Global Trust Barometer Updated, Still Hard to Know Who to Trust

3 min read
May 6, 2020
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The Edelman Trust Barometer received a spring update. The new survey data reveal interesting trends related to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Edelman, a global public relations firm, drew one main conclusion from the latest report: trust is at an all-time high. The gains in trust were not equal, however. Governments made the biggest gains while businesses saw a more modest rise in trust.

The rise brings trust in government to the highest point in the 20-year history of the study. Trust reached news highs for all four institutional categories, which also include media, non-governmental organizations, and business. 

Part of the gains, especially for government, could be due to the “rally ’round the flag” effect. The effect refers to the boost political leaders often get in times of crisis caused by external factors. For example, most leaders in Europe and North America saw gains in popularity at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These gains are often fragile, however. The Edelman report notes that previous large gains in trust usually preceded large falls in trust soon after.

The Edelman Trust Barometer also shows just how hard survey data are to interpret. While some trends are probably real, other conclusions seem harder to justify. 

For example, Edelman’s trust index for government went from 54 to 65. It went from 58 to 62 for business. Edelman analysts translate this as “a moment of reckoning for business.” Yet this small shift, at an unusual time in history, hardly seems to justify such a dramatic interpretation.

It’s also interesting to look at trust levels in different countries. Based solely on the January survey, you would conclude that the Chinese trust everybody (trust index of 82) and the Russians nobody (trust index of 30). The UK and Canada are superficially similar countries, but Canada has a trust index of 53, coming in 11 points higher than that of the UK. It’s hard not to wonder if respondents interpret these questions in wildly varying ways in different countries and regions.

Edelman’s main takeaway for business leaders is similarly suspect. “[Businesses] must now deliver on the promise of stakeholder capitalism,” note the authors. 

Stakeholder capitalism is the idea that businesses should focus on addressing the needs of all stakeholders in society. In this interpretation, stakeholders are a wider group than just shareholders, which large businesses are accused of trying too hard to please. Critics of stakeholder capitalism would note that the relative drop in trust towards businesses could come from another source – unfulfilled promises. Well-meaning CEOs could be making promises to cure society’s ills, promises that their for-profit corporations aren’t in a position to keep. The point is not to support either conclusion, but to say that choosing a specific interpretation is difficult based only on this survey data.

Regardless of Edelman’s questionable interpretations, the report is food for thought for leaders in any organization. Just don’t be too quick to trust appearances.