Most people worldwide no longer trust their institutions to look out for their best interests. So says Edelman’s 2017 17th annual Trust Barometer, a trust and credibility query of 33,000 people in 28 countries, that concludes that the situation has reached “crisis” proportions.
Such fears aren’t imagnary; the more informed you are, the less likely you are to trust your government, media, business and non-governmental institutions – collectively “the system.” This year’s crisis of confidence appears so dire that Richard Edelman, President & CEO of the company his father founded, warns, “We have moved beyond the point of trust being simply a key factor in product purchase or selection of employment opportunity. It is now the deciding factor in whether society can function.”
At AAF-DC’s March 8 AM AdBuzz, Kathryn Beiser, Edelman’s chief communication officer and agency executive, and SVP Alex Milwee, shared what they believe are the key ramifications and potential “fixes” to the crisis from their perspective as communications professionals.
The ‘Onus’ is on Business
One surprising conclusion: businesses, if they act responsibly and ethically, involve their employees and customers in their decision-making process, and are transparent internally and externally regarding their values and behavior, could have a substantial impact in repairing trust across the board.
Why business – especially when Beiser says, “CEO credibility is at an all-time low.” While it’s true that credibility of CEOs fell by 12 points this year to just 37 percent, that’s still 8 points above trust in government. Sardonically, you might say that business leaders, having apparently squandered the trust of their employees and customers, may have the greatest potential to positively impact public trust because they have plenty of room for improvement. But according to Edelman it’s because trust in business generally has eroded less than trust in other institutions – they remain on stronger footing than their institutional peers so may have more leverage.
Richard Edelman in his intro to the report says, “the onus is now on business, the one institution that retains some trust with those skeptical about the system, to prove that it is possible to act in the interest of shareholders and society alike. Free markets can succeed for all if business works with the people, not just sells to them.”
So then, what can businesses do to build trust? Edelman has detailed more than a dozen “trust building attributes” that should characterize businesses who want to cement trust with their customers and employees. The top five in order, as rated by survey respondents: treat employees well, offer high-quality products and services, listen to customers, pay their fair share of taxes, and engage in ethical business practices.
Transparency and inclusion internally and externally is important in building trust, Beiser explained, because people have the sense that there is, “too much secrecy… too much happening behind closed doors.” Responsible business leaders “need more forums for discussion,” on a regular basis, she added. What this means for corporate communications and media pros in particular is that employees – not just corporate leadership – become more a part of the conversation with the public, and the company becomes more of its own media provider vs. being merely an advertiser. Even as the media piles on to question the veracity of the U.S.’ tweeter-in-chief, companies’ social media channels are considered more believable than their advertising by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin!
There is something to be said for the effectiveness of President Trump’s style as a communicator in winning support among those feeling disenfranchised. CEOs who are more blunt and outspoken vs. diplomatic, spontaneous vs. rehearsed, and who operate from personal experience vs. data are considered more believable, leading Edelman to conclude that a little bit of frankness and spontaneity can go a long way to build trust. Of course, as Beiser put it, it can take a lot of work to make something come off as spontaneous for whom it’s not a natural talent. Bottom line: business leaders should endeavor to, “talk with, not at” their stakeholders.
Information becomes more “fluid” as everyone’s lives both inside and outside their jobs intertwine, and – “in a world where even breakfast cereal can become politicized… corporate activism is cheaper and faster than ever before,” Beiser continued. All this means that product developers, media buyers, PR professionals – inside and outside the company – all the moving parts of a company, have to concern themselves with how they’re being perceived and how they communicate internally and externally. Beiser likens this to operating more like synchronized swimming than a race with lap lanes. Bluntly, she said, “There are no more ‘swim lanes’ in marketing. The rehearsals are ugly… but eventually we come together,” so long as everyone understands what the company is about and what its core values are.
Another key observation: becoming a more trustworthy company isn’t the same as guarding its reputation. “Reputation is a backwards looking metric,” Beiser explained. Trust, in contrast, represents how people will act going into the future with respect to the businesses they patronize and choose to work for.
Media Models Collide
Social media has given consumers and employees alike a greater feeling of empowerment, and an expectation that their voices should be heard by leaders and others that have power over their well-being in some way. Increasingly, “a person like yourself” is deemed as credible as an academic or technical expert and far more credible than a CEO or government official. Peers, friends, and family have become the litmus test of what is true.
Perhaps even more disruptive for media professionals, vastly more people (59 percent) are more likely to trust search engines than they are human editors (41 percent)! Because search engines adapt to reinforce your beliefs – delivering more of the kinds of responses people consider useful or believable – they are more likely to reinforce people’s belief system rather than challenge it or promote discovery of new ideas.
Whereas the Fourth Estate traditionally has been held to a higher standard of proof tests in challenging the status quo, in an environment of distrust, “Facts matter less than bias,” Beiser said. “Fifty-three percent of people don’t listen to people in organizations with whom they often disagree,” and “fifty-two percent never or rarely change their positions on important social issues,” she said.
This state of affairs, left to fester, could create a climate where persuasion matters much less than pandering (the author’s observation, not Beiser’s). Politicians have always won elections by mobilizing those who already agree with them, but distrust of the existing party system will make it increasingly essential to woo independents and “undecideds” precisely at a time when what used to be called the marketplace of ideas seems increasingly prone to hyperbole. Edelman paints a picture of a world where populism globally was more about fueling the fears of people who feel disenfranchised than about proposing innovation and positive change.
Concerns about corruption, globalization, eroding social values and immigration, left unchecked, can lead naturally to fear. (See chart at left, part of Beiser’s slide presentation.) Concern over job stability has led to a shift in the importance of growth and innovation as business goals. Now, in contrast to the optimism of prior decades that technology would fuel a better world for everyone, people are concerned that “technological innovations are happening to quickly and leading to change that is not good for people like me,” and 22 percent actually are fearful about the pace of innovation.
Distrust feeds societal concern and fears, which lead people to take more populist actions, causing disruption that fuels this cycle. Traditional media shows the steepest decline in trust, Beiser said, leading to people’s perception that owned media (corporate content), is now as trusted as media as an institution.
What does it all mean? Hopefully, that communicators and marketers serving all four major institutions will spend more time focusing on how to restore trust as fundamental to their wellbeing as well as that of their customers, employees and society as a whole.
Concluded Beiser, as a value to which all institutions should aspire, and one with far-reaching consequences, “Trust is real. You either believe it or you don’t.”