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Evan Davis on... fear and trust

Updated Thursday, 8th July 2010

Evan suggests that the problem for companies in fields like GM foods, is a confusion between fear and mistrust.

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I just want to make one simple point about fear, about consumer phobias of technological or scientific developments, a problem which is enormous for some companies; you take the genetically modified food industry, they simply can’t sell their product in Europe at all because of these kinds of fears.  Now here’s a point.  Fear is really a simple manifestation of a lack of trust.  When the public say we’re scared of your product, what they’re really saying is we don’t like you, we don’t believe you and we don’t believe what you’re saying.  And the mistakes that companies confronting that problem make is to believe that the way out of it is to engage the public in an argument about the safety of their product.

So GM food companies will tell you that their product is safe.  The problem is if the real underlying issue is a lack of trust in what those companies are saying rather than a fear of their actual product, you can say the product is safe as many times as you like, if you’re not being believed it doesn’t matter.  And my own hunch is that when genetically modified food is ever accepted in Europe, it will not be because genetically modified food companies have told us it’s safe, it’s because other people, who the public do trust, have told us it’s safe to eat.

So believing that the problem is safety or fear of a product is the wrong way of looking at it; it’s all about trust.  And the mistake that companies make is to think that the way to be trusted or to earn trust is just to repeat yourself ad nauseam in the same language, in the same way that you always have.  No, the way to be trusted, and thus the way not to be feared, is to be completely honest.  It’s to be open, it’s too frank, it’s to admit your failings, it’s to admit your strong points, it’s to be openhearted about what you think you could be saying or what you think you shouldn’t be saying, about what your dilemmas are, about where your product might be safe, about what the advantages are, what the disadvantages are – it’s about having a really, really open dialogue with people.  Once you do that, then they might trust you.

My tip to companies who want to be trusted and not feared is that they should articulate the arguments of the opposite side, the case against them, they should articulate those arguments better than anybody ever does against them, and then they should say we understand what you’re fearing; we understand your point of view, these are the reasons why we don’t necessarily agree with it.  It’s about getting trust that reduces fear, and once you've done that you can happily sell your product thereafter. 

That’s my view.  You can join the debate with The Open University.






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