Fake news. Polarized politics. Social media. Knowing what institutions the public trusts is crucial as we lead public relations campaigns, and in uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to have a sense of the public’s level of trust. With that in mind, PRSA held a discussion analyzing the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer research findings. The annual Trust Barometer research provides a benchmark around organizational trust across 28 markets globally.
To continue the conversations started at our June event, we spoke with Stephanie Nagy Shewmon, VP of Public Affairs at Edelman, to get context around this research and what it means for PR pros.
Question: So, what are the topline findings for this year?
Shewmon: Our research looks at the state of trust in institutions, and this year we found a new trend – trust is becoming increasingly polarized. What that means is, we see that what is driving the trust decline in the U.S. and other markets is actually a battle for truth.
We also were struck by a crash in trust in the U.S., noting:
• The trust crash among the U.S. general population is the steepest recorded in Trust Barometer history (18 years). Trust fell across all four institutions.
• Trust in government has declined 30 points for the informed public and 14 points for the general population, dragging down the other institutions with it.
• These declines in trust occurred across geography, income and gender.
The result is an unsettled and unnerved public at large. Vast swaths of Americans no longer trust their leaders.
Question: Yikes! Was there any “good” news in the research?
Shewmon: In this world of confusion, we are seeing a rebound in trust toward voices of authority, particularly CEOs (a seven-point gain) and journalists (a 12-point gain). The public often trusts individual journalists more than platforms. Expert voices across business registered broad gains in credibility, with the net effect of technical experts, financial industry analysts, and successful entrepreneurs all enjoying credibility levels of 50 percent or higher today.
Question: What are the implications of this research for PR pros?
Shewmon: I believe there are several. As I shared at the meeting, Edelman’s Trust research shows that business must own its own story. The role that business plays in being a guardian of information quality, an advocate for truth, has never been more critical. In a world filled with fake news and disinformation, being silent is no longer an option.
In this battle for truth, Richard Edelman likes to repeat that silence is a tax on truth, hurting our ability as a society to return to a place where we have a shared understanding of the facts and data on which to base a discussion. Business must own its own story, make sure it’s authentic, and share it with core stakeholders. Be sure to emulate the best parts of quality journalism with clear, citable, and accessible information, and share it on multiple formats. And don’t forget to activate subject matter experts.
Question: What, in your view, is the best way to act on this research?
Shewmon: I think PR pros can help the organizations they serve by creating credible content like I already mentioned, but also by building relationships with media brands – and journalists - they trust.
Remember to engage your audiences. Conversational engagement is key to credibly informing your stakeholders, and people want to hear from a variety of voices. People find a company’s social media far more believable than its advertising, and the majority believe that both CEOs and also employees should directly participate in their company’s social media efforts. Activating your efforts to inform and engage across the entire organization is the critical final step.
Question: Any other tips?
Shewmon: Another tip I shared at the meeting was to use peers to reach the disengaged. 65% of people would check out a news story after hearing about it five times or more. Build on what makes peers trustworthy and relatable: 1) They are very honest. They always say what they truly believe. 2) They have nothing to gain from giving me bad information. 3) We see the world and think in the same way.
Question: What if readers would like to see the entire report?
Shewmon: It’s available for download here, along with quite a bit of supportive materials.