Edelman has just released its annual Trust Barometer for 2023 – an annual measurement (since 2000) of the international population’s trust in business, NGOs, governments, and the media. Shape History’s Strategy and Partnerships Director, Lewis Parker breaks this down into five key takeaways for the social impact sector.
Every piece of strategic communications should always come back to trust at its core. Understanding it. Building it. Protecting it.
Why? Because trust is the essential ingredient to achieving influence and driving change. In order to shift policy – both the ‘solution’ and the organisation presenting it needs to be trusted. To go to market or scale up, brands need to be trusted by their stakeholders to provide value. To develop new partnerships, funders need to be… you guessed it… trusted!
That’s why every year, Edelman’s Trust Barometer is vital reading – helping us to understand the trends so we can use them to our advantage.
1. PERSONAL ECONOMIC FEARS REIGN SUPREMe
People are moving away from placing societal fears (e.g. climate, nuclear war) at the top of their agenda and towards personal fears (job security, inflation). This is no surprise.
Rising inflation impacts everyone on the planet. Edelman shows that economic optimism is collapsing, with only 40% of respondents saying they and their families will be better off in five years – a 10-point decline from 2022.
This elevated focus on personal security creates more stress – it’s closer to home and our daily lives. It uses up more mental bandwidth, and we spend less time on things that aren’t as important to us.
We can’t care about everything all at once.
This problem is twofold for the social impact world. 1. Finances are harder – with fewer public donations and inflation increasing overall costs and limiting impact. 2. Engaging people is harder – we get lost in the noise if we don’t resonate and connect with our audiences quickly. There’s also a third point I’ll touch on shortly: positivity. Where there is so much stress and negativity, sensitivity to tone is heightened because people want more positivity in their lives.
2. BUSINESS IS THE MOST TRUSTED INSTITUTION, BUT ITS POSITION IS NOT CEMENTED
For almost 20 years, NGOs were the most trusted institution. But in recent years they’ve fallen to the untrustworthy end of the scale. Government has a (possibly unsurprisingly) similar story.
This year, business is the only trusted institution. This is due to a number of reasons – the way business responded to the pandemic; and how they’ve increasingly become more purpose-driven and values-led. There’s also an argument that corporate greenwashing has partially worked and contributed to this. However the takeaway is: people now trust business and expect them to lead the way. But it could soon change…
Why? Because littered in the findings are the high expectations of the public. Consumers and employees will continue to pressure businesses to stand up for them. 63% say they buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values. 69% insist that having a societal impact is a strong expectation or deal breaker when considering a job. 53% believe that business is not doing enough on climate change.
In times of inflation and the need for increased fair wages, previous promises that need acting upon, and high expectations to go much further – business, and especially purpose-driven businesses need to not just continue on their journey, they need to step up.
Trust is easily destroyed – if businesses don’t deliver, they’ll find themselves in the same position as NGOs and governments. Once trust is eroded, it takes a long time to rebuild, and it’s an expensive endeavour.
3. POLARISATION DEEPENS – SO COMMS AND MARKETING SHOULD BRING US TOGETHER
The UK’s vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election are seen as two crucial points when polarisation and division became the new flavour of society. Today, 53% globally believe their country is more divided than previously; 65% agree with the statement that ‘the lack of civility and mutual respect is the worst I have ever seen’.
But us humans are social creatures who thrive on connection. Edelman shows that people don’t want to accept negativity and polarisation, they want to come together with a focus on a brighter future, not the problems of the past.
Although ideology and values can separate us, shared interests can bring us together. They need to be drawn upon in communications.
So we need to focus on solutions, not problems. It’s a major factor as to why business is trusted. People want to see more collaboration between business and government. Equally, 68% of people believe in the power of brands to create and reconnect our shared identities – showing a need for positive marketing and communications to avoid feeding the beast of negativity. So business, and importantly the social impact sector, can be a part of the solution of healing our social fabric.
4. TRUST LIVES LOCALLY – 1-2-1 ENGAGEMENT OVER MASS COMMUNICATIONS.
Rising distrust and polarisation has severely impacted the globalist world order. Mainstream media is seen as politicised and is not trusted. NGOs are no longer trusted (trust declined in 17 out of 27 countries this year). The WHO is now the only trusted multinational organisation – largely an impact of the pandemic.
In the same way that the mass population has become more focussed on personal fears over societal fears, they have also become more trusting locally than globally.
Today, the most credible source of information is an employee’s company newsletter. We trust our colleagues more than we do industry experts. So for those in social impact, we need to more carefully consider both who the messenger is, and where influence can happen. Placing a greater emphasis on closer engagement and socialisation over broad mass-communications. Though this is also dependent on who the audience is, covered next!
5. MASS CLASS DIVIDE IS CEMENTED – FOCUS ON WHO YOU WANT TO INFLUENCE
Anyone that needs to influence an audience, needs to go deeper than the broad strokes of ‘the general public’ otherwise a message won’t land.
That’s why understanding population trust on a deeper level is incredibly helpful. This year, the trend of the mass-class divide continues to expand. Globally, those who are low income earners (the bottom 25%) – on average – distrust all institutions – NGOs, business, government, and media. They’re very difficult to influence unless you can find ways to localise your relevance. Conversely, those who are high income earners (the top 25) – on average – trust all of the institutions, so there’s more routes to take.
So what does this mean? Essentially, If you’re trying to influence larger populations or achieve behavioural change, traditional media and mass communications won’t get you as far as they would in previous years. You need to focus on local channels (e.g. their employers) and more personal 1-2-1 engagement. However, if you’re an NGO or institution trying to influence your peers and other institutions, the chances are they fall within the high income bracket. So, you can use a mixture of mediums – earned, owned media, mobilising peers as your messenger.
In Edelman’s scorings. 1-49 is distrust. 50-59 is neutral. 60-100 is trust. You can read the full 2023 Trust Barometer report here.