The great trust reckoning: Do we trust anyone or anything anymore?

 In Columns

By Brian Leadbetter

In an era now dominated by alternative facts and post-truth (how is that a thing?), I can’t help but feel that I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole to be fully immersed in Jerry Seinfeld’s Bizarro world – up is down, down is up, Monk’s is Reggie’s, and what used to be false is now somehow true. Say it ain’t so.

Of all the current crises we’re facing as humanity – pandemics, climate change, racial and economic inequality – let’s add a crisis of truth into the mix. Unfortunately, we have no one to blame but ourselves for this latest crisis. I guess we have ourselves to blame for the others, too.

The numbers don’t lie

I’ve mentioned in previous columns that trust in many of our leading civic institutions (government, media and to a lesser extent business) has taken a pretty substantial fall off a cliff over the past year. How do we know this? Well, the team at Edelman conduct an incredibly comprehensive international sampling survey including 33,000+ people in 28 countries. You can find the 2021 iteration here.

We know from the Edelman data that while many governments globally saw a trust bubble emerge with increasing approval in their immediate handling of COVID-19 (Jan-May 2020), we’ve also seen these global trust bubbles burst in an epic fashion from May, 2020 to January, 2021. On average, governments saw an 8% decline in trust, with Canada dipping by 11% and the US slipping by 6%. In contrast, from January to May 2020, Canada saw some of the largest gains with a +20% bump, and the US lagging with a +9% increase.

In terms of who we trust among business, NGOs, government and media – business is now seen as the only institution viewed as both competent and ethical. Channelling my best Will Ferrell, “Say what?” Again, the numbers don’t lie. Business was more trusted than government in 18 of 27 countries.

This past year might be an outlier. Hopefully so. As the pandemic has significantly ratcheted up personal and societal fears around job loss, impacts of climate change, contracting COVID-19, and losing personal freedoms as a citizen. The pandemic was an accelerant adding fuel to these fears, perhaps bursting the trust bubble that so many governments had carefully crafted.

So, what’s next?

If the past year (and the Edelman trust barometer) has shown us anything, it’s how quickly trust can be broken or simply fade away, and how long it takes to earn that trust back. What we’re seeing is a crisis of leadership – that societal leaders (including politicians, religious leaders, journalists, and CEOS) en masse simply are not trusted by a majority. That’s a big problem when considering so much of local, national, and international pandemic response, including communications around vaccination strategies, is facilitated by these societal leaders.

But don’t fear. There is an upside. In the question of do we trust anyone anymore? The answer is yes. We trust local – we trust people in our community, our local employers, and our local scientists/public health professionals. We’ve all heard of buy local, this is listen local.

With such a glaring trust deficit, void, nay chasm faced by societal leaders my advice is to recalibrate pandemic response by going local – from vaccine rollout, to public health directives and guidance, the more local we go the greater we trust the information that we hear.

 A loss in trust is a loss in reputation. Why should you care?

 That optimism shared in going local, was short-lived I’m afraid. Aside from our societal leaders not being trusted to do what’s right, and even worse – being suspected of lies and misinformation – we (including you) have an even bigger problem.

Trust in all information sources is at record lows, and it’s down year over year from 2020 to 2021. From search engines (down 6%), to traditional media (down 8%), owned media (down 5%) and social media (down 5%), we simply do not trust our sources of general news and information. We simply do not trust any source of information as we have in the past. This should be scaring you.

 Why is this a problem? Quite simply, if you are not trusted, your reputation – the sum of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you – will take a hit. It’s plain and simple. So, what do you do to increase your trust score and to avoid further free fall? Start with honest and transparent communication. Admit when you make mistakes and commit to do better. People don’t expect perfect, but they do expect honesty and transparency.

The Edelman approach to emerging from information bankruptcy, and the corresponding trust free fall, is consistent with communications best-practices that I recount regularly. My advice is to record them to memory:

  1. Lead with facts and empathy – societal leaders must have the courage to speak the truth, but also empathize and relate to the real struggles people are facing.
  2. Provide trustworthy content – It is an absolute must to provide truthful, unbiased and accurate information through your content channels.
  3. Do it together – No one does anything alone. Addressing the biggest issues of our day will take collective action. Alone, government, media, NGOs are not trusted currently. Perhaps, with greater collaboration that will change.

With this you will succeed, most of the time, guaranteed.


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