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Counter loss of organizational trust in these times

01 Jun, 2020 Reputation, trust, stakeholder relations, Social media

People around the world have generally become more fearful, stressed and insecure since the COVID pandemic arrived to haunt them. The annual Edelman Trust Barometer survey for 2021 found that the pandemic has added to persistent personal and societal fears globally. This includes reduced trust in organizations. The pandemic is not the only cause for concern. In the United States alone, the nation is facing civil unrest, lack of faith in government and the ongoing controversial response to the Presidential election results from 2020. This has produced an overwhelming lack of trust in society’s institutions. Here are some thoughts on how to counter loss of organizational trust during the pandemic.

Image: Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report, p. 14.   

The survey showed that the pandemic has affected all of us and has reduced trust in various aspects of major societal institutions. As part of this, trust in all the main sources of information for people dropped to record low levels. The results for search engines, traditional media, owned media and social media all sank in this worldwide survey of 33,000 online respondents in 28 countries.This article identifies causes as well as ways to counter loss of organizational trust during the pandemic.

Search engines retained their ranking as the most trusted source of information with a rating of 53% trust. The worst ranking was social media at 35% trust.

The survey question asked them, “When looking for general news and information, how much would you trust each type of source for general news and information?”

Image: Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report, p. 24.   

As a result of communities’ lack of confidence caused by the pandemic, they tended to retreat their trust levels to institutions closer at hand to their life experience. In this case, their employer was the institution they trusted most. As shown in the image below, people’s trust in their employer was stable or higher in 18 of 27 countries around the world. This figure was well ahead of general trust in business, at 61%, NGOs at 57%, government at 53% and media generally at 51%.

Image: Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report, p. 8. 

Consistent with greater trust in their employer, people also rated their employer media as the most believable, at 61%, compared with other types of media, including advertising at 46% and their social media accounts at 39%.

Image: Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report, p. 26. 

Consistent with people’s concern about their future during the pandemic, the most important form of information they relied on was employer’s communication, which proved to be the most believable to them compared with media from further afield. In this case, their employer’s media rated 61% while six other media sources reduced progressively from there to low trust in their social media circles.

Image: Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report, p. 22. 

At the same time, people tended to rate the credibility of spokespersons lower than previously, except for government officials, who presumably were rated more highly because they were talking to the public about COVID measures. The image below shows the details.

Image: Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report, p. 49.

The bottom line – how to counter loss of organizational trust

The Edelman 2021 survey found the reasons whereby business would gain the most trust compared with the other societal institutions of business, NGOs, government and media. Respondents were asked, “Below is a list of institutions. For each one, please indicate how much you trust that institution to do what is right.”

The conclusion to draw from this is for employers to continue providing trustworthy information to their employees – to be honest and transparent. This will help employers contend with the trend of many employees resigning from  organizations.

Trust in the future of work

A Gallup report in 2018 on workplace trust advocated “three essential elements of a high-trust culture.” Clearly these elements would lead to a positive external culture as well. The three elements of a high-trust culture, according to Gallup, are:

  1. Make strong customer value the ultimate business goal: Organizations need an authentic, customer-centric purpose to guide their strategic focus and daily activities. Such a purpose, clearly and commonly articulated by leaders and
    managers, encodes ethical standards into the DNA of an organization.
  2. Establish integrity as a primary organizational value: High-trust organizations make integrity a core value that influences all HR processes, from performance incentives to hiring criteria. Warren Buffett once said he considers integrity a more essential hiring consideration than intelligence or energy: “We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone.
  3. Ensure ethical issues are a major leadership focus: For large organizations, trust is largely a product of leadership. Business leaders help ensure employees are attuned to ethical issues by calling attention to them on a regular basis. Unfortunately, many businesses pay lip service to compliance programs without conveying to employees the organization’s commitment to building and maintaining customer trust through ethical practices.

In a 2021 O’Dwyer’s article, “The power of trust in times of crisis,” Donovan Roche  wrote about “key key pillars for building trust during a crisis.” He said if you incorporate these into your go-forward communications strategy, you will be poised to increase confidence in your constituents while safeguarding your brand’s reputation:

  1. Speak the truth. If people don’t hear from you, particularly those impacted by the crisis, they will grow concerned from lack of information and begin to develop their own story. By being consistent in your communications, you not only drive the conversation, you also instill trust in your audience.
  2. It’s not about you. When bad things happen, and people are put on the defensive, the natural tendency is fight or flight. One way or the other, they want to protect themselves—not show vulnerability, take accountability or demonstrate concern for others. As counterintuitive as it may seem, this is exactly what one should do when a crisis hits to build trust. Rather than thinking of just themselves, or their brand, leaders need to show responsibility for the broader universe of those affected by the crisis, from employees and customers to society as a whole.
  3. Humanity hits home. One of the biggest mistakes a crisis communicator can make is to get so wrapped up in delivering the message that they forget to be human. At the end of the day, all people—whether an employee, customer or the public at large—want to know that you care about their wellbeing and, following a crisis, you are focused on making it right.

The glue that holds it together

Roche observed that:

So much goes into building trust: exuding credibility and consistency, being transparent and truthful, showing vulnerability and accountability, expressing empathy and compassion, and much more. But, as [recent events] made clear, when trust breaks down in any one of these areas, connections fall apart. Never underestimate the power of trust—and how it can impact your brand if gained or lost, particularly in times of crisis.

Further reading

You may be interested to read further about this topic in my article, “Why trust is really important to your organization.”

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

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