There has been a remarkable change in the trust landscape since the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 launched in January. In our special report covering eleven of the world’s largest economies, we have discovered that trust in government has surged, making government the most trusted institution for the first time in our 20 years of study. At 65 percent trust (up 11 points in five months), the public is asking the government to protect them in a manner not seen since World War II.

In fact, trust has risen in all four institutions (business, government, media, and NGOs) to record levels, as citizens look desperately for answers. If those solutions are not delivered, history may judge this moment to have been an unprecedented trust bubble.

This is a stunning reversal of fortune for government, which has languished as a distrusted institution since the budget impasse over Greek debt in the EU in 2011 and subsequent scandals in several developing markets. It is a far more pronounced declaration of faith in the public sector than after 9/11 or the Great Recession of 2008. This time, the public seems to understand that the performance of government, at all levels, can be the difference between life and death.

The level of reliance on government is such that people are willing to surrender traditional freedoms—at least for now. The public accepts government lockdown orders by 3-to-1, and 61 percent will forego privacy rights to beat back Covid-19. Government is by far the institution most expected to lead to provide economic relief (86 percent), to reopen the country (79 percent), to contain Covid-19 (73 percent) and to inform the public (72 percent).

With the public placing its trust in government as the leader of positive change, where does that leave business? A superficial review would confirm growing trust in business, up four points to 62 percent. But there are several areas of deep concern, particularly falling trust in CEOs, who rank last among leaders in how well they have performed during Covid-19. Only 44 percent believe that companies are protecting their employees sufficiently from Covid-19. Under half (45 percent) think that business is doing a good job developing solutions to the pandemic and only 50 percent believe it is putting people before profits. Business is being questioned about both its ability and its integrity, the key building blocks of trust.

Business has been drafting for the past three months of this bike race as government has led the first leg. Now it’s time for business to sprint to the front of the pack as the focus shifts to reopening the economy. Saving lives is the order of the day. Respondents want to prioritize health and safety by 2-to-1, and 75 percent say CEOs should be cautious in restarting operations. Business would do well to follow the example of Starbucks’ approach to re-opening most of its stores throughout May, protecting workers and customers alike by innovating with a variety of store formats and making decisions on a community-by-community basis.

It’s essential that business partner effectively with government to find solutions. A good example is the fast-tracking by several governments of the Gilead antiviral drug Remdesivir, just approved by the FDA for emergency use in Covid-19 patients, with Gilead committing to give away the first 1.5 million doses. Business should offer its expertise to government in logistics, AI and operations to speed the flow of food from the fields to the retail shelf or to solve mass transit crowding. Public and private sectors should be like two people on a seesaw, with each balancing the other.

It is urgent for CEOs to demonstrate public leadership to chart a future that changes the terms of social engagement and delivers a more just society. There’s a responsibility for CEOs to inform their employees, and through them, their communities because “my employer” is the most trusted institution to do what is right and is seen as a reliable and accurate source of information. Smart CEOs share the stage with scientists and experts, who have superior expertise and credibility.

This is the moment of reckoning for business because the promise of stakeholder capitalism is being put to the test. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, automation is inevitable, but we must upskill and retrain workers for jobs of the future. We must have supply chains that are sustainable and inclusive of small business. We need to mitigate the pain of increased inequality and unemployment by offering products and services at prices people can afford. For the last 40 years, we have placed our faith in free market capitalism. If business doesn’t demonstrate both competence and empathy in the coming months, it could open the door to more permanent government involvement in the economy. The next two years will tell which chapter will be written, and business won’t get a second chance.

Richard Edelman is the CEO of Edelman.


About The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update:
Trust and the Covid-19 Pandemic

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the Covid-19 Pandemic is an update to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. The survey was conducted by Edelman Intelligence between April 15 and April 23, and sampled more than 13,200 respondents in 11 markets: Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, S. Korea, U.K. and U.S. 1,200 people were surveyed in each market, 100 of which were informed public. All informed public respondents met the following criteria: aged 25-64, college-educated; household income in the top quartile for their age in their country; read or watch business/news media at least several times a week; follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week.

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