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The term trust increasingly misused by companies, study finds

Comprehensive study created ahead of 2015 Anthony Howitt lecture

Companies’ use of the word “trust” has risen by a factor of eight in the past decade, indicating an increasing corporate obsession with trustworthiness, according to a study by The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) alongside Robert Phillips, author of “Trust me, PR is dead”. The two argue that, sadly, the focus on trust is not always backed up by corporate action. "Trust often spoken is trust rarely earned", says Phillips.

An analysis of the use of “trust” – when referring to the concept, not the legal structure – in annual reports of FTSE 100 companies over the last decade*, found that the word was mentioned just 38 times in 2005, but has climbed steadily since, appearing on 317 occasions in 2014.

Tony Manwaring, CIMA’s executive director of external affairs, said: “The concept of ‘trust’ has always been misused by companies, but the past ten years has seen it achieve staggering growth as a corporate buzzword.

“This is bizarre, because ‘trust’ is not something companies can directly control – it is an outcome. It does not work as a message. Endlessly repeat the word ‘trust’ if you want, but it will not make people trust you.

”Likewise, the phrase “building trust” appeared just once in a single 2005 annual report; in 2013 it was mentioned 18 times. 

Robert Phillips said: “I would happily retire the t-word from the English language for a decade or two, allowing us time to reflect on what it really means to be trusted or trustworthy.  It has been used and abused to the point of exhaustion. This is where so many leaders immediately fail. They think that by speaking endless words of trust or, in Ed Miliband’s case, carving those words in stone, somehow we will trust them. We won’t.”

The report comes ahead of the 2015 Anthony Howitt lecture, a bi-annual event organised by CIMA. This year’s talk takes place at London’s City Hall on June 3, 2015, with Robert Phillips delivering the keynote address.

Mr Phillips argued that to be more trusted, companies need to create “public value” as well as shareholder value, and focus on profit optimisation rather than profit maximisation. He cites banking, arguing that if a bank were to make radical changes including copying the John Lewis Partnership employee ownership model, ceasing extravagant bonuses, and levying a small charge to its retail banking customers rather than claiming to offer ‘free banking’, it would begin to earn genuine consumer trust, “and quickly address the challenge of being socially useless.” 

He said: “If a firm wishes to become trustworthy, the answer does not lie with crafting narratives, managing messages or meaningless platitudes. We need actions, not words.”

-Ends-

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E. damian.kerr@cimaglobal.com

*Methodology

Annual reports (and annual reviews, where available) were selected from all companies who spent at least three-quarters of that year in the FTSE 100.

Year Number of annual reports and reviews used Relevant incidences of the word "trust" Incidences of the word "trust", as if there were 100 reports available
2005  91 38 42
2006 97 67 69
2007 94 88 94
2008 105 138 131
2009 102 183 179
2010 103 207 201
2011 107 233 218
2012 103 270 262
2013 102 303 297
2014 106 317 299

 

Year Number of annual reports and reviews available Incidences of the word "building trust" Incidences of the word "trust", as if there were 100 reports available
2005  91 1 1
2006 97 2 2
2007 94 4 4
2008 105 4 4
2009 102 13 13
2010 103 14 14
2011 107 15 14
2012 103 16 16
2013 102 18 19
2014 106 13 12