You can’t argue with a virus, but how you talk about it makes a great deal of difference to how trusted you will be.

Data from the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the Covid-19 Pandemic shows a markedly different reaction from members of the public in Europe’s three biggest economies to their governments. As part of a larger survey of 11 countries around the world, which shows a sharp overall increase in trust, we asked a series of questions about how much people in Germany, France and the UK trusted their governments, businesses and other institutions in the middle of the pandemic and compared the answers to the annual global Edelman Trust Barometer presented at the beginning of 2020. 

While all three countries showed a rise in trust that mirrors the global trend, the answers indicate a wide variation in trust in their leaders. While this cannot be explained entirely by how well those countries have combatted Covid-19, it does seem to give clues as to what kind of communication – and what kind of communicator – is most likely to succeed.

Europe has been perhaps the worst hit region of the world by the pandemic. Yet the mortality rate does not fully explain the wide differences in trust levels. We looked in detail at the UK and France, where deaths from Covid-19 have been relatively high, as well as Germany, which appears to have been much more successful in limiting the number of those that have died from the virus. The responses of their people to a series of questions about trust in leadership were revealing.

Asked the broad question of how the performance of the national governments “meets your overall expectations for how they should be responding in this crisis,” half of German respondents rated their government as doing “well” or “very well;” 42 percent of Britons responded the same, but only 27 percent of the French surveyed said so. Similarly, how the government was doing in “taking the necessary actions to keep the economy from collapsing,” the score for Angela Merkel’s government was 49 percent, for Boris Johnson’s 52 percent, but for Emmanuel Macron’s administration, it was only 34 percent.

How could it be that a UK government, which has overseen a death rate considerably higher than Germany’s is achieving comparable levels of trust? And why is it outperforming France by 15 percentage points on meeting overall expectations and 18 points on protecting the economy when Britain’s death rate is significantly higher? Trust in the UK government has risen by 24 points from 36 percent in January when Edelman last measured, to 60 percent today.  Trust in German government rose by 19 points to 64 percent, but in France, it went up only by 13 points to 48 percent. Three months ago, France and the UK were at the same level in the trust doldrums, but in the grip of this pandemic, the UK has surged ahead.

How can this be when, on the face of it, Boris Johnson’s team has done a worse job at the simple task of saving lives? Both countries have launched similarly huge economic rescue packages, but the UK’s version has won the trust of more than half of its citizens while the Macron’s version barely satisfied one-third.

The key, we think, can be found in the answer to another significant question: How much do you see your government as a provider of reliable and clear information? For German respondents, the result is 54 percent, for the British 51 percent, but for France, it’s only 32 percent. In Germany, there were strong positive responses for how the two tiers of government, federal and regional, have responded to the emergency. Angela Merkel became the first German Chancellor to give a nationwide television address—where federal leaders would normally yield to regional heads. Ms. Merkel is also a scientist by training and may well have benefited from the fact that science and health experts are by some distance the most trusted sources of information. Mr. Johnson is a former journalist—a sort less trusted by far as a group – but his demagogic style worked well to convince voters in the Brexit referendum and the 2019 election that he cared about and would fight for them. He has also had the questionable advantage of having been seriously ill with the virus. That accumulation of empathy and trust may be showing up in a higher trust score for his government now despite a relatively high mortality rate among Britons.

Mr. Macron, who favors high-minded rhetoric, is by profession a financier, a branch of industry that ranks among the least trusted still despite the passage of a dozen years since the 2008 global financial crisis. His communications have been intellectually impressive, but do not seem to have convinced the public. His expertise may not be from the right side of the equation of fairness.

The gilets jaunes may no longer be seen much on the streets, but their spirit is alive and well behind closed doors. The secret of success in the face of Covid-19 is to be a trusted communicator more than just being able to test for and track the virus. If people believe what you say and trust you to deliver, you will get their support, at least for the time being. But if your messages are confusing and delivered without conviction, you can expect to be at the bottom of the European trust table.

These are important lessons for business leaders to take on board. At a moment like this, where uncertainty dominates, the formal authority of government will always give politicians the upper hand. Still, businesses should be worried that as an institution, it has only moderately benefitted from increased levels of trust while failing to keep pace with government. Government leaders in Europe are outstripping CEOs on public perceptions of effective leadership for the first three months of the pandemic. When asked which type of leader was doing an outstanding job meeting the demands placed on them in the crisis, national government leaders scored 44 and 42 percent in Germany and the UK, respectively. Even in France, where the population rates its politicians less favorably, government leaders still ranked seven points higher than CEOs (25 percent). In Germany, CEOs trailed government leaders by 20 points, and UK CEOs landed near the bottom of the pile when measured against CEOs from the other 11 markets surveyed (20 percent).

There’s real concern across all three markets that business is underperforming across the board. Only 32 percent of UK respondents say business is doing a good job putting people before profits; in France, that result is 27 percent and 30 percent for Germany. All three countries are also falling short when it comes to larger businesses helping small businesses in need, by way of by extending them credit or giving them more time to pay; in the UK only 29 percent say they’re doing it, 27 percent for France and 31 percent in Germany. Business is also missing the mark in the UK on helping get the country back up and running – only 28 percent in the UK feel business is doing well at preparing for the eventual recovery, whereas in France and Germany the results are 38 percent and 39 percent, respectively.

As politicians at the pinnacle of public life are proving in a pandemic era, effective communications are triggered by authority, expertise, and trust. It need not matter whether your audiences think you can do something; if they trust you in a time of uncertainty, they are willing to give you time and space to get things right.

Ed Williams is the President and CEO of Edelman, EMEA


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.

Please complete the form below to discuss the findings with an Edelman advisor.