Looking at the 52 pages of data in the latest Trust Barometer from Edelman Communications, one would come to a conclusion that we are all doomed.
The study shows that trust in four major institutions is at an all-time low, with the largest-ever drop in trust across government, business, media and NGOs. Trust in media (43%) is at an all-time lows in 17 countries, while trust levels in government (41%) dropped in 14 markets, making it the least trusted institution. The credibility of leaders also is in peril; chief executive credibility dropped 12 points globally to an all-time low of 37%, plummeting in every country studied, while government leaders (29%) remain the least credible.
For those reading the news on a daily basis, these findings may be of no big surprise, but considering that Edelman has been doing this annual study for 17 years, it shows that a huge change may be coming.
What is a trust barometer?
The survey was done by research firm Edelman Intelligence and consisted of 25-minute online interviews conducted between October 13 and November 16, 2016. The online survey sampled more than 33,000 respondents consisting of 1,150 general population respondents and 500 informed public respondents in the US and China alongside 200 informed public respondents across 28 markets. All those surveyed met the following criteria: ages 25-64, college-educated; household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business and news media at least several times a week; follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week.
The Trust Barometer came from Edelman’s reaction to the Battle of Seattle in 1999, when protests of the World Trade Organization conference convened on the city and sparked international action against globalization.
“NGOs were relatively new at that point. We asked; how did they have such power? Power equals trust. Over 17 years, [the Trust Barometer] has grown from a 10-country list to 28 countries today. We’ve asked the same set of questions every year,” said Ben Boyd, president practices and sectors at Edelman.
The Trust Barometer found that 53% of respondents believe the current overall system has failed them – it is unfair and offers little hope for the future – while only 15% believe it is working, and approximately a third are uncertain.
The gap between the trust held by the informed public and that of the mass population has widened to 15 points, with the biggest disparities in the US (21 points), UK (19 points) and France (18 points). The mass population in 20 countries distrusts their institutions, compared to only six for the informed public.
“We start the process in July, to see how last year’s story has played out,” said Boyd. He noted that the survey was done before the Brexit vote and before Donald Trump was elected, and still, the world was divided. “We wanted to find out, what was driving that divide, what created that divide? We seem to have a bit of data that illuminates a lack of trust in the four major institutions, a lack of faith in system.”
“The implications of the global trust crisis are deep and wide-ranging,” said Richard Edelman, president and chief executive of Edelman. “It began with the Great Recession of 2008, but like the second and third waves of a tsunami, globalization and technological change have further weakened people’s trust in global institutions. The consequence is virulent populism and nationalism as the mass population has taken control away from the elites.”
Current populist movements are fueled by a lack of trust in the system and economic and societal fears, including corruption (40%), immigration (28%), globalization (27%), eroding social values (25%) and the pace of innovation (22%).
The cycle of distrust is magnified by the emergence of a media echo chamber that reinforces personal beliefs while shutting out opposing points of view. Respondents favor search engines (59%) over human editors (41%) and are nearly four times more likely to ignore information that supports a position they do not believe in.
That can be a scary proposition, considering the rise of fake news and the trend of people believing anything posted on social media.
“People now view media as part of the elite,” said Edelman. “The result is a proclivity for self-referential media and reliance on peers. The lack of trust in media has also given rise to the fake news phenomenon and politicians speaking directly to the masses. Media outlets must take a more local and social approach.”
There is evidence of even further dispersion of authority, since anyone with a social media account is now just as credible a source of information about a company as is a technical (60%) or academic (60%) expert, and far more credible than a chief executive (37%) and government official (29%).
“The debates that swirl are heated and long. It’s a system beyond repair. Good data actually creates more questions than answers. It’s a complicated world,” said Boyd.
Other findings of the 2017 survey include:
- Trust in business (52%) dropped in 18 countries, while NGOs (53%) saw drop-offs as high as 10 points across 21 countries.
- Half of the countries surveyed have lost faith in the system, led by France (72%) and Italy (72%), Mexico (67%), South Africa (67%) and Spain (67%).
- Trust in traditional media fell five points to 57%, the steepest decline among platforms since 2012, followed by social media (41%), which dropped three points. By contrast, online-only media (51%) received the biggest bump in trust at five points.
Business to the rescue
Since, at its core, Edelman is a business consultancy, Boyd and company see that business may be the only institution that has the opportunity to help turn things around from the current state and make a difference.
Three out of four respondents agree a company can take actions to both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates. Among those who are uncertain about whether the system is working for them, it is business (58%) that they trust most.
Yet the institution of business finds itself on the brink of distrust. Perhaps most concerning is the perceived role the public sees business playing in stoking their fears. A majority of those surveyed worry about losing their jobs due to the impacts of globalization (60%), lack of training or skills (60%), immigrants who work for less (58%), jobs moving to cheaper markets (55%) and automation (54%).
“Business is the last retaining wall for trust,” said Kathryn Beiser, global chair of Edelman’s corporate practice. “Its leaders must step up on the issues that matter for society. It has done a masterful job of illustrating the benefits of innovation but has done little to discuss the impact those advances will have on people’s jobs. Business must also focus on paying employees fairly, while providing better benefits and job training.”
Is the sky truly falling? If so, what do we do?
“We are digesting a lot of data. The front-end data feels so ominous. What we are saying to business is, you must act differently,” said Boyd. “In a country and globe where income inequality keeps going out of whack, when will businesses finally recognize that they need to spread the wealth and value the consumer and worker?”
He thinks that increasing importance of employees and making them advocates for companies is vital to the survival of business. Companies must be courageous and talk with their employees – find out what they know and create a dialogue to make them feel empowered, he advised.
“Business is one of the only institutions where there is a sense of hope. Hope drives change. A populist action is a people reasserting their authority. Business, from its trust point, has an opportunity and channel as a trusted institution to bring more context to the dialogue,” said Boyd.
Like much of the study, Boyd finds more questions than answers, but looking to business to help turn things around may be the only way to solve a fast-sinking ship, and engaging employees to give more voice to a frustrated population may be the place to start.
“A continued dialogue and consideration by business of trust as an asset to be proactively managed,” said Boyd. “The savviest of enterprises think of their employee base as an asset for illumination and learning. It is essential business engage them to understand their points of view, concerns, and fears as relative to the needs of the enterprise. Learn from them and they will advocate for you.”