Largest Ever Gap Now Exists Between Informed and Mass Populations

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals the largest ever trust gap (12 points) between the informed public and mass population, driven by income inequality and divergent expectations of the future. While trust levels among informed publics are the highest ever in 16 years, trust is below 50 percent for the mass population in over sixty percent of the countries surveyed, having barely moved since the Great Recession. The trust disparity has widened and is now at double digit levels in more than half of the countries surveyed. The U.S. presents the largest divide at nearly 20 points followed by the UK (17 points), France (16 points) and India (16 points).

“We are now observing the inequality of trust around the world,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “This brings a number of potential consequences including the rise of populist politicians, the blocking of innovation and the onset of protectionism and nativism.”

The widening gulf is directly linked to income inequality. A double-digit trust gap between high-income and low-income respondents is present in nearly two-thirds of the countries, with the U.S. (31 points), France (29 points) and Brazil (26 points) exhibiting the largest disparities. There are also diminished future expectations among the mass population. In more than two-thirds of the nations surveyed, less than half of the respondents believe they will be better off in five years’ time.

The Barometer reveals that respondents are increasingly reliant on a “person like yourself”, who, along with a regular employee, are significantly more trusted than a CEO or government official. On social networking and content-sharing sites, respondents are far more trusting of family and friends (78 percent) than a CEO (49 percent).

“We must get beyond ‘The Grand Illusion’ that the mass will continue to follow the elites,” said Edelman. “This ‘Illusion’ was predicated on the belief that the informed publics have access to superior information, their interests are interconnected and that becoming ‘an elite’ was open to all who work hard. But the democratization of information, high-profile revelations of greed and misbehavior, coupled with rising income inequality, have squashed those beliefs. The trust of the mass population can no longer be taken for granted.”

Despite the general population’s skepticism of business, it has the best opportunity to bridge the trust chasm. Overall, respondents view business (61 percent) as the institution most trusted to keep pace with rapid change, far more than they do government (41 percent) and NGOs (55 percent). Business is also significantly more trusted than government in 21 of 28 countries, with large gaps in countries such as South Africa (44 points), Mexico (44 points) and the U.S. (12 points). And a decisive 80 percent believe business can both increase its profits while improving the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.

Globally, business also received the largest uptick in trust (5 points to 53 percent) among the four institutions, while continuing to close the gap on NGOs (55 percent) as most trusted. This was aided by the continued recovery of the financial services sector (51 percent), which has seen an eight-point increase over the last five years, larger than any other sector. And for the sixteenth consecutive year, technology (74 percent) remains the most trusted industry.

The public is also responding positively to CEOs trying to realize the dual mandate of profit and societal benefit, as CEO trust has risen substantially in the past five years to 48 percent. But they will need the help of their employees, whose trust levels (52 percent) are on the rise. Respondents are more likely to trust an employee compared to a CEO for information on treatment of employees (48 percent versus 19 percent) and information on business practices and crises (30 percent versus 27 percent).

“Business can be a big part of the solution because it is apolitical, fast, and tracks its progress,” said Kathryn Beiser, global practice chair of Edelman’s Corporate practice. “Now is the time to lead from the front with the support of their employees and passionate customers. No longer can business leaders focus on short-term goals. The new model CEOs are taking action by addressing the issues of our time, and taking a personal interest in the success of society. Stakeholders expect business to have a solid and steady focus on financial returns, but also on actions around key issues such as education, healthcare and the environment.”

Other key findings from the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer include:
  • Respondents want to see a shift in CEO focus from short-term results and lobbying to job creation (49 percent) and positive long-term impact (57 percent). They want business leaders more visible in discussions of income inequality and public policy (80 percent).
  • Despite an increase of one point to 42 percent globally, government remains the least trusted institution for the fifth year running.
  • Trust in NGOs went up in 81 percent of the countries surveyed with the most dramatic jumps occurring in China (17 points) and Mexico (11 points).
  • Among the informed public, media made an impressive turnaround as trust increased in 20 of the 28 countries surveyed. The biggest gains were in the U.S. (16 points), Canada (14 points), UK (14 points) and Hong Kong (12 points).
  • Globally, family-owned companies (66 percent) remain most trusted, trailed by public (52 percent) and state-owned (46 percent) businesses.
  • Companies headquartered in developed markets are still more trusted than those based in developing markets. Canada, Sweden and Switzerland, all 66 percent, are most trusted, followed by Germany (64 percent).
  • For the fifth consecutive year, search engines (63 percent) and traditional media (58 percent) remain the two most trusted sources for general news and information. Online media jumped 8 points to 53 percent and is now the third most trusted source, followed by owned media, which is up 3 points to 46 percent and social media (44 percent).

About Edelman

Edelman is a leading global communications marketing firm that partners with many of the world’s largest and emerging businesses and organizations, helping them evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations. Edelman was named one of Advertising Age’s “Agency to Watch” in 2014; one of Forbes’ “14 Most Influential Agencies of 2014”; and The Holmes Report’s “2013 Global Agency of the Year.” Edelman was awarded the Grand Prix Cannes Lion for PR in 2014 and was among Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” for the third time in 2014. Edelman owns specialty firms Edelman Berland (research) and United Entertainment Group (entertainment, sports, experiential), a joint venture with United Talent Agency.

About the Edelman Trust Barometer 

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer is the firm’s 16th annual trust and credibility survey. The survey was powered by research firm Edelman Berland and consisted of 20-minute online interviews conducted on October 13th – November 16th, 2015. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer surveyed more than 33,000 respondents consisting of 1,150 general population respondents ages 18 and over and 500 informed public respondents in the U.S. and China and 200 informed public respondents in all other countries representing 15 percent of the total population across 28 countries. All informed publics met the following criteria: ages 25-64, college-educated; household income in the top 25 percent for their age in their country; report significant media consumption and engagement in business news and public policy. 

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Michael Bush