“The greatest dividend of transparency, is trust.”
In a world of ‘fake news’, spin and political obfuscation, this pearl of wisdom suggests we have much to learn from the Estonian government.
Earlier this week I had the privilege of listening to Mr Lauri Almann, Former Permanent Secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defence, speak at an event hosted by our client BPE Solicitors. His first-hand account of the 2007 state-level cyber attack that hit Estonia was captivating.
Absorbed in dealing with an unfolding critical incident of public unrest on the streets of Tallinn, it was the government’s PR man who raised the flag. Arriving in the incident room (a disused candy factory, lined with banks of CCTV screens showing looting in the streets) to take hold of the official communications, he realised there was a problem. The government website was down. Mr Almann explained that in a city with no media presence, the website was relied upon to post press releases for the country’s citizens and world media.
“We had a choice to make. There was a Cabinet-level discussion. Do we tell people what’s happened or deny it, saying it is simply a technical glitch unrelated to the riots? Transparency was the decision and the greatest dividend was people’s trust. It was a defining moment in the e-governance of our country, as people’s trust in our e-services grew.”
While for senior politicians there may be an instinct to classify, admitting the breach, an act of cyber warfare, was “embarrassing” and “uncomfortable”.
As a young nation that gained independence in 1991, Estonia has built its public service infrastructure online, including e-elections, and so it was clearly well prepared with protocols for dealing with a cyber attack. One of Mr Almann’s key messages is that cyber is not a technical issue, it is a strategic issue. Their strategy of transparency is one that organisations of all shapes and sizes, not just governments, can learn from.
Coincidentally, this was also the theme of a talk I gave a couple of weeks earlier at the Growing Gloucestershire Conference. Building and protecting reputations has always been at the heart of PR. But why should anyone trust what we say?
I suggested a few guiding principles for communications that will build trust and a strong reputation, through sharing authentic TALEs:
T = Transparency
There are many ways we can seek to be transparent, from using clear language (dropping unnecessary jargon) backed up by evidence, to disclosure when paying for the endorsements of influencers. With GDPR requiring us to be straight forward and upfront about data, perhaps we’ll see transparency as a habit more widely?
A = Actions that demonstrate our values
It’s not just what we say, but what we do that determines whether we’re trusted. Values and a sense of purpose are at the heart of brand and culture. Finding the common ground on what’s important to you and your stakeholders builds rapport. This is not a cynical ploy to be seen as ‘good’; if the values that an organisation declares for itself are not evident, the truth will find you out… and boom, there goes the trust.
L = Leadership with authenticity
Leaders who are true to the firm’s values, practice them through their behaviour. Excellent PR can cast the spotlight and share stories powerfully, but trust and authenticity is a leadership issue.
E = Engagement
Effective communication is two-way; listening and joining in discussions enable us to build relationships with the people that matter to us, whether customers, colleagues or communities. Media relations should be just that; relationships with publishers (editors and commercial managers) can help us to secure the widest opportunities to engage with their audiences in print, online, and in person. Keep building relationships; newsbots can’t do that.
So, let us take heart and learn from the Estonians. In the face of fake news, let us earn trust through transparency.