These last few weeks we have all lived the consequences of low trust in government and media. We have observed that large groups of people have ignored critical health guidance, in part because they doubted the veracity of available information or because they relied on disinformation. At the same time, a number of businesses have stepped into the void with responsible actions and information from credible sources, including scientists and public health authorities, knowing that their employees expect frequent updates and agile changes to workplace policies.

To help our clients communicate at this critical moment, we conducted a 10-country study March 6-10 in Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S. It confirms the role business must play as a source of reliable and timely information. Here are the key findings from the study:

  1. The Most Credible Source Is Employer Communications — We knew that government and media had trust challenges going into the crisis. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that “my employer” was the most trusted institution by 18 points over business in general and NGOs, by 27 points over government and media. That explains our finding that employer communications is the most credible source of information about the coronavirus. Sixty-three percent said that they would believe information from that channel after one or two exposures, versus 58 percent for a government website and 51 percent for traditional media. Over one-third of people said they would never believe social media if it were the only place they had seen the information.
  2. The Most Relied-on Source of Information Is Mainstream News Organizations — The major news outlets are relied upon nearly twice as much as global health organizations (WHO) or national health organizations (CDC). Friends and family and social media lag badly, with the exception of developing markets such as South Africa. Young people rely evenly on social media (54 percent) and mainstream media (56 percent) while older people 55+ rate mainstream media as nearly three times more reliable than social. There is definite concern about fake news and false information being spread about the virus (74 percent).
  3. The Most Trusted Spokespeople — Scientists and MDs are the most trusted, along with WHO and CDC officials (scores range from 68 percent – 83 percent). There is also a reliance on “a person like yourself” (63 percent). Government officials and journalists are at the bottom of the rank, at under 50 percent trust. The CEO of “my employer” is at 54 percent, squarely in the middle of the ranking. Eighty-five percent of respondents said that they want to hear more from scientists and less from politicians. Nearly 60 percent of respondents worry that the crisis is being exaggerated for political gain.
  4. The Need for Frequency — Seven in 10 respondents are following coronavirus news in media at least once a day, with 33 percent saying they are checking several times a day. Frequency rises substantially in markets such as Italy, South Korea and Japan, which have had major outbreaks. Employers are expected to update information regularly on COVID-19, with 63 percent asking for daily updates, 20 percent wanting communications several times a day. And health authorities are asked to regularly provide information on prevention of spread of the virus (78 percent) and where tests are available (70 percent).
  5. My Employer Better Prepared Than My Country — In eight of 10 countries surveyed, “my employer” is seen as better prepared for the virus than my country. This finding is confirmed by the high trust in “my employer” to respond effectively and responsibly (62 percent) to the virus.
  6. Government and Business Expected to Team Up — Neither business nor government is trusted to go it alone. There is twice as much trust in a combined business/government effort than in government combatting the virus alone (45 percent versus 20 percent). Business alone is one-quarter as trusted as government alone in fighting the virus.
  7. High Expectations of Business to Act — Seventy-eight percent of respondents expect business to act to protect employees and the local community. Seventy-nine percent expect business to adapt its operations, including remote working, cancelling non-essential events and business travel bans. Business is counted upon (73 percent) to adapt its HR policies, to give paid sick leave or prevent at-risk employees from coming to work, among other things.
  8. Employers Must Share Information — Employees want clarity on everything from how many colleagues have contracted the virus (57 percent) to how the virus is affecting the organization’s ability to operate (53 percent). Employees want to be informed beyond the effect on the company, including advice on travel and what can be done to stop the spread of the virus. They want to get the information via email or newsletter (48 percent), posts on the company website (33 percent) and phone/video conferences (23 percent).

This is a considerable new responsibility for the corporate sector. I have been impressed by the speed to action by companies in affected areas, in many cases ahead of government requests or public expectation. One can argue that the National Basketball Association’s decision to suspend play for at least 30 days gave air cover to all other z, cultural institutions and conference organizers to take the necessary steps to postpone or cancel public events.

Given the present state of low trust, business will have to fill a further void, that of credible information. It is urgent that we enable fact-based decisions and allow our employees to feel part of a broad societal movement to fight this plague. For CCOs, it is time for you to initiate regular briefings for employees by your chief scientist or medical officer, to provide trustworthy content that can be shared with employee families or community, to reach out to government to cooperate in work-at-home initiatives and to ensure that the company’s social channels are contributing to knowledge and not panic.

Richard Edelman is CEO.

Edelman is supporting businesses and organizations looking to better understand the COVID-19 pandemic and its public health implications; manage communications with employees and customers; and receive guidance on strategies and policies for effective preparedness and response efforts.

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