Trust Busting At CNN: CNN’s Public, Acrimonious Internal Volatility May Damage Its Brand

There is turmoil at CNN. What should have been an internal situation is a never-ending series of headlines. Reading about the problems surrounding actions by former CEO Chris Licht due to his “perceived missteps” and his candid commentary in The Atlantic is unfortunate. It brings front and center instability at CNN. CNN employees are distraught that the news channel has become the news.

What is more unfortunate is the damage all of this agita may be doing to the CNN brand. The issues raised are organizational as well as journalistic. Yet, one has the feeling that this mess is messing with the CNN brand. And, that is a problem. For years, CNN has positioned itself as “The Most Trusted Source in News.” The public airing of internal mistrust is extremely harmful to the CNN brand. Employees want to believe that their leaders are trustworthy. When employees lose trust, users, in this case, viewers, may wonder if they should question the trustworthiness of the brand-business. If employees do not trust the brand, viewers may be questioning their trust in the brand.

Putting the internecine issues aside, the CNN brand is in trouble. Diminishing or lack of trust is frightening from a brand-business stand point. The CNN brand stands to lose its credibility. Makes you wonder who is minding the CNN brand? Who is in charge of trustworthy brand leadership at CNN? 

In all of the press, no one has mentioned the CNN brand. The Licht fiasco was based on the idea that the CNN brand should be perceived as “balanced.” That means the reporting should more evenly cover all sides of political conversations. But, as The New York Times points out, the idea of “balance” focused on what CNN should not be rather than what it should be. And, more problematic from a brand standpoint, “balance” remains a vague, undefined concept.

The closest reference we have about the future of the CNN brand is a quote in The New York Times by Warner Bros Discovery CEO, David Zaslav. He said that he is proud to “… have a chance every day to be a purveyor of facts and truth in journalism and to be a place that people can go to have a national conversation about what’s going on in the world.” But, trust? Truth is fact. Trust is feeling. Talking facts is good. But, if you are not rebuilding the trustworthiness of the CNN brand, the CNN brand is in trouble.

Trust is critical. Trust is a precious asset. We live in a world of distrust and mistrust. Trust in institutions has declined precipitously. There is massive distrust of public authorities, declining trust in business and lack of trust in traditional establishments. People prefer to trust themselves, peers or ranking and rating sites for trusted information. People are also willing to use misinformation or “alternative facts” or other sources. We live in an increasingly skeptical, questioning and demanding society. 

Trust is at the heart of every relationship. The literature on trust is vast and complex. Social scientists, market researchers, political analysts, psychiatrists and psychologists, academics and others view trust as an essential element for any type of relationship building. And, because of all of this interest, trust has many definitions.

Trust is a willingness to rely on an exchange partner in whom one has confidence. Trust is a perception of confidence in a partner’s reliability and integrity. Trust is an expectation derived from the ability to perform (expertise), reliability and intentionality. There is research that focuses on the role that trust is increasingly central in building a strong, durable, profitable, growing and enduring brand. Trust is considered to be an important mediating factor on customer behaviors before and after the purchase or use of the brand. Other research indicates that trust causes long-term loyalty strengthening the relationship between two parties, in this instance, the brand and the viewer.

When it comes to brand, trust is the confidence one has in relying on a brand to live up to its promise and its reputation of authority based on leadership, credibility, integrity and responsibility. Trust is the willingness of the consumer to rely on the ability of the brand to perform its stated functions.

Trust is an important driver of enduring, profitable growth.  As trust increases, so does brand value. If there is no trust, there is no brand value. Trust capital is a significant element of organizational wealth, along with financial capital, intellectual capital and human capital. Creating trust capital allows a brand-business to generate a trust reserve that helps the brand-business through crises of brand-business character.  Trust capital is the customer confidence in the authority, credibility, integrity, leadership and responsibility of an organization to deliver promises of value to stakeholders. It remains to be seen if the years of positioning itself as the most trusted source in news has generated a bank of trust capital large enough to see CNN through this turmoil.

