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What Do Communicators Need to Know About Trust in 2021? Findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer

If it were another word “trust” might be considered a buzzword by now, but this is a word that is the very essence upon which the fabric of society is built upon. 

There are some aspects of it that we take for granted, put into question, or underestimate. And never has the word been put into question, or tested, as much as it was in 2020 and continuing into this year. 

Every year the Edelman Trust Barometer gives us a close up of the world’s current thoughts on trust, and the possible consequences of that interpretation. Back in January, I was fortunate to attend a forum hosted by Eric Schwartzman, with Edelman’s Tania Ries presenting the results of this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. Sadly, the outcome was quite sobering. 

Given everything that took place in 2020 from politics to social justice, and of course the world’s health in the face of COVID, it’s no surprise that there are no trusted sources right now — with shocking declines from last year. This includes CEOs, Boards, journalists, pundits, etc. There’s an overall feeling that societal leadership lies. 

Key takeaways from the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021

  • People with good information habits — meaning that they are accessing multiple sources and opinions — are more likely to get COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Post-election there’s a 40-point delta in trusting the media overall, Trump vs Biden voters
    • 13% decline in trust among Trump voters
    • 5% decline in trust among Biden voters
  • Only societal leaders trusted right now? Employer CEO’s (as in my CEO vs other CEO’s). Employees believe:
    • CEOs should be taking a stand on societal issues
    • “My employer has been a bedrock in stability” resonates with individual employees
    • Communications from employer/CEO are the most believable right now
    • CEOs/company leadership have an obligation to reach the broader community they serve
      • Employees
      • Family
      • Customers
      • Partners
      • The surrounding community, aka neighborhood, town, city…
  • Business is playing a huge role in the infodemic
    • Barely out of distrust but in better position than everyone else, per above
    • 57% believe government and business purposely trying to mislead people
    • Technology will have to be part of the solution
      • e.g. Trump ban by big tech is very controversial
      • Would have resonated better as a broader conversation with different perspectives coming together on policy
    • Business is in a position where it must lead, but not on its own
  • China vs. USA on trust
    • Report looks ahead so China considered a developing market of trust
    • China has historically been at top, but this year declined by 72% — but still at top behind India
    • USA is third from the bottom above Japan (been at bottom 10 years since Fukushima), and Russia
  • We need to stop politicizing information
    • There needs to be a commitment to facts and the truth – this will help work towards restoring trust
    • News media have a business model problem – clicks for $$$
      • Need to find a business model that doesn’t polarize or bias media

What does it all mean?

Think about the fact that these are the results during the age of COVID, and a year post Business Roundtable’s statement committing to all stakeholders, rather than shareholders. If you were to ask 10 well informed individuals off the street, they would likely ponder whether it has made a difference. Particularly hard to say in the era of pandemic with furloughs, layoffs and overall economic uncertainty. But what is clear is that we are looking to our corporate leaders for guidance and leadership, now more than ever. 

For me, For me, the most interesting feedback is in regards to the media. These results seem to echo the public’s general loss of confidence in mainstream media. The thought that it needs to find a new business model most certainly begs the question, “is that possible? Somewhere in time — I like to think it was the 80s — the business of media started to become a true business. Losses started to count. Success is addicting, and the fallout? Well, all you need to do is look at the divisiveness between liberal and conservative media, coupled with the blatant pandering to each audience. 

Many of us have said it throughout the year — clamoring for the ultimate change that will stick – the media needs to take a hard look at itself and go back to its impartial and objective roots. May this be the year we see true change.

Alicia V. Nieva-Woodgate is the Vice President of Corporate Communications at USA Technologies Inc. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for PRSA Silicon Valley and is the Programs Chair for PRSA Colorado.