Trust Takes Years to Build, Only Seconds to Lose

Public relations firm Edelman has released its 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Results that identifies who has trust, who lost it and why.

by Michael McCullough, Edelman

Public relations firm Edelman has released its 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Results that identifies who has trust, who lost it and why.

This year’s barometer is especially relevant to the energy industry because of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan.

Not seen on the balance sheet was the decrease—net 46 percent, the largest in the study—the energy industry lost in consumer trust. But that’s a topic best saved for another post. My interest in the findings relates to electricity utilities, specifically those looking to engage the public about smart grid projects and plans. With that as my guide, I wanted to share my thoughts for utilities, both privately and publicly owned.

CEOs, Government Officials no Longer Default Spokesmen

Peers and regular employees have seen a dramatic rise in influence. “A person like yourself” has seen the greatest increase in credibility since 2004 (up 22 points) and ranks third behind “academic or expert” and “technical expert in the company.” Utilities are missing a huge opportunity to establish trust in their smart grid projects if they trot out only their CEOs, government officials or regulators. A cursory glance of the media coverage, especially in local news, shows most utilities fall into this trap.

Engage “People Like Me”

Look at the comments sections of smart grid stories and quickly see what concerns consumers. Vocal detractors push news agencies to cover health, privacy, security and conspiracy concerns. These are the topics “people like me” talk about. This tells us there is a disconnect in the level of qualitative engagement. One-size-fits-all marketing isn’t working. Targeting these customers based on their behavior is the key to interest, engagement and acceptance. For example, as it relates to the information the smart grid provides, the younger generation is OK with the privacy walls’ coming down, as long as vendors are transparent with their use. Where is this discussion taking place?

Best Defense is Good Offense

It’s cliché because it’s true. And it’s of timely relevance to utilities. The barometer tells us that reducing skepticism requires repetition. Informed publics must hear something about a company three to five times before they believe it is true. A lack of engagement in digital and social channels decreases opportunities to set the record straight. Instead, skepticism, myth and innuendo prevail.

Be Seen as a Technology Company

For the sixth consecutive year, technology is the most trusted industry. This is where the industry has a tremendous opportunity to be seen as a technological leader. But Accenture reported that most consumers would buy electricity, energy efficiency products and related services from entities other than energy suppliers. Look no further than data privacy and security. A culture of compliance stands in the way of security innovation among utilities. Consumers think compliance is not security. Utilities must be prepared to discuss best practices and explain over and over in numerous channels that the information a smarter grid brings will go only where customers want it to go. Customers don’t understand what will be shared, and they need to know.

Turn Ratepayers Into Customers

The industry needs to embrace the societal attributes for building trust. They have the operational attributes mastered—it’s the historical norm. But a smarter grid will change this dynamic. To do this successfully, utilities must listen to customer feedback, understand customers’ individual needs and explain how the smart grid will affect individual communities. For example, utilities should engage with customers about smart energy use and how updated infrastructure will benefit a society in love with gadgets that require charging.

Get Specific

A loss of trust is driven by poor performance and disconnectedness. It is not enough to state that “with a smarter grid, customers will have more reliable service, among other benefits.”

A Chicago local news clip reinforces the point. The reporter doesn’t spend any time on what the benefits really mean to residents, likely because she can’t articulate it simply. In Chicago, ComEd customers, on average, will begin seeing their monthly bills rise by about $3, yet they still don’t understand why.

We are beginning to see instances in which the industry is empowering consumers. California’s three largest utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric Co., San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison—are working together to create a Green Button that would allow customers to download their detailed energy usage with one click. This engagement speaks to a few of my points, most important, putting these utilities in the technology-innovator column by bringing new, intuitive services to their customers.

But broader industry change remains, and it is likely to cause heartburn in an industry deeply rooted in tradition. The elephant in the room is that many utilities would prefer not to change the business model. That is one of the biggest challenges to establishing authentic trust with customers.


Michael McCullough is a vice president in the corporate practice at Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm. His clients are leading the global smart grid discussion and educating consumers and customers about how these technologies will convert energy challenges into lasting solutions. Reach him at

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