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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Justin Jackson, communications expert

Justin Jackson, from King’s College, Cambridge, is communications expert. He will be speaking alongside Francesca Granelli from King’s College London at the session More trust or better trust: communicating across the extremes on 20th October.


Question: Why is trust important?

Justin Jackson: We need to take a leap of faith if anything’s to get done! It’s not just a question of missed opportunities. It’s much more than that: I can’t conceive of a life in which we don’t take risks. And, when it comes to relying on others, individually or collectively, that means we have to trust them.

What’s important, though, is that trust can be misplaced. Many of the problems we face today – so called ‘fake news’ comes to mind – is that we trust when we shouldn’t. So, it’s not that we need more trust, but better trust. Francesca and I can’t emphasise this enough.


Q: To what extent is the existential crisis we are currently in to do with loss of trust not just in politics but in a range of key institutions, from the BBC [the Savile scandal] to the church?

JJ: That’s absolutely right. Francesca’s research shows that trust is in flux across all of these institutions: it’s evolving from a traditional, hierarchical relationship between individuals and organisations to a novel, flatter, diffused connection between people.

The upshot is that we can’t rely on our emotional reactions or social convention to guide us in the way we used to. Things have changed. That’s why we turn to big data, popular reviews and artificial intelligence.

The interesting question is whether these yield deep trust. We’re not sure they do.


Q: What can marketing teach us about building/rebuilding trust?

JJ: Marketing – at least when it’s done right – is about creating value for customers. This means understanding their needs, devising a way to meet them and selling the end product. Each step requires the customer to take a risk (has the marketer got the needs right? can she address them? do I believe her?) so there’s a huge amount of experience here.

It also shows the importance of listening, as well as speaking. Marketers can only do their job if they know what customers need. This doesn’t mean you can’t question what is being said – that’s why I talk about needs, rather than wants – but it does require dialogue, not monologue.


Q: How can academics rebuild trust in their expertise?

JJ: Hold seminars rather than give lectures! Academics are getting better at this – I’m thinking about collaborative research, interdisciplinary perspectives and public engagement (such as the Cambridge Festival of Ideas) – but there’s still much to do.

Academics – and nostra culpa here – don’t like to admit when they’re wrong. We need a little less of the ‘defending my thesis’ approach that defines the PhD viva and a little more of the two-way approach to exploring knowledge that is exemplified in the Cambridge supervision or Oxford tutorial.


Q: What can we learn about trust from disciplines such as history, psychology and communications? In particular, what do they tell us about Brexit?

JJ: A great deal. History demonstrates that what we think is cast in stone, isn’t. Psychology shows us that what we think are rational decisions, aren’t. Communications illustrates that it’s not just what we say that matters, but also how, when, where and why. And so on.

History, for instance, tells us that we need to put the Brexit cleavage in perspective – our country has faced far more serious divisions in the past, which have spilled over into civil unrest and even war. We’re not there.

And there’s more good news: if those far more serious divisions could be healed effectively, so can Brexit. The solution was to create a common vision, built around what we do share rather than what we don’t. It takes time, to be sure, but we eventually end up with common emotional responses and social conventions again.

Yet if we’re to get there, we need a leap of faith from both sides. And that means trust.