Edelman has studied trust for over two decades, and we believe it is the ultimate currency that institutions – business, NGOs, government, and media— build with their stakeholders. Trust defines an organization’s license to operate, lead, and succeed. Without trust, credibility is lost, and reputations can be threatened.
Now in its 22nd year, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer surveys more than 36,000 respondents in 28 countries on perceptions of trust in society. We release special reports throughout the year that deep dive on issues such as health care, climate change, racial justice, and the changing relationship between employees and their employers. We’ve further expanded our remit on trust by establishing the Edelman Trust Institute, Edelman’s global research center and learning laboratory dedicated to publishing our insights and turning them into action across institutions. Through this work, we demonstrate that trust is essential to the future success of both business and society and its impact on the world deserves to be understood.
Our latest annual report, the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, uncovered a vicious cycle of distrust, where government and media feed a cycle of division and disinformation in pursuit of votes and clicks, leaving business and NGOs under disproportionate pressure to take on societal responsibilities beyond their remit. And even though trust in institutions has incrementally increased in recent years, these gains are consolidated among high-income respondents, while low-income respondents are significantly less trusting. The result is a society deeply divided where distrust has become the default.
Much of this division is fueled by what we call the Infodemic, which refers to the ongoing loss of confidence in information sources. In the U.S., all our major news sources— from traditional media to social media— are distrusted, and around the world, fake news concerns are at an all-time high. In our special report on Trust and Health, we uncovered stark differences among the vaccinated and unvaccinated in where they get their vaccine information from. The vaccinated cite their doctor as their most relied-on source, followed by recommendations of national health experts, while the unvaccinated rely on internet searches, followed by family and friends – or they do not rely on any external sources of information at all. For this group, their doctor ranked fourth and recommendations from national health experts was eight.
In addition to the widespread distrust in media, people have also lost faith in government, which is widely viewed as incompetent and unethical, and a majority believe that it is unable to take a leadership role or successfully get results. Trust in traditional societal leaders is also low. Less than half say they trust government leaders, journalists, and CEOs. In fact, over 60% say these leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.
Against this dim backdrop, business has emerged as the most trusted of the four institutions. While that may seem like good news, it also means that the expectations for business to act are high. All stakeholders – investors, customers, and employees – are holding business accountable for taking a stand on societal issues that align with their beliefs and values. We asked people whether business was doing enough or overstepping on a range of societal issues and found, by huge margins, that respondents want more business engagement. For example, when we asked people if business was overstepping or not doing enough to address access to healthcare, 42% said business was not doing enough compared to 8% who said it was overstepping – a 34-point gap.
So where do we go from here? Across all four of the institutions we study, providing quality information is seen as the most powerful trust-building tool. We’ve even seen that it can bridge the trust divide between low and high-income respondents. When low-income respondents are well-informed, their trust in societal institutions increases and adversely, when high-income respondents are not well-informed, their trust decreases. Quality information can also help improve health outcomes – respondents told us that information is on par with cost as a barrier to taking better care of their health.
There is also a significant role for employers to play in rebuilding trust. Around the world, people trust “My employer” more than any of the four institutions we look at, and respondents rank communications from “My employer” as their most trusted source of information— even on health issues. Employers should embrace this role to provide clear, reliable information and use their trust advantage to build confidence across the health care system and society more broadly.
Building trust is not an easy task. And now, it’s up to business and employers, including the healthcare industry, to embrace their new roles in society, tackle pressing problems and partner with other institutions to restore trust and address society’s deepening divides. Looking forward to 2023, the ETI will continue to explore what drives distrust in society—and what societal leaders, including CEOs, can do to overcome polarization and fragmentation, and repair the social fabric.