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Bridging the Trust Gap

Tarnya Dunning

In a world where trust in institutions is rapidly eroding at the same time that technological change is accelerating, organisations can only prosper if the people who work in them are not distracted by confusion, information overload, attention deficit,* and at times even fear. Trust is a significant corporate asset that can propel employee engagement forward thereby requiring management attention and rigour alongside other key employee engagement metrics.

Trust is built when a leader is reliable, accepting of different views, open and congruent between words and actions. Too often these characteristics are missing in the actions of politicians, CEOs, and organisational leaders creating incongruence or the trust gap.

Add to this that neighbours or peers influence people more than their CEO or country’s elected leader, the role of the strategic communicator as an executive leader has never been more pivotal.

Today’s strategic communicator needs to successfully manage their machines including communication strategies, content, tools, and data. But it’s as important that we help leaders be successful communicators so that the man is as effective as the machine.

It is critical for communicators to raise the bar high for congruency in leader’s values to action, stories and content, and how, where and when they engage. Without congruence, there is no trust.

To close the trust gap

We bring the water cooler conversation to our leaders with data-driven actions in real time. We listen at scale and pace, synthesising a data-driven approach that combines quantitative inputs with sentiment to develop actionable insights.Technology is a significant enabler for communicators.

At Telstra, our Yammer network has 48,000 users with one- third actively engaged. To identify the conversations that matter most we employ a mix of community managers and analytics tools to show volumes, engagement, sentiment and leader effectiveness profiles.

We advise leaders to listen more, talk less. A “communicating at” model ensures that people tune out, so leaders need to talk with their people on their own terms, in places and times that they value.

Once an annual roadshow, monthly emails, and a floor walk were sufficient. Today, leaders need to be always in listening and responding mode. The old office door can never be shut.

Tools such as Yammer provide an opportunity to shift gears and analytics help us listen when we physically cannot. More than the adoption of these tools is a mindset change that prioritises listening and engaging. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” We remind leaders that the medium is also the message.

At Telstra, we partner with HR to develop leaders’ capabilities to tell our story, link it to their experiences and the outcome we need, and to be real when engaging. We guide leaders to create their own content then listen, share and respond.

We amplify and broaden these conversations so those outside of the room feel connected and can contribute, shifting communication and conversations from a single channel to an omni-channel approach catering for diverse needs. We filter the infinite noise for employees so they are not distracted nor distrustful. We advise leaders to take this further. Where employee input has led to action, let them and those listening know.

For Telstra’s 40,000 plus employees and partner staff, we use a variety of push and pull mechanisms so our people can stay up-to-date and connected. For example, access is via a desktop corporate news site, mobile or tablet corporate news app, or Yammer on any device. We send a morning and evening content aggregator email collating corporate stories, the conversations that matter most on Yammer and on our external social sites and key media headlines. This is in parallel with a vigilant approach to shutting down local newsletters that cannot curate corporate news.

No longer are we an island. We are communicators and we partner. Artificial boundaries between internal and external and between traditional and social media can no longer exist. Executives engage communicators, and our advice becomes more powerful as we use marketing’s sophisticated customer tools in our domain.

We see employee engagement as a shared responsibility with HR, developing integrated approaches around leadership communication, capabilities and performance. We partner with IT to trial and introduce new and emerging technologies that enable us to bring more people into real- time conversations.

At Telstra we worked with the marketing team to develop a workforce segmentation approach enabling us to identify the ways and channels our people prefer. We took their Go-to-Market approach and adapted it to prioritise our content. With HR, we incorporate communication levers in key leadership training so that we improve engagement through our people knowing their role in the vision and strategy of the organisation.

We know what best looks like and we go after it. To hold ourselves to account, we set clear quantitative and qualitative targets that we review against global high-performing norms covering metrics such as the communication environment (including levels of trust), leadership communication, channels and content.

We then measure ourselves against regular engagement research, an annual employee communication survey and monthly progress in key channels. We are transparent with our teams, executives, and organisation on progress.

We also seek out best practice with regular exchanges with other Australian corporates and an annual international study tour specifically focussed on social.

By recognising the contribution of employee trust to engagement and discretionary effort, particularly in the era of internal social and employee social advocacy, strategic communicators must partner in new and evolving ways to manage communication machinery and guide organisational leaders to be congruent in words and actions.

Strategic communicators require their fingerprints over the corporate, leadership, and water cooler conversations of an organisation. Content must be clear as it ripples through the organisation. Leaders must have the capability and mind-set to engage within a specified framework. Water cooler conversations must link proactively and reactively to what’s top of mind for the organisation and what’s on the minds of its people. Through finding, creating and tightening these linkages, the communications executive will lead the organisation alongside other C-suite roles.

Three Key Takeaways

To bridge the trust gap and remain relevant and valued, strategic communicators must:

  • Bring an organisation’s resources and tools together to benefit leaders by enabling them to shift from instinct-driven to data-driven communication engagement and congruent action which provokes, is personal, and focusses on listening more than talking

  • Influence content by turning one-way interruptions into real-time dialogue, linked to the vision and strategy

  • Remain diligent in cutting the noise, prioritising content and bringing news to people in the channels they want to access so that we create the space for dialogue

This is an excerpt of our 222-page book Disrupting the Function of IC - A Global Perspective. Click here to download.

IC Kollectif


Tarnya Dunning is the General Manager of Employee Communications at Telstra. She is a senior corporate relations leader in one of Australia’s most scrutinised companies,Telstra. The organisation is Australia’s leading telco, a top 5 ASX company and employs more than 40,000 people across Australia and over 15 other countries.

Tarnya is responsible for the company’s employee communications incorporating corporate strategy, culture and leadership communications. She also manages Telstra’s internal social tool, Yammer, which has one of the world’s largest engaged networks. Previously she led integrated corporate affairs teams delivering award-winning consumer PR campaigns and managing significant corporate issues.

* Thomas H. Davenport, J. C. (2002).The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Harvard Business Press.


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IC Kollectif is a global independent nonprofit organization. All editorial content is published independently and without the influence of any advertiser, commercial sponsor or partner.

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