The Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 – cause for thought

Originally published on Simply Communicate.

Heavily quoted in this response to the report.

As communicators, what did we make of the recent Edelman Trust Barometer Report 2020 which was published a couple of weeks back? In general terms it does not make joyful reading. It does, though, make a very clear case for action to reverse the declining trust trend. Perhaps the good news is that some of the key themes chime with our communication roles and may provide an additional – and credible – boost to accelerating culture change within our own organisations.

For me it underlines the need for authenticity, speaking truth to power, giving people a voice, not spinning stuff, strong leadership and greater diversity. Unsurprisingly, the issue of ‘fake news’ is a feature too, with 76% worried that fake news is being used as a weapon. Scary stuff!

We put some questions to a handful of experienced consultants:

As communicators, what part can we play in addressing some of the depressing findings in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer report?

Lisa Pantelli says, “This year’s Edelman report undoubtedly lends itself to gloomy reading. A 6pt rise in people worrying that the information they have access to is either false or fake news being used as a weapon, combined with 66% of the respondents worried about technology, making it impossible to know if what people are seeing or hearing is real, should be of concern to those of us working within internal communications.


“Trust as we know, is hard to build and easy to lose. What can we do about it? Maintain integrity, be authentic and really listen and respond to what people are telling us. We really don’t know what’s going to come our way next but making sure we can build a groundswell of support and confidence should the worse arise, will pay dividends in the long term.”

How can digital comms help to bring about a more trusting culture in business and wider society?

Lisa Pantelli again, “Digital communications can only play a part in a more trusting culture in business if the desire and impetus is there. There has to be convergence between all functions and leaders, not just those who have responsibility for rolling out a new platform.

Martyn Perks adds, “Trust has been in terminal decline for decades. What Brexit and other anti-establishment movements across many Western countries have illustrated is the extent of how badly the establishment has misread the public — including employees — and ignored them. Bridging the chasm between an out-of-touch establishment and an increasingly contemptuous public is the crucial challenge.  To repair trust, leaders must respond with a genuine commitment to ambition, purpose and a real commitment to transformation, instead of platitudes.”

Digital communications and social media of course have a part to play, but only if we can trust the information that is shared through them. The public, employees and consumers will be less forgiving than ever before and have already demonstrated – as in the case of Brexit – that they are prepared to take huge risks and vote for the unknown in the hope of change.

Do digital and social comms create groups, communities and tribes with particular views and outlooks? Have we merely redistributed the traditional silos (usually of geography and skill set) with something more toxic?

Jonathan Phillips: “The digital communities that we join are heavily self-curated: we befriend and we follow those with whom we have some emotional or intellectual connection. The resultant communities can feel like echo-chambers, full of loud agreement which doesn’t help bridge trust and knowledge gaps.

As we’ve seen from previous Edelman reports, we tend to trust “people like us” ahead of many other authority sources so it’s surprising – worrying even – that even in the safe space of a self-curated community, 66% worry that they’re not hearing and seeing the truth; and more than half believe their media sources are contaminated with untrustworthy information. If we want trustworthy information, maybe we need to ‘shop around’ to get it?”

Leadership appears to be a problem. Can technology be used to improve it?

Martyn Perks, “What Edelman’s research shows is that there is a crisis of ‘purpose’. Unsurprising, in an era where the majority of business leaders are anonymous, anodyne, and rarely memorable!

“Managerialism in place of vision; homogeneity instead of risk-taking; disruption replaced by the cult of metrics and marginal gains. Technology is only a tool. But in the wrong hands, technology can promote social participation over decision-making, erode privacy, or reduce everything to a measurable transaction.

“To reclaim a sense of purpose and authority leaders must give employees tools to increase autonomy, give them more freedom and control over their work. Those are essential steps in rebuilding trust and a combined sense of purpose.

“Communicators have to realise that employees will only take their business leaders seriously when they see real evidence of investment in skills, training and innovation.  Otherwise, any attempt at galvanising a renewed sense of purpose will fall on deaf ears.”

Marc Wright adds:”What is interesting is that while the respondents did not particularly increase their trust in business and business leaders – they do see business as being the most effective of the groups under discussion. So, in the UK as the government starts to drive the biggest change to the economic environment that business has seen in a long time, employees are looking to their CEOs to ‘take the lead’. This is in marked contrast to last year when many businesses were in ‘wait and see’ mode.

“I expect that CEOs are going to have to stick out their necks and have an opinion on the effects of Brexit sooner rather than later if they are to keep the confidence of their own staff, on which they depend.”

How can we, as champions of digital workplaces, help address the threat of AI in the workplace and tackle the issue of retraining and reskilling?

Martyn Perks: “The panic about automation is primarily experienced paradoxically as a symptom of widespread low business investment in new technology, R&D and innovation. While among workers the fear of automation is a genuine one, the actual risk of large-scale job replacement is mostly unfounded. As Edelman points out, the reality for many workers is that they are not supported with training and new skills to keep them equipped in their work. Where automation does occur, it’s more likely to augment or replace specific tasks than entire roles.”

The threat of AI was just one of the factors contributing to 83% of employees saying they fear losing their job, attributing it to the gig economy, a looming recession, a lack of skills, cheaper foreign competitors, immigrants who will work for less, automation, or jobs being moved to other countries.

Why, with so much more information available to everyone, do you think that trust in politics, in institutions and in business has not improved? 

Jonathan Phillips: “When it comes to politics and business, I think there is an important difference between distrust and a healthy mistrust. We all have more information available to us which will result in an increased chance of seeing and hearing a contradictory commentary. Particularly in the UK, we have developed a cynicism about government statements, and we are extremely alive to the vested interests of business and the wealthy. I’m actually encouraged by the lack of improvement in the lack of trust in politics and business: we are right to question, to challenge and to dig deep into their pronouncements. We’re getting more sophisticated in understanding the power of disinformation.”

What can communications professionals take from the research?

The research shows that employees want to be heard and want to be part of future planning.

And Martyn perks continues: “Communicators need to, on the one hand, embrace technology, including social platforms, while at the same time, exert less control over them. We’re in an era where many fear greater scrutiny and attacks on their privacy – especially in the workplace. Communications professionals should argue forcefully for employees to be trusted, especially if senior leaders are genuine in wanting a real conversation with employees. That means accepting a warts-and-all dialogue, and where speaking out won’t be punished.”

Part of our role is to encourage employees to build networks across their organisations and outside of their organisations too, helping them to tell their stories.  As Edelman’s research argues, employees relate most of all to their peers — as experts, as having the same experiences as themselves — compared to their out-of-touch leaders. The opportunity (at least in the short-term) must surely be in promoting individual experts, and in doing so, help motivate others. As communications professionals we can help create merit-driven, open cultures which will do more than anything to improve the levels of trust in business.

If you would like to share your thoughts on how this latest Edelman Trust Barometer research might impact your role, please do get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.

Post By Alison Boothby