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The Edelman Trust Barometer shows how we’ve driven into a ditch

Richard Edelman, photo by Michael Wuertenberg

We are living in a portentous moment, characterized by distrust in our leaders and institutions. But what’s the context — is it measurably worse now, and what does it mean? The global communications firm Edelman has released its 2017 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey on exactly these topics. Edelman clearly and evocatively describes the dimensions — and implications — of this failure of trust.

Richard W. Edelman’s blog post neatly summarizes what’s happening.

An Implosion of Trust

It has been a year of unimaginable upheaval. The incumbent party or elected head of state in five of the top 10 global economies (Brazil, Italy, South Korea, U.K., U.S.) has been deposed or defeated. Populist candidates are leading or growing in strength in upcoming elections in France and Germany. The U.K. voted to exit the European Union. There have been violent terrorist acts in Belgium, France, Germany, and the U.S., plus the never-ending tragedy in Syria. Bribery has been exposed at some of Brazil’s leading companies, with CEOs sent to jail. An American unicorn health diagnostics start-up with a sterling board of directors and huge private financing was found to have falsified its clinical trials. The release of the Panama Papers proved tax evasion on a global scale by business moguls and superstar athletes alike. The mainstream media lost audience as its advertising melted away and it confronted the specter of fake news.

Feel better now?

Measuring the collapse of trust

Anyone can create a litany of alarm. But, as I learned as an analyst, the truth is in the numbers. Edelman’s report measures the collapse and, because it comes on the heels of decades of similar surveys, gives us the context to understand. Some insights from the post:

The 2017 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER finds that two-thirds of the countries we survey are now “distrusters” (under 50 percent trust in the mainstream institutions of business, government, media and NGOs to do what is right), up from just over half in 2016.

Source: Edelman

[T]he trust collapse has moved beyond a simple “class vs. mass” problem to a systemic threat. More than three-quarters of respondents among both informed and general populations agree that the system is biased against regular people and favors the rich and powerful. . . .  Close to half of the “informed public” — adults 25-64 with a college education, in the top 25 percent of income, and [who] consume large amounts of media — have lost faith in the system.

Over two-thirds of the general population do not have confidence that current leaders can address their country’s challenges. The credibility of CEOs fell by 12 points this year to 37 percent globally; in Japan, it is 18 percent. Government officials and regulators are the least credible spokespeople, at 29 percent credibility.

[G]overnment is viewed today as incompetent, corrupt and divided, the least trusted global institution at 41 percent.

[T]he media, the vaunted Fourth Estate in global governance, plunged in trust this year, distrusted in more than 80 percent of the countries we survey, to a level near government. . . . In fact, 59 percent of respondents would believe a search engine over a human editor. It is a world of self-reference, as respondents are nearly four times more likely to ignore information that supports a position that they do not believe in.

What the collapse means for the world

Describing the world with statistics is not enough. A true analyst tells you not only what’s happening, but what it means and what will happen next. Here are some excerpts from what Edelman says about this, with a focus on its corporate clients:

We have moved beyond the point of trust being simply a key factor in product purchase or selection of employment opportunity; it is now the deciding factor in whether a society can function. As trust in institutions erodes, the basic assumptions of fairness, shared values and equal opportunity traditionally upheld by “the system” are no longer taken for granted.

The lack of societal and institutional safeguards provides fertile ground for populist movements fueled by fear.

Institutions must move beyond their traditional roles of business as actor and innovator; governments as referee and regulator; media as watchdog; and NGOs as social conscience. The new president of the United States is inserting himself directly into business decision-making, recently strong-arming an automaker to keep its manufacturing jobs in the country. Business must get out in front and become an effective advocate on policy, moving away from lobbying toward direct public discourse that provides context on trade, immigration and innovation, outlining both benefits and disadvantages. Company-owned social media channels should supplement mainstream media to educate and to encourage dialogue. Business should provide citizens with platforms that invite them to help shape policy —  giving them a positive outlet for their views and fears.

The growing storm of distrust is powerful and unpredictable. Trust in institutions has evaporated to such an extent that falsehood can be misconstrued as fact, strength as intelligence, and self-interest as social compact. This has been a slow-motion meltdown, an angry delayed recognition of permanent decline in economic and social status by those who have not kept pace with globalization and dramatic technological change. If faith in the system continues to fall, rising populist movements could wreak unimaginable havoc, with resurgent nationalism and divisive rhetoric moving to dangerous policies.

What you can learn from this report

Read Edelman’s report and learn from its lessons about trust in institutions.

But you can also learn from the way the company presents its information.

Edelman distributes its insights in the form of its CEO’s blog post, a talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, slides posted on SlideShare, and a 16-page, graphics-heavy “executive summary.”

The structure is ideal. Both the blog post and the summary provide global context, shares key statistics, makes a set of structured points, and then describes global implications. All reports based on data should read this way.

When you write a report like, use this checklist to make sure you’re doing it right. Ask yourself, have I:

  • Started with context that reveals why the report is important?
  • Put the main points up front?
  • Used statistics, facts, and news events to make my points?
  • Organized the points into clearly delineated sections?
  • Used graphics to show the statistics or concepts clearly?
  • Explained the larger implications of my points?
  • Made recommendations about what to do?
  • Written a short (1-2 page) executive summary of the points that are most important?
  • Developed a plan to publicize my work, within my organization or outside of it?

Keep these principles in mind as you write, and your results will have greater impact.

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  1. Whoa. Powerful stuff. This might be outside the scope of Edelman’s work, but I have to ask: is there anything left that we do trust? Other than the voices of other people inside our respective bubbles?