Julian Payne, Chair of Corporate Affairs for Edelman EMEA, highlights new research into trust across 28 countries which reveals that, in the game of reputational Snakes & Ladders, it is the institutions of government and the media that are on the slide.

In a world of polarised views and deepening mistrust, driven in part by a pandemic from which the world is beginning to recover, it is no surprise that the results of the Edelman Trust Barometer show these institutions are coming under attack.

Government and media are the two institutions that society relies on for fact and truth. However, a move to sensationalism and division to gain clicks and political gain has damaged people’s faith and added fuel to the cycle of distrust. Globally almost one in two view government and media as divisive forces in society, and two-thirds think that political leaders and journalists knowingly mislead the public.

The divisive tone within public discourse today has resulted in 64% of respondents saying that their societies have lost the ability to calmly debate and discuss issues about which they disagree. Not only are people worried about the perceived divisive nature of public debate, they also have significant concerns around misinformation. Over three-quarters of people surveyed (76%) said they were worried about the weaponization of fake news, which now sits at an all-time high.

Addressing falling levels of trust

Out of this hurricane of confusion and doubt, there is one institution that the public is looking to as a beacon of trust and of hope. That is the world of business. There has long been an expectation for business to lead, but that expectation has never been higher. In the absence of other institutions setting a clear path, business must do more to address societal issues.

This is not just a hypothesis – the data backs this up very clearly. We spoke to over 36,000 people in 28 countries in a global survey we have carried out for the last 22 years. This year showed that business is the most trusted institution, with 61% saying they trust them to do the right thing. In fact, of the four main institutions we asked about – business, NGOs, government, and media – business is the only one to hit the 60% watermark to be considered trusted.

When customers decide to engage with a business, the Trust Barometer tells us their reasons for doing so are more than purely transactional. They are also driven by what that company stands for. So, it follows that the more businesses do to address the concerns of their customers in the broadest possible context, the deeper their relationships will become. This then becomes a virtuous circle granting them ever more permission to make changes in the world around them that their customers increasingly expect. In effect the champion becomes the championed.

Leading from the front

Becoming a societal leader as a business makes good business sense. It shouldn’t be seen as walking a tightrope between purposeful communication and profits. The former should feed the latter. People want more, not less, communication on societal issues from businesses. They want to hear businesses actually engage on initiatives relating to climate change, economic inequality, and workforce reskilling. Why? Because it addresses the fears they have about their own environments, and it gives certainty in an uncertain world. Additionally, it helps paint a picture of the company they’re planning to interact with. These things matter to them.

This year’s study shows that 58% of people buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs. Furthermore, 60% of employees also choose their place of work based on these values. But this isn’t just about the public, a 2021 special edition of the Trust Barometer for institutional investors found that 88% of institutional investors now subject ESG to the same scrutiny as operational and financial considerations.

This trend shows no sign of slowing. While other institutions scramble to stem their reputational slide, business finds itself in top rung position where it can pick up this mandate of trust and build on it further. Successful business creating successful societies and not a Snake in sight.