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Who can people trust?

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer international survey told us what we already knew – trust around the world has been plunging in recent times for many reasons. Rather than diving deep down here into an inquest, you can go to Richard Edelman’s blog, “An implosion of trust,” which he wrote in January as an overview of this alarming trend.

Key findings from the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer survey

Trust is in crisis globally. Trust in the institutions of business, media, government and NGOs dropped three points in 12 months. Media is at all-time lows, government trust continues to erode, and two thirds of surveyed countries are now ‘distrusters,’ with under 50% trust.

More attention needed for stakeholder relationships. The trust crisis demands a new operating model for organizations by which they listen to all stakeholders, provide context on the issues that challenge their lives, engage in dialogue with them, and tap peers, especially employees, to lead communications and advocacy efforts.

Peers highly credible. For the first time, “a person like yourself” is as credible a source for information about a company as a technical or academic expert (all three at 60%). Credibility of CEOs is at an all-time low, with a 12-point decline in the last year.

The takeaway Business leaders and organizations need to more actively engage with stakeholders and the general community to demonstrate their integrity and good faith.

Some significant details from the survey

A total of 33,000 people from 28 countries participated in the online survey by Edelman, which is the biggest PR firm in the world.

Most trusted person

The findings reflect a continuation of the trend toward employees as the most credible source of information about a company, from its products/services to its financial performance and supply chain. In fact, the employee is often twice as credible as the CEO and even ahead of the technical expert.

The lessons here are that ordinary people such as an average company employee are being trusted more and more as time goes by. In every factor, above, they were trusted more than the formal corporate spokespersons of CEO and media spokesperson.

This puts more onus on organizations to communicate more truthfully and transparently, as ordinary people see through the spin that is in place much of the time in corporate communication.

Often the media will seek out an average employee for comment during a crisis. It is worthwhile to consider appointing a couple of supportive opinion leaders from the ranks of ordinary workers/staff so they can be used as informal commentators in these situations, making observations from the average worker's point of view.

All-time low for CEO credibility

The global results show a massive and widespread loss of trust within society. The worst result for trust of spokespersons was for CEOs - a 12% drop in trust from the previous year.

When US CEOs get paid an average of 70 times higher than their average worker, it is not surprising that a backlash of trust in CEOs has emerged. (Interesting comments from Shel Holtz on this subject in 2016.) Obviously many other factors also account for the lack of trust, but this figure is a powerful symbol of the inequality at a time when many workers are struggling for sufficient income.

The 33,000 respondents rated categories of spokesperson in the online global poll. The result for every category was down from 2016:

  • 60% A person like yourself (friends and work colleagues?) (-3%)
  • 60% Academic or industry expert (-5%)
  • 60% Company technical expert (-7%)
  • 48% Employee (-4%)
  • 46% Financial industry analyst (-7%)
  • 43% NGO representative (-5%)
  • 37% CEO (-12%)
  • 35% Board of directors (-10%)
  • 29% Government official or regulator (-6%)

What should companies do more?

Around 75% of respondents agreed that "a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates." This gives companies a license to engage more with the communities in which they operate.

The question, "How important is each of the following attributes to building your TRUST in a company?" brought the following top responses from the general population:

  1. 62% Treats employees well
  2. 59% Offers high-quality products/services
  3. 58% Listens to customers
  4. 56% Pays its fair share of taxes
  5. 56% Ethical business practices.

What would damage trust in businesses the most?

The top 5 actions the general population believe business can take that would most damage trust in a better future:

  1. Pay bribes to government officials to win contracts
  2. Pay executives hundreds of times more than workers
  3. Most profits to other countries to avoid taxes
  4. Overcharge for products that people need to live
  5. Reduce costs by lowering product quality.

These responses point to deep concerns about untrammelled capitalism.

Trust in traditional news media shows the steepest decline

Search engines continued to be trusted ahead of all other sources of general news and information, recording a 64% trust level on a scale of 1-10 in people's judgment. Trust level results were:

  • 64% Search engines
  • 57% Traditional news media
  • 51% Online-only media
  • 43% Owned media (content - website, blog, email newsletter, etc)
  • 41% Social media
  • 43% Media overall as an institution (down 5 points from 2016)

The takeaway

Traditional news media have encountered problems that are partly of their own making and are partly due to the rise of digital media. Too many media outlets have departed from factual reporting to adopt overtly political stances that alienate many people and develop into echo chambers for a narrow audience. This has affected their credibility and even integrity.

In the meantime, more people are turning to search engines as a more trusted source of news. More discussion on this in other articles.

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