In January of this year, Edelman released the 19th annual edition of its trust analysis – the Edelman Trust Barometer. The past two decades have seen a progressive decline in trust in societal institutions, including government, media, business and nonprofits. This past year, in particular, has shown that trust is changing significantly, with people placing the most trust in their closest relationships (e.g. their employers) and increasingly away from our societal institutions.
We invited Richard Edelman, President & CEO of Edelman, and Meredith Kopit Levien, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer of The New York Times, to speak to some of these trends during our latest “Purpose of Purpose” event. Here are three things we learned:
Trust is becoming local
In an age where our systems for gathering news and information are becoming increasingly fragmented and we are faced with the persistent threat of fake news, perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that we’re seeing a substantial shift towards people trusting the relationships closest to them and those that they feel they have a sense of control over. This sentiment is a new and important theme throughout this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, as globally, 75 percent of people trust “my employer” to do what’s right, over NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent).
As our circles of trust are tightening, organizations and brands across the spectrum find themselves looking for ways to bring people “into the fold.” For example, according to Meredith Kopit Levien, “news at its best is a relationship.” When people seek out a news story, they want to be able to trust that they’ll be receiving truthful information and that their time spent reading, listening or watching the story will ultimately be time well spent. To build that trusting relationship, The New York Times prioritizes showing its audience how it produces quality, original, independent journalism by providing insight into reporting processes and additional context around what the reporting means for individuals and our society. By arming the general public with the accurate, full picture of the information they need to feel empowered, brands and organizations may start to establish themselves as allies in creating positive change.
Pessimism is balanced by desire for change and action
Trust in our societal institutions has been steadily declining for nearly two decades, due to factors such as economic recession, fears about immigration and job loss due to automation, the fall of traditional power figures (such as CEOs, media personalities and heads of state) and growing concerns around data and privacy, among others. This year, however, it became clear that people are feeling more pessimistic than ever before.
According to this year’s Barometer, only one in five people believe that “the system” – meaning our institutions, leaders and societal customs – is working in their favor, and more than half are feeling left behind.
This overarching feeling of injustice and lack of confidence in our national decision-makers has not only elicited a sense of pessimism and worry, but it has also sparked an urgent desire for change and a clear move towards engagement and action. In 2019, engagement with the news increased significantly, as 40 percent of respondents reported not only consuming news once a week or more, but also regularly amplifying it.
As the demand for transparency increases and power becomes more participatory, Richard Edelman expects that the public will continue to find ways to work on their own and with their networks to “flip the pyramid of power” as it currently stands.
People trust – and expect – brands to create change
One way that people are expressing their desire for change is through their purchasing power. The 2019 Barometer found that more than three-quarters of people expect brands and their CEOs to take the lead on social and political issues, rather than waiting for government to impose change. In this age of “brand democracy,” people feel more empowered to change the world with their wallets than through their votes. As such, belief-driven buyers will use their purchasing power to illustrate their values by buying from brands that are aligned to their social and political priorities and boycotting those that aren’t.
A rise in people placing their trust in brands and their leaders signals both an opportunity and increased pressure for transparency. It’s no longer enough for business leaders to merely claim that they stand behind, or against, a certain issue. Today, consumers expect that the brands they trust will leverage their power to create change because, as Richard Edelman explained, “brands speak up for us every day” with their immense influence and reach.
To come full circle, this trend ties back to the previous two learnings – people trust that which they have control over, and by making strategic purchases that demonstrate one’s values, we feel a sense of participation in creating the change that’s so clearly and urgently desired.
While, ultimately, there’s no clear recipe for building trust in an age of divisiveness and mistrust, we know it’s an important ingredient in purpose-driven work. While trust has been on a steady decline over the past two decades and people feel abandoned by our societal intuitions, this year’s findings remind us that the general public is resilient. People will not quietly allow “the system” to work against them. Instead, the public continues to use the resources within its reach to remind brands, organizations and leaders that they must consistently act with integrity, purpose and transparency to move our country forward.