A version of this post was published on AFR.com
After nearly 20 years working at Edelman on our annual Trust Barometer study, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to maintain and build trust. As I eagerly anticipated this year’s results, silently predicting that Australia’s trust would continue to fall, I wondered if Australia would ever trust again. But I was surprised by the findings.
Against a global backdrop of anxieties about U.S. President Donald Trump and Brexit, and a domestic year dominated by political uncertainty and royal commissions, trust actually experienced a bump in Australia – up eight points.
Looking deeper into why this happened, I reflected on the past two decades of work, and asked: Has much changed?
Our trust study was born out of the “Battle for Seattle,” a protest around the World Trade Organization’s conference in Seattle, Wash. in 1999. We developed the study in response to the growing activism that had pushed government and business to take seriously social and environmental challenges our world faces.
Critically, over the past few years we have seen levels of trust plummet. In witnessing the significant declines in trust in our main institutions of business, government, media and non-government organizations, it is easy to point to the very public acts of misconduct, corporate greed, broken promises and, in some instances, criminal behavior.
But with a global and local bump in trust this year, there are signs that our distrust may have bottomed out and we could be at a turning point where institutions are finally listening to what the people want.
So, after nearly two decades of the Edelman Trust Barometer, what have I learned?
First, business has certainly stepped up to the plate. We’ve seen businesses increasingly prepared to take a stand and be vocal about what they believe in, even if it might cause short-term pain.
BlackRock’s Larry Fink said it best in his 2018 annual letter to CEOs, noting that to prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.
Woolworths, the Australian supermarket chain, weathered a storm after its decision to ditch single-use plastic bags but emerged from the debate a leader on sustainable business decisions and helped kick off a wider trend of ditching plastic bags. I couldn’t help but think of this when trust in retail and food and beverage sectors both rose by seven points this year.
Standing firm and holding the course pays reputational and trust dividends, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Second, a common thread has been our tendency to trust someone “I can relate to,” someone “I can identify with” who exhibits authenticity, sincerity and delivers against what they say.
This year a “person like yourself” is the most credible voice in Australia, way ahead of CEOs, boards of directors and government officials.
There are clear lessons for businesses here when we look at this in tandem with another significant data point. “My employer” is now our most trusted relationship, more than business, government, NGOs and media. It seems that employers are now a safe harbor when other institutions are under scrutiny.
Our employers provide us with certainty. More than half of us are looking to our employers on important topics on which there is not general agreement. This goes hand in hand with one of my favorite data points: 72 percent of Australians believe that companies can make money and look after the communities they serve, up nine points from last year.
The clearest example of this is when Qantas Airways, alongside other companies, was at the forefront of supporting same-sex marriage, setting the agenda for policymakers to follow.
Third, collaboration and community are critical. One of the most alarming themes we have observed over the years is Australians’ belief that “the system” – which is comprised of the main institutions – is failing them. To fix a broken system, I believe that greater collaboration is needed to rebuild trust, and our data suggests the Australian public feels the same.
Thankfully, we are seeing a cultural shift toward more collaboration, communication and inclusion. IAG, a multinational insurance company, is a good example of this, an organization firmly committed to working collaboratively with local communities to make them more connected, resilient and ultimately safer and doing it in a way that's profitable for the company.
I have faith in humanity and feel that trust will improve. We are seeing more courageous companies willing to take a firm stand and advocate for social issues. Businesses are investing to make their products more sustainable and the customer experience more in line with evolving community expectations.
Royal commissions and wrongdoing may lead to a spike in compliance, but business has a broader mandate to act and do the right thing, and a number of companies have shown a direct relationship between purpose and profits. However, it’s absolutely crucial that actions are genuine and that institutions behave with integrity.
Working collaboratively and being community-minded to meet the social and environmental challenges we face together, in my opinion, is the key to a more trusting Australia.
Steven Spurr is CEO, Edelman Australia.