Contributing columnist Ron Alsop of the Wall Street Journal kicked off a discussion of trust at the Page Society’s Annual Conference in Chatham on Monday by quoting the lead of a Journal story on the current financial crisis: “Trust no one.” The value of trust in business has never been clearer.

Alsop and his co-panelists, Paul W. Critchlow, Vice Chairman, Public Markets,
Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc.; Patricia Wright, Vice President, External Affairs, BP America and Christine Anderson, Former Communications Director to Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, discussed their experiences with institutions struggling to maintain trust in the face of a crisis of confidence.

Among the lessons:

  • Embrace transparency. You can’t trust what you don’t understand.
  • A commitment to sustainability or corporate social responsibility may hold one to a higher standard, but it also buys good will that earns one the benefit of the doubt.
  • Relationships with key stakeholders built on dialogue also earn trust and pay dividends in a crisis.
  • It’s important to sustain trust in institutions, rather than individuals, recognizing that leaders may disappoint, but institutions must persevere.

As our institutions – both public and private – strive to contain and resolve this crisis, it’s clear that new regulatory approaches are both necessary and inevitable. However, we would do well to consider that regulation alone will not build lasting trust in business. It will require a sincere commitment by businesses to these fundamental building blocks of trust: transparency, corporate social responsibility and genuine relationships with disparate stakeholders.

These concepts – apparently foreign to some of the high-flying risk takers on Wall Street – must become part of the DNA of their successors in whatever institutions may ultimately survive the current debacle.