There is no silver bullet that will solve the global trust crisis

Public faith in business, media and the government is at an all time low.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 17 Jan 2017

The so-called global elite are holding their annual World Economic Forum richathon in Davos from today and, not for the first time, ‘trust’ will be the word on many an attendee’s lips. Public faith in established institutions has been on the slide for a long while but it reached new lows in 2016, fuelling Britain’s decision to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s shock victory in the US presidential election. Captains of industry and heads of state, desperately searching for ways to win hearts and minds, will be on the lookout for the latest buzzwords and new ideas to latch on to.

Today the giant PR firm Edelman has published its annual ‘Trust Barometer’ research, which assesses public attitudes around the world. As you might expect, the news isn’t good. Globally trust has fallen across the board – trust in the media, government, business and non-governmental organisations, while trust in CEOs dropped to an all-time-low of 37%.

The reputation of UK companies took a particular pounding. Between the main survey, carried out in October, and fresh fieldwork over the last few weeks, trust in businesses plummeted by 12 points to 37% and British bosses are less trusted than the global average, on just 28%. The data might reflect a bit of seasonal variation – it’s not hard to imagine the public was in a more charitable mood in autumn than in dark, dreary January. But the figures are pretty stark nonetheless.

The lack of trust seems to be fuelling support for policies that could harm business. Three quarters of those surveyed said they wanted to see more aggressive regulation of food and pharma firms and seven in ten want the government to impose trading restrictions to prevent job losses (this despite the fact that there is no guarantee that trading restrictions would do anything of the sort). That’s perhaps unsurprising considering than 60% of Brits think ‘the system’ is failing them and just one in ten believe it is working well.

It’s easy to write this off as ‘populism’ – an irrational outpouring of anger by those who feel left behind. It’s true that there is a gap between what Edelman calls the ‘informed public’ (those with a degree who follow the news) who tend to be more trusting, and the less trusting ‘mass public’. But overall the lack of trust is pervasive among people of every income level, and the public have good reasons to be angry and worried.

Britain’s economy still bears the scars of the post-Lehman crash. While it has grown in the years since and unemployment is very low, the number of people working in low paid and insecure jobs without guaranteed hours has rocketed. Good permanent employment is in short supply and many young people with good degrees are struggling to progress beyond waiting tables and stacking shelves.

Today, research by Oxfam reveals that the world’s eight richest men now own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world, some 3.6bn people. Whether that’s bad for the rest of us is up for debate, but it certainly adds to the sense that the man and woman in the street are being short changed.

New technologies have plenty of upside but risk leaving legions of unskilled workers out of a job and depriving us all of privacy. Nobody knows how we’re supposed to meet the pension obligations owed to our ageing population, let alone the social care costs that will come with it. Politicians show no sign of ditching spin – even the supposedly straight-talking and principled Jeremy Corbyn leaves his audience in a state of confusion about what exactly it is he advocates. Now that a compulsive bullshitter has succeeded in taking control of the White House, expect more politicians on this side of the pond to throw truth to the wind.

Understanding the situation we find ourselves in might be easier if the media were doing a better job. But years of financial turmoil and struggling to get to grips with the internet have taken their toll. Under pressure to deliver clicks, many of today’s well-meaning newspaper reporters spend more time writing up rumours about the next series of Game of Thrones or baseless PR press releases than holding the powerful to account. There’s little wonder trust in the media has fallen – it now stands at 24%, the lowest level since the hacking scandal that came to a head in 2011. Some rightly raise concerns that newer forms of media risk becoming echo chambers so we're only exposed to the views of 'people like us'. 

How can businesses begin to address this problem? Well as former Edelman boss Robert Phillips wrote around the time of last year’s WEF, ‘looking for "more trust" is a meaningless exercise.’ Instead, leaders need to earn ‘trustworthiness’ by actually behaving responsibly. By curbing excessive CEO pay packages (before Jeremy Corbyn comes along and does it for them). By looking out for customers instead of looking for ways to rip them off. By treating your staff like human beings and by avoiding the kinds of scandals that have tarnished Tesco, Toshiba and VW.

Of course businesses can only do so much. Today’s crisis had not come about because of corporate malpractice alone. Grand economic shifts, demographic trends and technological breakthroughs have all played their part too. But unless we all take it upon ourselves to act with more integrity, the spiral of declining trust is unlikely to be reversed.

Image source: Neil Cummings/Flickr

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