Last week, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer painted a trust ecosystem torn apart by the events of the past year – an environment of rampant misinformation, outright lies and widespread mistrust.
Today, we’re releasing data specific to the U.S. What we found? A country riven by divergent and hyper-partisan perspectives, rising inequities and a fragile state of trust in our institutions.
A central theme jumps out after listening to recent calls for unity from leaders across the political divide and President Biden’s inaugural address: America’s CEOs have a new mandate to be a unifying force in – and for – our country.
We clearly face a stark trust chasm between Trump and Biden voters:
- Post-Election, Trump voters’ trust in institutions dropped 13 points to a trust index of 34, demonstrating a high distrust in institutions.
- The gap is most glaring in trust levels for the media (57 percent of Biden voters trust the media; only 18 percent of Trump voters do).
- These partisan divides have led Americans across party lines (58 percent of Biden voters and 64 percent of Trump voters) to affirm a shared belief that “the U.S. is in the midst of a cold Civil War.”
As leaders of the most trusted institution in the U.S. – business – CEOs are unique in their bi-partisan support. Encouragingly, 61 percent of Trump voters and 68 percent of Biden voters find common ground in trust for the CEO of their employer. In contrast, after the election, just 28 percent of Trump voters and 45 percent of Biden voters trusted government leaders. And as of this fall, even religious leaders were trusted by only 49 percent of Americans.
The obvious question is why do CEOs bridge the partisan divide as the most trusted leaders in our society? CEOs have the competence to act on solutions to our most pressing societal challenges, investing time and money to unify their employees, customers and communities. A few tangible areas to invest in:
- Serve as a guardian of quality information. With trust in traditional media at an all-time low, a person’s employer is seen as the most credible source of information in the U.S. (54 percent). Business leaders should take note that guarding information quality is viewed as the top trust-building action, ahead of embracing sustainable practices and a robust Covid-19 health and safety response. The infodemic looms large in people’s minds, especially as it relates to vaccination, and U.S. employers find themselves in a new and surprising role as protectors and proponents of information hygiene.
- Take a stand on issues your stakeholders care most about. Over the past year, there’s been a spike in the importance Americans place on: improving our healthcare (+51 points), combating fake news (+46 points), improving our education systems (+43 points), addressing poverty (+41 points) and closing the economic and social divide (+38 points).
- Demonstrate continuous listening, learning and action. There has also been a strong uptick in employee expectations around safety (+47 points), diversity (+44 points), regular communication (+41 points) and skills training (+37 points).
Companies are stepping up to the plate in new and different ways, taking direct action the issues Americans identify as most prepping. Take, for example:
- CEOs are now leading the charge on vaccine distribution – with Starbucks* lending its customer-service expertise, Honeywell offering its distribution and logistics infrastructure and Microsoft* offering technical support.
- Platforms like Facebook* and Twitter are putting stronger controls on accounts known to spread misinformation and/or incite violence.
- Tech companies like Adobe* and Microsoft* are investing in technologies built to stop the spread of “deep fakes” and other forms of disinformation.
- Following this month’s attacks on the Capitol, businesses have paused or terminated contributions to PACs known to support candidates that voted to object to the certification of electoral votes. Others are pausing all such contributions indefinitely.
- Businesses are pulling their ad dollars from places where misinformation shows up – a topic that came to a head following a NewsGuard report last week – and investing them in outlets that serve quality information.
- For their employees, many corporations and CEOs are taking a larger role in communicating the broader contours of American news, driving their employees toward trusted, worthy sources – a trend we saw throughout 2020 on Covid-19, racial justice and the contested election.
Given the financial and trust-based challenges faced by the news media, there may be a larger role needed for corporate America when it comes to how Americans receive and believe information. Some have made and are making stronger investments in fact-based content publishing. And nonprofit funders have focused on underwriting quality information sources like ProPublica, treating the media as an area for civic investment.
The reality is we are entering a new era of more active federal government. Rather than wait for policymakers and regulators to compel actions, it’s far better for business leaders to proactively partner with government, media and nonprofits in a joint effort to address our toughest societal challenges.
The most urgent tasks ahead are to vaccinate our population efficiently and equitably, create jobs, put kids safely back in school – to establish that “next normal.” We then have the opportunity to recast ourselves as sustainable, equitable, antiracist, fact-based. But even as business embraces its mandate for leadership, it has a short runway to prove itself worthy of the trust placed in it. Now, it’s time to act.
Russell Dubner is CEO of Edelman’s U.S. operations.