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Trust: Business Tops Media and Government in Ethics and Competence, Finds Survey

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer found business is trusted more than government, media and NGOs; this presents an opportunity to build trust through content

Businesses are increasingly viewed as more ethical and competent than government, media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

That’s according to the 2021 Trust Barometer by Edelman (opens in PDF). The study polled 33,000 respondents in 28 countries. It also surveyed 1,500 respondents in the U.S. after the last election season to supplement the report.

Among the key findings, was that business is now the most trusted institution. People have more faith in businesses than they do in NGOs, government or the media.

That’s measured by asking respondents to rate trust on a nine-point scale from “distrust” to “neutral” to “trust.”  When asked “How much you trust that institution to do what is right?” survey respondents said the following:

  • 61% trust business
  • 57% are neutral about trust in NGOs
  • 53% are neutral about trust in trust government; and
  • 51% are neutral about trust in trust media. [emphasis mine]

It’s important to underscore that it’s not just the numerical value that’s operative here: businesses are in the “trust” category while every other institution is in the “neutral” category. No institution was ranked in the “distrust” category.

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Business is ethical and competent

According to the survey, business was the only institution that respondents classified as both ethical and competent. To that end, NGOs were categorized as ethical but less competent. Both media and government were labeled – by survey responses – as unethical and less competent.

Business also scored well among those who know it best: their employees. According to the Edelman study, 75% of respondents globally trust their employer. Similarly, 72% of U.S. respondents trust their employer. I’d venture stepped up internal communications following the pandemic had a lot to do with these numbers.

Overall, respondents indicated “my employer” was the most believable source of information. Employers are more believable than government, media reporters with named sources, major corporations, media reports with anonymous sources, advertising and “my social media.”

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Media distrust grows

While there’s certainly been a discussion of bias in the media for as long as I can remember, I found the ethical rating on media rather jarring. The survey suggests the issue is far worse than I had imagined. People overwhelmingly do not trust the media.

The Edelman survey offered additional context:

  • 59% indicated they felt “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public”
  • 59% suggested “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations”; and
  • 61% say “the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan.”

It’s important to note that this is a global survey, and these views are not unique to the U.S. This data reflects an international sentiment felt around the world.

To be sure, America definitely has a problem trusting the media. This isn’t a new or isolated finding – or even reserved to just one political ideology – it’s uniform across both sides of the aisle.

For example, a 2020 survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation identified several troubling statistics like this one: “Nearly 3 in 4 Americans (74%) say news organizations they distrust are trying to persuade people to adopt a certain viewpoint, while 16% say they are trying to report the news accurately and fairly but are unable to do so.”

Golden Rules for Building Trust through Content

When there’s so much distrust in traditional information sources, it creates an opportunity for businesses to step up and fill a part of the void where they have both competence and credibility.

Whether you call it content marketing, brand journalism or custom publishing, with trust in media  falling while trust in business is growing, you can build credibility through content if you can follow these golden rules:

1. Put your audience first.

It’s not about you, your company or products. It’s about your audience. Make your audience the hero.

2. Keep your content marketing separate and distinct.

Don’t mash case studies, white papers, webinars, press releases and blog posts together. These all have different tones, purposes and speak to an audience at different points in time. Keep your blog, a newsletter, or an articles-site – separate and sacred.

3. Publish with consistency.

Consistency is the key to trust in any category of communication. It’s true in interpersonal relationships and it’s true in leadership and group dynamics. Study, after study demonstrates to be consistent is to be reliable. To be reliable is to be trustworthy.

4. Grow subscriptions.

If you don’t have subscribers, you don’t have an audience. Subscriptions are an indication of a relationship: long-term and sustainable interest in your company’s perspective.

5. Write with journalistic ideals.

Your presentation of information should follow journalistic principles. This isn’t about objectivity per se, because you can and should have a point of view: you are looking at the world as only you can. Just be honest and transparent about your interests.

6. Invest in communications experience.

You need seasoned people that know how to build an audience and can communicate at all levels from entry-level to c-suite. Too many companies claim the function is important, but when you look closer it’s staffing, they’ve got one junior person, with no budget, who gets direction from many senior leaders, and their performance is evaluated on something other than the audience.

7. Invest in quality content.

Cheap content is expensive content because you’ll spend endlessly and gain nothing. Thought leadership requires actual thought and leadership.

8. Use datelines, bylines and citations.

Trust requires disclosing who said what, when and why. Datelines, bylines and citations provide context, credibility and accountability – imperatives of trust.

9. Stay in your lane.

It’s tempting to chime in on every social and political issue that’s making headlines. Yes, people increasingly want businesses to be ethical, to be good corporate citizens, to take care of employees, and to do well by the planet, but don’t overextend yourself.  Make sure your own house is in order first and listen. Then, only speak out on issues that are relevant to your business and offer a considered view.

* * *

Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, but if trust is important to business, then this survey suggests the timing couldn’t be better to start or redouble your efforts in content marketing.

[Did you know? This blog is just a clever cover story for a boutique and savvy marketing and PR consultancy serving B2B tech. Check out our services.]

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Image credits: Photo by Floriane Vita on Unsplash and Edelman study

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