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How leaders can build trust in the digital era

Charlene Li

One of the areas I’ve long been fascinated with is how leaders and companies develop, build, and sustain trust. For leaders in particular, trust and credibility become the reasons why people are willing to follow them. In this post I'm taking a deep dive into the recently released Edelman Trust Barometer and how it apples to leaders using digital channels to engage and build trust.

Edelman found that trust is at an all-time low, and especially when it comes to leaders like CEOs, who are seen as credible spokespeople by only 43% of people. And that’s down from 46% in 2014.

What can a leader do to counter this downward trend? Edelman’s research found that trust-building opportunities lie primarily in the areas of integrity and engagement. Edelman detailed some specific attributes in these two areas, which I’ve included below:

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Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2015


  • Has ethical business practices
  • Takes responsible actions to address an issue or crisis
  • Has transparent and open business practices


  • Listens to customer needs and feedback
  • Treats employees well
  • Places customers ahead of profits
  • Communicates frequently and honestly on the state of its business.  

What Leaders Can Do to Build Trust

The focus of my new book, The Engaged Leader discusses how leaders tap integrity and engagement opportunities via digital channels. I believe that one of the reasons CEOs are so distrusted today is because they’ve retreated into their ivory towers, rarely engaging with either customers and employees except in rare, highly orchestrated and controlled circumstances. With so few opportunities to learn more about these leaders, how is someone to develop a level of trust with them?

This is why it’s imperative for leaders to feel confident using digital channels—because it’s one of the fastest and best ways to develop trust with customers and employees at scale. Trust can only come when the leader personally engages in these channels.

There are ways leaders can develop trust:  

  • Listen at Scale. Leaders can tap digital listening tools to better listen directly to what customers and employees are saying, thinking, feeling. There’s nothing like reading the verbatim responses to develop empathy for their problems. Listening also grounds the leader in the thinking and actions that underlie integrity.
  • Share to Shape. Integrity is built over time with the constant communication of what the leader cares about — and in the case of establishing integrity in the relationship, it should be meaningful content around the practices and actions of the firm.
  • Engage to Transform. This is where a leader demonstrates through direct engagement what matters to them. While it’s powerful when a leader does this face to face with a handshake, modern engaged leader know how to scale this through digital channels. When a leader engages internally or externally with someone on a topic, they are engaging by proxy with the larger audience.

    For example, the Telstra CEO David Thodey responds to people who write to him on Twitter or comments on his LinkedIn post. While he doesn’t reply to everyone, when you see him addressing a particular customer issue or concern, he’s extending that engage on behalf of the company to all customers.

One of my favorite examples of an engaged leader is Edelman’s CEO, Richard Edelman. As the head of the largest private PR firm in the world, Richard takes the time each week to write a blog post about something that he’s passionate about. It could be about the immense pride he feels when the firm won the prestigious Cannes Lion award, or a poignant reflection on a visit to the 9/11 Museum. He explains what it means to him to have taken over the mantel of leadership from his father, who started the firm.

What you come away with is a strong sense of who Richard is, what his values are, what is important to him. And because he has done this consistently, week after week, for over a decade, you get the sense that the dialog and engagement is important to him.  

As a leader, you know that trust is earned, not something that automatically comes with a title and office. You have to earn it each and every day through your engagement, and I hope that leaders will find a way to add digital engagement to their daily routines.