As a nation, Australia prides itself on a healthy skepticism of authority, a dynamic that reflects tumultuous political play in recent years, with five different leaders so far this decade.
However, despite this, the disconnect between our own informed publics and the general population is stark and growing. Current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a classic example of the success and trappings of this elite – a multi-millionaire who has risen to the most powerful seat in the country. The year 2016 has been marked in Australia by accusations that politicians are misusing taxpayer funds and a litany of corporate greed cases. The responses are widely seen as mishandled by slow government response, bureaucratic commissions or inquiries with few meaningful resolutions for the voting public.
The system is broken
Set against the backdrop of recent international populist results, including Brexit and Trump, the overwhelming global sense that the system is failing is reflected in the Australian Trust findings.
When looking at the results for the general population, trust in government dropped eight points to 37 percent from 45 percent in 2016, 10 points in the case of media (from 42 percent to 32 percent), five points to 52 percent for NGOs and four points to 48 percent for business in general.
Trust levels in Australia have also dropped among the informed public (top 25 percent income, university-educated, actively engaged with news) and the rest of the population—a group we call the mass population—but a significant gap also remains between the two. Although the informed public is more trusting than the rest of the population, they are becoming increasingly less trusting themselves.
Australia’s results, however, are far from anomalous. The level of trust among the general population globally in four key institutions – NGOs, business, media and government – is at the lowest recorded level since we started collecting general population data in 2012. The disconnect between the actions and decisions of these institutions and those affected by them is widening. Not only has trust dropped, but those surveyed have expressed a desire for greater scrutiny, regulation and taxation of business.
Fear feeds populism
Results show that of the five fears driving the embrace of populism—corruption , eroding social values, globalization, immigration and concern over the pace of change—Australians have identified eroding social values, immigration and globalization as key drivers for their lack of trust.
It’s no surprise that these fears have been embraced as key platforms by the conservative party One Nation. The party, led by Senator Pauline Hanson, is becoming an increasingly visible and popular force for the disenfranchised and discontented, attracted by the party’s commitment to anti-globalization, anti-immigration and protectionist policies.
There is a direct correlation between fear and the belief that the system is broken. Businesses are also to blame for stoking these societal fears, simply because they appear oblivious to the context. Automation may mean innovation to business, but to the public, it can translate to job losses and communities in decline, which exacerbates the disconnect.
News imitates fact; our echo chambers are alive and well
But a real standout this year was Australians’ loss of trust in media. Among informed publics (from a 54 percent trust level last year), media now sits at 40 percent, a whopping 14-point decline. Among the general population, trust in media at 32 percent is among the lowest levels globally, 11 points below the global average of 43 percent and a 10 point drop from 2016.
The erosion of trust in media has been accelerated by two significant changes this year. First is the ongoing consolidation of media in Australia, a landscape dominated by a few players (Australian media ownership, and print media in particular, is among the most concentrated in the world). Relaxation of cross-media ownership and ongoing staffing cuts has reduced diversity of perspective, and fact-checking is at the expense of speed to market.
The second is the universal proliferation of fake news on social media, compounded by the fact that many believe that results from search engines are more credible than information collated by editors or journalists. It seems algorithms are perceived to be more reliable than humans when it comes to delivering the truth.
Add to this the impact of self-referential and “friend-endorsed” facts on our social media channels and we find ourselves in a perfectly formed reflective bubble where we place greater value on information from influencers (people like me) than institutions (technical experts and academics).
Leadership in crisis
Australians’ trust in business leadership, including the “c-suite,” company directors and boards, is in dramatic decline. The credibility of CEOs as spokespeople dropped significantly, reaching a lowly 26 percent in 2017 (compared to 39 percent last year) in the case of the general population, and a nine-point drop to 36 percent in the case of the informed public.
So how do we lead from here?
When looking at the global results, employees are considered the most credible spokespeople on every topic – this is the first time we have seen this result. We are looking for spontaneous, “human” spokespeople and have a thirst for information from “people like me.” Business has an opportunity to embrace and empower employees to create a stronger and more authentic alignment between their brand and their corporate narrative.
Business now has a clear opportunity to rebuild trust by recognizing the need to do things differently. We must forget the neat separation of communication and executive function. We need a holistic approach that puts people at the center of engagement, not just as one more audience to reach. Rebuilding trust will be driven by how authentically and effectively all institutions engage with the general population, not just the “target audiences” they define as relevant to them.
Steven Spurr is CEO, Edelman Australia.