Trust in Business Leaders is Falling. Here are 3 Actions to Take Now

The Coronavirus pandemic caused a seismic shift in the trust of our institutions, with government, businesses, NGOs and news-media rising in esteem. But not everyone is coming out unscathed: Verdicts in the court of public opinion are tipping in the wrong direction for senior leaders of the world’s corporations. This news comes from a new Trust Barometer survey by the global communications firm Edelman, which also provides recommendations for how we can adapt to the shifting landscape on trust.  


Why trust in major institutions is on the rise 

Edelman’s survey conducted this year in North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, shows that governments have become the world’s most trusted institutions for the first time in 20 years. Governmental institutions surged 11 points since January, with 63% of respondents indicating strong trust, and trust in government leaders themselves rose by 13 points.  

The survey makes it clear why governments are gaining: “The speed and scale of the lockdowns, the brave performance of the public health services and the extent of public expenditure to support the private sector have shown government taking quick decisive action,” explains Richard Edelman, the firm’s CEO. “This is a stunning turnaround for government, which has always languished at or near the bottom of the trust hierarchy.” 

Other beneficiaries from the changing trust landscape include businesses and non-governmental organizations, which are right behind government, each with matching trust ratings of 62%. The news-media rose to 55% —a substantial change for an institution that dipped below 50% several times throughout the last 15 years.  


Warning signs for business leaders — and how they can rise to the occasion  

These are among the indicators of the way forward for businesses, which can take three major actions to fortify trust during the pandemic and beyond:  

  • Put employees first: Business leaders need to regularly communicate with employees about measures to keep them safe, and to protect their income and positions to the degree possible. Once this is being done sufficiently, these moves should be communicated with customers, partners, and the broader public.  

  • Clarify your mission and support for the community: Many companies have a broader purpose than profit, yet large portions of the public may not be aware or believe those missions are merely slogans. In addition to clarifying and amplifying corporate missions, now is also the time for those who can afford it to assess financial support for community organizations, including nonprofits that help those hit hardest by the pandemic. Edelman’s survey confirmed the public’s wide-ranging concern for societal inequities that impact those with less education and financial advantages, which are amplified by the pandemic.  

  • Make leadership visible: Edelman’s survey reveals an enormous opportunity for CEOs and other top business leaders to speak to the public more assertively and frequently, especially at a time in which the foundations of society have been shaken. When they speak, they must address the expectation that business leaders will innovate, collaborate, and invest to repair the communities in which they operate. Just as business leaders report quarterly and annual results to shareholders and others, they should also regularly report to the larger public how their organizations are improving, year-over-year, in helping others. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed by Edelman said a brand’s response to the crisis will include future purchase decisions.  

We are in an era of fast, often jarring, change. The pandemic has amplified existing concerns about the place of our institutions. Those of us in the business community have a responsibility to put our employees and communities first, and to explain how we are turning those responsibilities into action. The world is watching.  

To learn more, watch Chris Juneau’s webinar with Edelman’s Jim Prosser, on Edelman’s annual “Trust Barometer” survey.  

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