Edelman has accelerated its cadence of trust studies in the past year because our clients need data to guide their decisions. We have studied the effect of the pandemic, the expectations of brands in a political time, the willingness to return to the workplace, the report card on institutions on systemic racism, and vaccine hesitancy. Our intellectual property is guiding our work, but just as importantly, is provoking business to step forward in discussions about the future of our society.
The trust ecosystem is deeply unsettled. A year ago, Government was the most trusted institution for the first time. Then with the slow rollout of the Covid vaccine, the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests, the electoral upheaval in the U.S. and global economic slowdown, Business replaced Government as most trusted, the only institution seen both as competent and ethical. Fears metastasized, from worries about personal health to job loss to an infodemic. Trust moved local, as ‘My Employer’ became the preferred source of information, as expectations of employees rose in ‘My Employer CEO’ who was to speak out as never before on issues from DE&I to safe return to workplace.
In this context, we have set up the Edelman Trust Institute. The four academics and one media executive will provide a new level of rigor and purpose for our work. We also hope to influence students at the top global business schools (Harvard, Insead, Wharton, Tsinghua) as they train for their careers.
The Institute will be managed by Russell Dubner, global vice chairman of Edelman and chair of the Trust Institute, and Justin Blake, executive director of the Trust Institute, both of whom have worked with me on Trust for the past two decades.
Here are some of the topics that will be considered in the coming months:
- The Role of the CEO—It is clear that employees want a more activist leader. What are the safe areas for CEOs, sustainability, DE&I, retraining, wage levels, supply chain/human rights? When should they address employees and broader community on events such as Charlottesville? What is the responsibility in headquarter markets on education, transportation, health? What areas are off-limits? When to go into political arena…voting rights? Where does the board fit into this mix and on decision making?
- Prioritizing Stakeholders—Overlap of Brand and Reputation. Is there any distinction given the intrusion of public issues into the private sphere? How to work across the stakeholder universe? Which to prioritize, from consumer to employee to regulator to investor? What are organizational implications, particularly between CCO, CHRO and CMO?
- The Infodemic—How to get quality information to the end user with distortion in social media, a growing polarization of readers/viewers into thought bubbles, a shrinking local media based on economics.
- The Mass-Class Divide—We did a special report over the weekend for our Australian colleagues, that showed a 28-point gap between the informed public and mass population, the worst ever in a developed market. It confirms the findings of earlier in the month from the U.S., UK, Saudi Arabia and France, now all experiencing 20 point gaps or higher. How to get to a more just society? Is it job training? Is it taxation? Is it better access to healthcare?
- The Fading NGO—Civil society was always the most trusted institution in the world. Now at a time of crisis in health and a rising concern about environment, the voice of NGOs is drowned out. How to get to a better public position? Cooperate with business and government? Be more aggressive advocates as in the 90s?
- Government—Why is state and local government seen as more capable and responsive? What to do with politics that seems to be centrifugal and extreme? How to work with business on issues from trade to data security to privacy to voting rights? How to communicate, is it the Trump go-direct play?
- The Gender Divide and Racial Injustice—Women are more skeptical of business than men. Is this a result of looming layoffs in retail and financial services? Is it lack of childcare and other social benefits? Is it lack of representation in top management and boards? Fortune reported that out of $50B pledged by American companies to Black communities, only $250M has been spent. How are brands and corporations holding themselves accountable?
- Fears— Job prospects, downward mobility, immigration and trade are top concerns. What can be done? What must be communicated for people to see a brighter path?
- Brand Nationalism—What are the characteristics of a trusted national brand? Why are Canada, Germany and Switzerland at the top? Is it treatment of workers, sustainability, governance? What can low-rated brands such as China do to improve?
- Power of Employee—Employees are now the most important stakeholder according to our mid-year update. How does a company weigh employee pressure on specific issues? How often to communicate? How much leeway to give to employees to speak out publicly?
We’ll also look at how decision-making in the C-suite is changing to reflect the power of trust. It’s clear that trust is a driver of success—the element that binds business stakeholders together—and needs to be treated as a high-value intangible asset.
Trust is my legacy to the PR industry. I am deeply gratified by our work over the past 21 years. I look forward to writing a book for the 25th anniversary of the Trust Barometer in 2025. I am stimulated by the prospect of conversations with our clients and outside experts during the summer. The work has never been more important for all of us.
Richard Edelman is CEO.