Can we trust the trust-pushers? 

The communications industry has long argued that the bedrock of a good reputation is trust. But the power dynamics are shifting.

By Sam Williams

Last week the Royal Opera House announced it is cutting its ties with BP, the fossil fuel company, after 33 years of sponsorship, leaving the Science Museum and British Museum as the outliers of arts organisations taking money from oil and gas. This follows on from a steady stream of cultural organisations shedding long standing funders. The Victoria & Albert Museum last year, cut ties with the Sackler family, which had been tarnished by allegations of profiteering from the opioid crisis, following MOMA in New York, the Louvre in Parisand many others.   

All of these organisations realise how important reputation is and that their own reputations were being damaged, indeed the V&A had come under increased pressure from the media and public.

For many decades, we in the communications industry have argued that the bedrock of a good reputation is trust. Trust from employees, trust from customers, trust from suppliers and stakeholders.

But the world is changing. Employees, customers and stakeholders no longer necessarily believe what they are told. Social media has given a platform to anyone who wants it. Levels of scrutiny from traditional media are increasing. The power dynamics are shifting. 

Earlier this month, the heads of powerful organisations and businesses from around the world met at Davos – a yearly event where they try to put the world to rights in the Swiss mountains. It has become a tradition that Edelman, one of the oldest PR agencies in the world, uses Davos as a platform to release its annual ‘Trust Barometer’. In the communications industry, this barometer has often been held up as the gold standard of reputation.

But the shine is beginning to wear off. To coincide with Davos, the Guardian published a scathing article on Edelman, highlighting the contradictions between what it is preaching and the reality of its client portfolio and the work it is doing. This highlights the growing chasm between the old established communications agencies, often part of global networks, with shareholders to please and ever-increasing targets to meet, and a group of newer independent, more agile and truly purpose-driven agencies who are not willing to throw out their principles for the sake of profits.

These agencies – and Barley proudly counts itself among them – have strong commitments to working only on campaigns and issues that matter to them, and rejecting briefs which do not align with their values, or which aren’t going to bring about positive impacts for society and the environment. There is no greenwashing here, just straightforward integrity, which is why Barley is in the process of applying to become B Corp certified, uniting us with other businesses seeking to be a positive force for good in the world.

Many of these agencies have also embraced flexible working from day one – this isn’t something we’ve been forced to jump onto because of the pandemic. Barley, and many others like us, recognise that a flexible model enables us to work with some of the brightest minds in the industry: strategy gurus who can’t commute because they are doing the school run; copywriters with caring responsibilities; and media relations experts and digital natives who don’t want to put up with the horrors of daily peak-time travel.

In September, Barley took this one step further by becoming a majority employee-owned company, meaning we are now run for the benefit our people and our people can genuinely help shape the direction of the agency as it grows. We are walking our talk. And we hope that increasingly, this will be the norm, not the exception.

Sam Williams is the founder and co-CEO of Barley Communications.

This article first appeared in Influence Online on 1 February 2023. The original article is available here: