Margot Bloomstein is the author of the new book Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap. She heads Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy in Boston.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: Probably about five or six years ago, I was noticing how our discourse was changing, how some of the rules and responses were changing. If a politician was caught in a lie before, he might scuttle his campaign, but around the time of the 2016 election cycle, you started seeing how more politicians were playing fast and loose with the truth.
People identified as a Clinton supporter or a Trump voter. Their candidate could do anything because it didn’t shake their support or identification.
I wanted to see how it would play out, and I wanted to see how gaslighting worked. We started to see declining trust in institutions, in old arbiters of reality. People were turning away from news media brands they had grown up with.
We were all retreating into filter bubbles, but we couldn’t trust the reviews on Yelp. People were going to keep retreating and going with their gut. The problem is that after a few years of gaslighting, people have lost their gut instincts.
It’s a problem I see in my world, working with brands. The problems that started in the political arena now affect all industries.
Q: How did you choose the entities you write about in the book? There’s such a wide range, from Banana Republic to the FBI.
A: I was seeing trends, and I sought examples to connect the points in a line. As a consultant, speaker, and teacher, I like elevating good stories. There are a lot of bad examples of brands doubling down on bravado, but sneering at them is not the best way to learn.
Organizations that are wildly different are adopting these practices. I hear from clients that if it works for that organization it won’t for us—everybody thinks they’re special. But we can all learn from each other. The thing that works for America’s Test Kitchen can work for the FBI!
Q: The book is divided in three parts: Voice, Volume, and Vulnerability. Can you say more about this?
A: After researching how we got into this mess, how do we look forward? What do we do about it? I developed a framework of voice, volume, and vulnerability based on patterns that were working.
Voice: How we balance novelty and consistency. What we do to bring audiences along. How organizations have maintained a consistent voice and allowed their company to evolve.
Volume: Looking at how much you need to communicate, what level of detail will help your audience feel confident in your decisions. When people are asking how long an article should be, “how much” isn’t the answer to that. You’ve given enough when your audience is able to make good decisions.
Vulnerability: How organizations bring voice and volume together and bring an audience closer. How to take a risk while sharing your values and acting on them. Possibly opening yourself to criticism. What it means for an organization to be vulnerable is “here’s how we messed up.” It’s an important message for many organizations today. You don’t need to have all the answers.
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to trust?
A: The issue of trust will be with us for a long time, but there’s an opportunity to build trust. Increasingly, we see that customers do want to know more about the political persuasions and values of where they spend their money. It’s short-sighted for brands not to acknowledge this. And if it’s appropriate, we can communicate about our policies. It’s a conversation we should be having.
Q: What do you see as the effect of the new administration?
A: Behavior from a position of leadership sanctions other behavior—in government, in businesses affected by government, and eventually in all of us. There was a video clip a couple of weeks ago of Biden signing an executive order, and you heard barking from the White House dogs, and the people kept rolling along.
It was a beautiful moment—he was working from home just like all of us. In an era of so many people bringing work into their home, here’s an example of someone bringing their whole self to work and still getting the job done.
The messaging of Jen Psaki as press secretary in her briefings is more direct, forthright, and an unvarnished approach to the truth.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A lot of my work is around issues of trust and communication, and these issues are not going away. Businesses need to figure out their opportunities and wade into that space and empower their audiences.
For people outside D.C., the book says your work does matter. We all need to do the things we can do. Help your audience bring a greater sense of confidence to their other interactions. That’s important, and that’s the work I’m focusing on now.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This is an important topic not just for people in the business of communication. It’s also important for concerned citizens and savvy consumers. Marketing and communications have evolved a lot. The idea of a voice of expertise has changed in the age of social media. We expect fast responses and engagement.
As consumers and citizens become more aware, they become more engaged citizens and more informed players in our democracy.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb