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Canada Is at a Trust Tipping Point: Three Key Actions for Business

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A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn.

The world stood still yesterday as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump had their first official visit. The two politicians are recognized around the world for different reasons. Prime Minister Trudeau is a self-proclaimed feminist that champions immigration, but has come under scrutiny more recently for failing to push ahead with several campaign promises. Trump, on the other hand, secured his place in the Oval Office largely by rallying working class Americans who reject the establishment and fear their future in a globalized world.

So much attention this past year has been placed on the populist upheaval in the U.S. and other countries. While Canadians like to think we are immune to the global lack of trust in institutions, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that Canada is at a trust tipping point.

For the first time since Edelman started tracking the general population, Canada finds itself among countries who distrust their institutions. Trust in business, media and government is in trouble.

This is in sharp contrast to last year, where the Trust Barometer results saw Canadians riding the wave of the ‘Trudeau Effect’: trust in institutions, fueled by the 2015 federal election, was at the highest level in five years.

So, what accounts for this sinking institutional trust in Canada, and what will it take to recover?

The study confirmed there is a growing gap between the Canadian informed public (educated, upper-quartile income earners) and the mass population in terms of institutional trust. The 15-point gap in Canada is nearly twice what it was last year, and is the biggest recorded gap noted between these two groups, approaching gaps seen in countries like the U.S., UK and France.

Trust in all traditional spokespeople – from academic experts to financial industry analysts to CEOs – is down. In fact, we are twice as likely to trust a person like ourselves as we are a board director, government official or CEO.

This is likely because 80 percent of Canadians think that elites who run institutions are out of touch with regular people. We are more likely to trust individuals (70 percent) than institutions (30 percent), and we are more than 3.5 times as likely to trust ‘leaked’ information over official company press statements.

When it comes to who’s to blame for the problems Canada faces today, the government came out overwhelmingly on top. Sixty-three percent of people blame the government for our problems (31 percent for both business and media, notably), while 66 percent hold government responsible for fixing them.

While our attention turned to political leaders this week, who clearly face the burden from people to take action, it’s critical to remember that Canadian businesses can no longer stand on the sidelines.

Here are three ways that businesses can fill the trust gap in Canada:

  • Don’t be complacent: Find ways to effect positive societal change – be it environmental sustainability, reducing poverty, supporting infrastructure or championing human rights – and talk about doing so publicly. This also means engaging with employees and empowering them to advocate for the company and champion the brand.
  • Speak with, not at: Get comfortable with the new norm. It is no longer a world of command and control, but a world where influence is shaped by the people. Businesses must act transparently, ensuring that all messages are delivered by the right source, through the right platform, and invite dialogue.
  • Tell audience-centric stories: Canadians prefer authentic information that comes from real people – especially employees. Information that comes from these sources will be more credible than information found in a corporate statement. Putting audiences – versus self-interest – at the centre is crucial.

The irony is not lost on me that, given the low level of trust in CEOs, you may question all that I’m saying. But as business leaders we must seize on this opportunity to build trust with Canadians again and fill the void left by the other institutions. For me, this means standing behind our values, taking meaningful actions to influence economic and social outcomes, leveraging the power of employees as advocates, and actively involving our customers and other stakeholders in meaningful dialogue. What are ways that you are looking to effect change?

Lisa Kimmel is president & CEO, Edelman Canada.

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