Global experts say trust is in short supply for governments, NGOs, and media – leaving business as the last great hope

The Edelman Trust Barometer is an annual survey conducted across 28 countries designed to measure trust in four institutions: government, non-government organisations (NGOs), media, and business.

The 2017 findings were accompanied by the ringing of alarm bells about a global trust crisis: “The general population’s trust in all four institutions has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012.”

We have a trust deficit, perilously low levels of trust in CEOs and leaders, and a media echo chamber. This, Edelman surmises, reveals nothing short of a “global implosion of trust” giving rise to “virulent populism and nationalism”.

There is hope, according to Edelman. Of the four institutions, business remains the only one people view as being able to make a difference. Three quarters of respondents think companies can be proactive in improving economic and social conditions in the communities they operate in. In the wake of Trump, Brexit, fake news, and social media platforms like Facebook seemingly ignoring the responsibilities players of their size should be paying attention to, you can perhaps understand why business seems like a more likely hero than the others.

But is that deserved or valid? Or is it a case of business being included in the survey and when faced with the avenues the other institutions offer for positive change against a backdrop of increasing disenchantment, it looked like the only option? The Edelman report affords business an equivalence with the other institutions and when it comes to a discussion about trust and its implosion, that’s where it goes awry for me.

Declining trust in government and media is something we should be concerned about and interrogate, as it speaks to something fundamental being broken. Since the point at which we started to organise and create delegated power structures and then distributed media, these two institutions have been pillars of democracy. While they are flawed and the lines are increasingly blurry, media and government still exist to act in service to citizens. Business does not, and instead gives us the labels “consumer” and “customer”. As a citizen, trust in the institutions that uphold my rights and hold power to account is entirely different to the trust I require to buy a phone. It holds an entirely different meaning and weight again when I think about it in relation to being a friend, partner, sister and daughter.

To be those things and to be a citizen feels personal, whereas being a consumer feels transactional. The objectives of government and media should be for the greater good while the objectives of business are largely self-serving. That statement is not anti-business, it’s simply pragmatic. You will always know where business stands and your role as a consumer is clearly defined. It does not shift the way your role as a citizen or person in relation to others in your life does. To be a consumer carries altogether less emotional weight.

When I think about the businesses I interact with the most, the trust I have there is one based on the ongoing provision of service or utility. I give something, I receive something and the business receives something. That is a portion of any trust equation – a kind of tit for tat. It isn’t based on goodwill, the greater good, or generosity, it’s based on a value exchange. My money for your service, my data for a better experience.

Like many people these days, my interactions with business are digital, most frequently with the giants like Apple, Google, and Facebook. I don’t really trust them. I certainly don’t trust them like I trust the people in my life nor do I desire to trust them in the way I want to trust government or media. Yet I still use what they have built hundreds of times each day. My trust extends to the basic equation of value exchanged: Seamless, accessible utility for something in return.

Unlike trust in a personal relationship or delegation of power, I trust in what I know I am getting rather than trusting in what I hope I will get.

It is this difference that leaves me feeling more relaxed about declining trust in the institution of business and less alarmed than many of my contemporaries in public relations, media, advertising and marketing. After the report was released and we’d all recovered from the shock of the trust implosion, many raced to their keyboards to immediately reflect on the impact this will have on “our business, your business, their business”. As is often the case when traits that once solely belonged to an individual or institutions of democracy get measured in the context of business, business is immediately anthropomorphised to become a brand with values, culture, and character, and being seen to be more “human” was urgently prescribed as a cure-all for dealing to this crisis. LinkedIn and Twitter newsfeeds filled up with calls for a focus on trust building, brand building, brand activism, relevance and authenticity.

It is my hope that the opposite happens. That cool heads prevail and that business doesn’t set off on relevance crusades creating emotionally authentic, values-based Facebook videos, and instead focuses on utility and properly understanding what it is consumers want and are willing to exchange to get it. The real opportunity for business lies in stepping back from being seen as requiring the same type of trust that people want to have in pillars of democracy and the people in their lives.

That’s a heavy and unnecessary burden that if carried will at best result in more Pepsi ads featuring the Kardashians, and at worst erode the trust people do have in business by failing to understand what kind of trust that is.

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