Falling trust in institutions: what does it mean for communicators?

Each January PR and marketing giant Edelman publish an annual Trust Barometer. It’s useful reading for communicators in all disciplines, as a temperature check on who and what people trust.

2009’s Trust Barometer – the result of a survey conducted across 20 countries – found trust in institutions had fallen to an all-time low, with 62 per cent saying they trusted businesses less this year than last.

The Trust Barometer shows strong connections between trust in a brand and willingness to advocate it to others; 77 per cent said they’d criticise the products or services of a business they did not trust to friends or colleagues. This presents a real challenge for communicators, tasked with restoring the public’s faith and re-building trust.

After six months that have seen banking bail-outs, widespread job losses and the MPs expenses scandal, Edelman decided to break with tradition and conduct a mid-year survey to see how the picture has changed since the winter. Their mid-year trust report update, published today, shows some encouraging ‘green shoots’ in the picture across six of the countries surveyed last December – the USA, the UK, France, Germany, India and China.

What’s unusual is that trust in business and in government are both heading in the same direction. This is in direct contrast to earlier surveys, which have shows them moving in opposite direction – with trust in government high when trust in business is low, and vice versa.

However, while in five of the countries surveyed trust in government and in business is growing, the opposite is true in the UK. Here trust in government has fallen by 2% since January (unsurprisingly, given it was conducted at the height of the expenses scandal), with trust in business falling by the same amount.

Responses to the question ‘How much do you trust the following institutions to do what is right?’ were especially interesting. Here in the UK, 44% trust business, 38% trust the government, but just 28% trust the media to do what’s right.

That’s quite an alarming, but confusing, statistic. The media are posited as the fourth estate in our democratic system; their role, it is suggested, is to hold public institutions to account on behalf of the public. Yet less than a third of people believe they do the right thing. So it appears that the public simultaneously believe the media when it is critical while at the same time being cynical about the media itself.

Moving on, the survey looks at what actions a company could take to rebuild trust. Number one on the list is “treat employees well”, with 94% of respondents agreeing. Coming in at number 4, with 91% agreement, is “communicate frequently and honestly”. This reinforces the findings of the MacLeod Review published this month, which emphasised the role of employee engagement in helping to rebuild the economy.

However, as communicators we are not immune from falling trust in institutions, including our own. The changing trust landscape means that we communicators need to think about audiences’ faith in the information we provide. If faith in businesses and other organisations is falling, does it follow that faith in our corporately-provided information is falling too? It seems to me there’s a need for more research in this area, particularly on the impact of falling trust in institutions on internal audiences.

If trust in corporate internal communications channels is falling, then we need to identify and work with those sources our audiences do trust. For instance, Edelman’s more detailed annual barometer out in January found that people trust and are highly influenced by their peers. Internal communicators could respond to this by placing a renewed emphasis on peer-to-peer or ‘viral’ communication.

Although there are some green shoots of recovery in the housing market, many experts are predicting unemployment will continue to rise throughout 2009. The public sector in particular is likely to see increasingly squeezed budgets for many years to come, which has obvious implications for employee engagement, and new challenges for public sector communicators.

As ever, Edelman’s survey provides some useful insights for those of us working in communications and engagement. It’ll be interesting to see how much the picture has changed in January 2010.

Join the conversation about trust on Twitter at @Edelman_Trust and follow the conversation with the hashtag #edeltrust.

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