01/20/2012 06:21 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Sinking Trust

With 4,000 passengers aboard, the Costa Concordia cruise liner ran aground off the coast of Italy. Thus far 21 people are missing and 11 are dead. This was a tragic accident, but perhaps it is evolving into something more than an isolated event of human error and physics -- it may also be another example of systems failure -- not in physical engineering, but in the complex, more delicate architecture that underpins public trust and confidence.

Social scientists have long been fascinated by trust, but in recent years its short supply has made everyone take notice. Gallup reports a long-running trend of nearly four decades of lost public confidence and trust in nearly all institutions from the branches of government, business, to organized religion. The evolving science of trust suggests that the public's and the media's penchant to generalize from discreet events to entire systems and the often lethargic response of both public and private leadership may be taking a toll on trust.

How tragic events are explained and portrayed affects far more than public interpretations of current events; they can shape how the public perceives an industry, government or an entire system. In addition to the lives lost and twisted steel are the damaged symbols and beliefs that are the foundations of public perception of how safe, well-managed, or trustworthy a system may actually be. Sinking trust affects far more than public opinion and water cooler chat. It is the fundamental glue that determines if companies can engage consumers; governments can enlist public support; if communities can garner the social capital necessary to build quality of life, not just a place to live; and, ultimately if we can trust each other.

Transportation accidents, such as airline crashes, are most often attributed to human error and weather. Black boxes (which are actually orange) give the next best available information in the absence of a surviving crew of 'what happened.' Typically the error is portrayed as tragic but human. After all, mistakes happen to the best of us. The Costa Concordia accident is giving the public good reason to question both the cause of the accident as well as the symbols and rules of safety at sea. As more is known about the Costa Concordia sinking, the captain may not only be at fault for a mistake but for leaving the ship before the passengers or crew were safely evacuated -- thus breaking the tradition or at least long-held popular belief that the 'captain goes down with the ship.' The reason so many stripes and gold adorn a captain's uniform, whether on ships or aircraft, is that the captain alone symbolizes to passengers and to the general public the expertise, control, command and ultimately the safety of the vessel. Instead, the Costa Concordia leaves us with an image of a captain that is more than delinquent in duty and unable to cope in crisis or worse.

Beyond the captain, rescued passengers tell stories of chaos while trying to evacuate the ship. The media and public must ask -- aren't there rules, procedures or drills for the possibility of an accident? Of course there are, but if not practiced or put into action when needed, emergency plans become little more than dusty notebooks that fulfill a corporate or government check list. The public is left to conclude that in practice there are no rules or the rules that do exist are inadequate. Even the chairman and chief executive of Carnival Cruise Lines, operator of the Costa Concordia, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying "This tragedy has called into question our company's safety and emergency response procedures and practices."

As blame drifts somewhere between the captain and the company, the news will begin to focus on the context of the cruise industry -- who regulates, who inspects, who enforces -- who is making sure the public is safe? Interviews will be aired, hearings will be held, and government agencies will be scrutinized and criticized. Few of these actions will add clarity or build public confidence. In fact, they are likely to support a latent public fear that it is not just the Costa Concordia but the whole system that is a 'mess.'

The sinking of the Costa Concordia is more than a problem for Carnival Cruises. The cruise industry caters to travelers that have chosen a cruise because of the trust they have in the safety it provides while offering the values of hassle-free fun, experience, and convenience traveling to 'exotic' destinations. Moreover, according to the Centers for Disease Control (link below) about one-third of cruise ship passengers are 55+ -- suggesting that personal safety may be an even greater concern and consideration in selecting the safety of an all-inclusive getaway.

Other industries and all levels of government should note a pattern the Costa Concordia tragedy is following along with a long list of other 'events' that involve lost confidence and trust. Just in recent years consider the impact of individual fraud on faith in the financial system; failed medical devices on public perception of medical safety; Gulf oil spill disaster on off-shore drilling and exploration; contaminated spinach on food safety; or, the chilling effects of Fukushima on the future of nuclear power. There is a growing trend line in the media and public opinion to define what might have been once considered individual error or even individual malevolence into larger failures of an entire class of expertise or authority. Beyond over the risks of over generalizing, public and private organizations must accept that poorly executed rules and practices awaken latent beliefs as well as fears that there are no rules to 'the game.' Lack of instant no excuses response by both corporations and governments can suggest that there may be no 'fail safe' to protect the public and that accidents, failures and fraud are not individual incidents but yet one more example of system failure.

The price of inaccurately assigning the failure of an individual or even a group of individuals to an entire industry, government program or system is long-term loss of public confidence and trust. Likewise, companies and government agencies must protect both public safety and trust by executing, and if appropriate, prosecuting flawlessly in time of crisis. Otherwise what is lost is far more important than market share or votes; the sinking of public trust is integral to our faith in complex social and technical systems that undergird everyday life, our confidence in each other, and ultimately our belief that we can build a better future together.