them and the local community. So we’ve seen employers, like you said, canceling non-essential events, limiting meetings that are of a certain size, working from home, making sure that their own people ability to successfully work from home. Some of the things that I’ve seen that work really well, some companies are offering stipends or upgraded wifi for extra monitors or equipment for employees who may not have traditionally worked from home or kind of upgrading their video conferencing abilities and the idea of sick pay offering that where maybe it hadn’t existed before. So very much the sense of, look, I work for you, I give you an awfully large chunk of my day and my time and talents and in return I expect that you protect me. So I’m not surprised at all to see that high expectation.

Tamara Rodman: I guess what does surprise me is that some companies had been a bit slow to react in that capacity, but this is a situation that is changing day by day, sometimes hour by hour so fortunately I have started to see more and more employers come to the realization that, look, we can’t insist that people come to the office. We can’t expect them to a to be able to do that when they have no childcare or because their children are now at home learning virtually.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, I love seeing and hearing the stories. It’s not even companies, that’s the challenge with internal comms as there’s no big releases and announcements typically that you see unless it is a major organization, but I haven’t seen individual share, whether it be on Twitter or LinkedIn, what their business is doing to help and assist and make things a little bit easier. And as someone who has worked remote for a very long time, my day to day work life, how I operate for work hasn’t really changed that much and I probably misunderstood some of those changes that might happen to people when I saw individual starts sharing pictures of them using an ironing board to set their laptop on because they didn’t have a desk at home and that’s, that’s a big adjustment.

Chuck Gose: But I do like seeing organizations recognize that maybe not everybody’s equipped the same at home and whether it be that stipend for better WiFi or even organizations who are giving away their technology to help people do it. I think this is one of those things that maybe aside from the comms world, there will be winners and losers from this, and I’m talking from a health standpoint, from a reputation standpoint and those organizations that have done the right things because it’s the right thing to do, will end up being those organizations that people then want to work for in the future.

Tamara Rodman: Absolutely. And I think too, it also goes beyond sort of the technological and infrastructure pieces, right? I love the ironing board example, but I think really, if you think about this, this is culturally a major shift, a lot of organizations, especially where you have a lot of office based employees who are used to seeing people every day, right? And for a lot of folks, especially those who are extroverts, this is a big shift, right? And it can be the feelings of social sort of isolation are very real. So there’s a real expectation. I think that employers really acknowledge that and talk about how can they help employees combat that isolation? And really, what are the health the resources that are available, physical health resources, right?

Tamara Rodman: I can tell you in Chicago pretty much all of the gyms are closed. I am a bit of a wimp, so I'm not going to go running outside if it’s any less than about 60 degrees. So one of things that… How do you stay in shape? How do you simply take care of yourself? A lot of companies are doing sort of fitness challenges where they’ll tell folks, look the time that you would have spent commuting to your job, use that to do some form of physical activity, right? Go outside, do a brisk walk, 10 jumping jacks, whatever it is. I’ve seen some companies that are doing what kind of team challenges where they start each virtual meeting with, hold a plank for a minute or whatnot, simply to help keep people's energy and their spirits up and so forth.

Tamara Rodman: And the last thing I will say, I promise that’s the long answer, is really from a culture perspective now more than ever, leaders have to do a really, really excellent and concerted efforts to maintain that feeling of connectedness. It is certainly harder when you’re not seeing people every day, but it can be done. So doing things like standing check-ins, using video is highly preferable than phone calls. Just simply minimize that really annoying photo of yourself and don’t even look at it and how many chins it looks like you may have there but the reality is seeing other human faces really is a completely different experience than talking on the phone. And really just doing that, making it a regular, every day we check in, even if it’s just for five, 10, 15 minutes, just to see each other say, hey, what&’s going on? What are you working on? Where can I help? Who’s busy? Who needs more support? That can go so far in maintaining that sense of connectedness versus isolation.

Chuck Gose: On that episode I mentioned with the physician, we talk about the psychological and physical impact of isolation, and my big recommendation so far is to go on that good 30 40 minute walk in the evening just to get out and get that fresh air, to resume some sorts of normalcy in the current situation. Then the final one here, which again, kind of a good circle kicker, bringing back the old journalism term, employers must share information. This is when people have heard me speak at events I talk about the ostrich effect, which is when news is bad, some people tend to bury their heads.

Chuck Gose: This is the opposite of what needs to happen now that employees want information. We talked about the frequency and we know they trust it, but they want to know the details. They want to know, I thought this was interesting, more than half want to know if someone in the business has contracted the virus and how is it impacting the ability to operate? It’s not just the, go wash your hands and we have a travel restriction and here’s a link to the CDC. They want to really know how this is impacting the business and this is a chance for communicators to become that trusted advisor and position leaders and those that have that knowledge as voices of authority.

Tamara Rodman: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it makes sense that folks want to know, is anyone in the organization affected? Also if someone has been diagnosed positive or test positive understanding, while not necessarily naming individuals, reaching out to those folks who might have had contact, right? And advising for them to get tested or to self quarantine, right?

Tamara Rodman:
I think it’s interesting too that a lot of the questions that employees are having are of course about health and the transmission of the virus. But also there’s a real concern around, how is this affecting our ability as an organization to operate and continue to perform, which I think speaks to the fact also that… And we saw this in our sort of annual study trust barometer in January, that people are worried about their jobs, which felt kind of at the time a little incongruous economy was at an all time high, unemployment, all time low. Now there’s obviously concerns circulating around is this going to lead to a market correction or worse.

Tamara Rodman: So people want to know how are we continuing to run our business? How are we continuing to make sure we can fulfill our obligations to our customers and our clients and our consumers? So I think a lot of it is yes, what does this mean for me? Of course that’s the basic tentative of internal communications is make it relevant to the individual, but also what does this mean for us as a company and as an

Chuck Gose: Yeah, I’m glad you said it because just when you said what does it mean to me? I was thinking my head like, no, this is one of those rare times where it is about us. This is about those communities at work that we all rely on and use, not even necessarily always realizing the impact that they have on us and this is a chance and opportunity for us to look out for ourselves and our loved ones but also neighbors, community, coworkers, everybody out there.

Chuck Gose: So first off Tamara, again, thanks for taking time out of your very busy day. I’m sure as soon as you’re done with this you’re going to go off and work with other clients around it much like I am, but I want to thank you and Edelman for the quick reaction and quick work to put out this report because I really do think as communicators have been putting in extra hours and probably shouldering additional responsibilities, much like other people across organizations, they kind of wonder sometimes is it really making a difference? I think this report shows that it is having such a huge impact on that relationship an employee has with an employer and internal communicators specifically are right at the critical point of that. So every ounce of effort you’re putting into this, every little bit of creativity, every little bit of connection you’re building certainly matters during this time.

Tamara Rodman: Absolutely, it sure does. And thank you, Chuck. Thanks for having me.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms & Cocktails on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms & Cocktails, internal comms served straight up. Thanks for listening.


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Chuck Gose

I’ve always said the best part of my day is when I spend time talking and creating with internal communicators. And now that’s what I do for Firstup as the Head of Community & Industry Insights. In my nearly 25 years of communication experience, I’ve found internal communicators to be the most passionate. . . present company included.

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