A brand is a promise of a relevant, differentiated expected experience. A brand is about an experience the customer will have. Failure to deliver the expected experience forces the customer to reconsider the trustworthiness of the brand. 

The thing about trust is this: it can take years to build, but it can dissipate in an instant. And, once gone or diminished, it can be years before it is rebuilt, if it can be rebuilt. Trust is earned and re-earned over time. Trust is lasting but when it is damaged, the bond can break quickly.  Trust can be lost in an instant. Trust cannot be bought. Trust cannot be claimed. 

It is too soon to know whether CNN’s brand-business trustworthiness has been tarnished by the internal leadership issues and journalistic directional changes. However, there are some basic principles for trust building that CNN might keep in mind.

First, you are what you do.

Trust must be displayed before it can be declared. Customers must consider the brand to worthy of trust before they can commit to trusting the brand. Saying “trust me” does not track with today’s users. Saying we are the most trusted source does not generate trust. This may make the journalists feel good rather than viewers.

Provide iconic tangible evidence that what the brand claims can be trusted. In tough trust situations, it is not enough to say that the brand is changing or the brand is listening. Demonstrate through tangible, credible evidence.

Be predictable. Creating a pattern of predictable behavior is a critical component of trust building 

Second, Lead the debate; Do not hide from it.

In other words, do not stay silent. Staying silent when important issues are at stake is not a signal of leadership. Silence means agreement Trust is too important for silence. Leaders stand up for what they stand for. 

Be specific. Vague, generic statements are harmful. You can drive a truck through “balance.” At the moment, CNN is providing mixed, unclear messages about the brand. It is not clear just how CNN leadership defines balance.

Avoid being defensive. For a brand-business to be taken seriously, a defensive posture implies there is something to hide. When a brand-business is silent or behaving defensively, others can create “truths’ about the brand. Other will recast the brand’s profile. CNN has a brand reputation. The questions will be, who will have the strongest voice in managing that reputation. It is not in a brand-business’ best interest to let outsiders trample on a brand-business’ truths.

CNN has allowed the press to create the scenarios. None of which has been in the best interest of CNN.

Third, Openness is an opportunity 

Truth is not the same as trust. Truth is a fact. Trust is a feeling. To rebuild trust, a brand-business needs both truth and trust. To be worthy of users’ trust, users need to see the truth not just read about it. Without openness, trust is blind.

Of course, openness has its risks. The brand-business must be above board. There are no secrets anymore.

Thinking that turmoil can be enclosed is wishful thinking. CNN opened itself to others’ opportunities. The brand-business is now paying the price.

Fourth, Trusted Messages Must Come From a Trustworthy Source

CNN should own this: it must be a trustworthy source. Trust relies on a relationship of shared values. Trust relies on conversation and interactions. Trust is more than having the right argument. Trust needs the right voice. Peer testimony is more trustworthy than corporate testimony. So, remember the voice of the customer in communications. There had been an aggressive tone to CNN. New leadership was attempting to ameliorate this with “balance.” Reporting indicates that “balance” was supposed to be more of a tonal change than a substantive change. Somehow this did not happen as one observer stated.

Providing trustworthy information is essential. The challenge is to become a trustworthy source of information that is helpful, convenient, understandable, accessible, timely and valuable to users.

Fifth, good citizenship pays.

Being a good citizen is multi-dimensional. But, at its heart, is doing good deeds. Trust does not come from how big the brand is. Trust is a result of how big the brand acts. Sometimes, big brands can act very small. Doing the right thing is the right thing to do.

Customers want to know that a brand’s motivations are authentic. Customers want to know that a brand is using its size and strength to set powerful examples for others to follow. Be a responsible neighbor and a responsible leader.

For all of the turmoil at CNN, the CNN brand must be protected and managed for enduring profitable growth. Right now, the CNN brand is under pressure. If the CNN brand wishes to remain the most trusted source of news, then the CNN brand must act now to retain and rebuild its accrued trustworthiness now.