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An Imagined Conversation About Trust

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Lucy Kellaway, one of the finer journalists of her generation, recently announced a shift from full-time journalist at the Financial Times to become an educator. She will continue to write occasionally for the FT, but her departure creates a gap in imagined and sometimes real conversations from across the world of politics and business.  

Given that gap, I humbly submit an imagined conversation between an APAC CEO, a journalist, a NGO boss and an aspiring politician. This conversation was held on a small atoll glistening somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This august group are actively devouring the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. I was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall that day, and the conversation went something like this: 

Politician: Seems the general population have gotten it wrong again. Across 28 countries, government is distrusted in 75 percent of countries. I am going to have to tweet my disappointment at their stupidity.

Journalist: Well, at least the general population trust media more than government. It seems Breitbart, the Russian government, and those pesky Macedonian teenagers didn’t hurt the media too badly with all this “fake news” furor. Maybe the general population has worked out that listicles aren’t fake and pointless. These days that counts for proper journalism, and rightly so.

CEO: You try being me. I run a conglomerate across multiple markets. More than one in two people in the general population trust business to do the right thing. Globally, there has been a 12-point drop in credibility in CEOs, even with the self-styled CEO/Commander/Tweeter-in-Chief now running the show in the U.S. People trust my employees more than me. I don’t understand it, I hired them.

NGO Boss: But you all have a vested interest. You all want something; money, eyeballs and votes. I just want world peace, universal healthcare access, a sustainable environment and the protection of human rights. And, of course the protection of gorillas like Harambe. Yet, even with all of this only 53 percent of the general population globally trust NGOs to do the right thing. Really, what’s an NGO got to do?

With that off their chests, the group decided to for a walk across the small, yet strategic atoll.

Politician: I could spin a bottle from right here and wherever it pointed on the compass across APAC, most of my learned friends in government are facing trust drops and deficits. Other than Indonesia and India, not one APAC country surveyed saw an increase in trust amongst the general population. The informed public was more stable. But really, who cares about these elites? Trump and Duterte don’t.

Journalist: What about us? You want me to be connected, rapid, fact-checked, visual, in a snappy video form, beamed to whatever device you have in your hand, and all this for free. Yet, when I do all of this, the world calls it fake. I used to be able to resort to some nice celebrity story as filler, usually lined up by some annoying PR person linking their endorsement of a product or brand. Even that no longer works, now that the general population feels celebrities are the least credible spokespeople when forming an opinion about a company.

CEO: That data point was the highlight for me. Should save me millions in endorsements.

NGO: It’s annoying. I am going to have to text Leonardo DiCaprio and get him to stop shouting about the environment. It’s not helping, or maybe no-one is listening?

The disgruntled group continued to stroll around the atoll, stopping to admire an unidentified and unmarked drone hovering above them.

Politician: Maybe we are looking at the Trust Barometer the wrong way.

Journalist: Why?

CEO: Maybe we should rethink what it means to lose trust, and or what we must do as leaders and institutions to earn the trust of the people. Eighty-three percent of respondents lack full belief in the system. People are clearly telling us that things have to change. That we have to rethink our relationship with our role in society as institutions and as leaders.

NGO: A “person like yourself” is now as credible as an expert. There must be something in that.

Journalist: It’s true. Fifty-five percent believe individuals over institutions. If people are spending an average of one hour a day on Facebook, their lens is swayed by people like themselves.

Politician: I feel we have a chance in Asia Pacific to make things work. The three countries with the largest gap between the informed and the mass population are the U.S., UK, and France. The three countries across APAC with the lowest gap are India, China and Indonesia.  his gives me hope that it is not all broken and that maybe these models once derived against Western liberal democracies might be what we need to further examine.

Journalist: Brexit, a vicious U.S. election, and the multiple terrorist attacks across France versus relatively stable governments, policies that are laser-focused on reducing poverty, and broadly an Indonesia-, China- and India-first policy. You can see how these things begin to affect dismay in the mass population.

NGO: But if we shut our doors to the rest of the world, we risk no longer being able to solve problems together.

CEO: Maybe in the short term, Asia should double down on protectionism across a variety of policy areas in terms of trade, immigration and social values. But at the same time don’t isolate your country from the broader debate and the world.

Politician: Doesn’t that put us in the same boat as the U.S., UK and France? Decrying modern internationalist and engagement policies for the benefit of our own nations. If we ignore the international community and we revolt against progressive liberal values, are we any better?

The group finished their stroll, left with little consensus on what the world might look like in 2017 and beyond. As I returned to my desk, I was struck by just how difficult it will be to navigate the future for our institutions and its leaders. And to further that, I leave you with a quote that neatly links to a key finding in this year’s study around the fears the general population has around the future:

“It may just be an inevitable part of a trend, whereby, the main political divide of the 21st Century is no longer between socialism and capitalism, or even liberalism and conservatism, but, internationalism and localism.”—Ed West, The Spectator.

Even when it is just an imagined conversation, trust is hard, it is important, and it is something we must build and nurture. Here is hoping for a rebuild in 2017.

Iain Twine is CEO, Edelman South East Asia & Australasia.

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