ONE ON ONE: Richard Edelman on the Evaporation of Public Trust

"Trust levels are at an all time low; comparable to those of the 2009 'Great Recession.'"
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"Trust levels are at an all time low; comparable to those of the 2009 'Great Recession.'" - Richard Edelman

As we look back on 2014, we saw a year of unimaginable events: from the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines 370 and the attack on their civilian aircraft over the Ukraine, to the Ebola epidemic that spread throughout West and Central Africa like wildflower and found it's way onto US soil, to the terrorist attacks in a Sydney cafe and the cyber attacks on two of the world's most respected companies, Apple and Sony Pictures. All of these events were so geographically disparate and yet they effected us all, reverberating around the world in both a terrifying and yet unionizing way.

With the power of social media, these events no longer stand in isolation, they interconnect the world in a profound way. So, how do these major events manifest in our daily lives other than as a newspaper headline?

'Trust levels are at an all time low; comparable to those of the 2009 Great Recession', according to Richard Edelman, these major events have created a "sense that things are out of control" for consumers. Richard is the President and CEO of Edelman, the worlds largest independently owned public relations firm. Prompted by 'The Battle in Seattle' protests in 1999, followed by the Enron Scandal, Edelman began the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey which tracks the level of trust in global institutions of business, government, media and non-governmental organizations. The 2014 findings, which were released in a report by Edelman today, maps out why the public's trust is evaporating. The Barometer reveals an alarming decline in public trust, with levels below 50% in half the countries surveyed.

Edelman PR is invested in understanding how global events and trends in trust are interconnected. The barometer exhibits the tangible and statistically viable affect on the consumer's mentality. Yes, these newsworthy events go all the way up to the top with the Sonys and Apples of the world but it also leaves the consumer wondering, okay what does this mean for me as an individual? If a celebrity's photos can be leaked, is my data secure? What airline do I now feel safest on?

One of the remarkable facts the survey revealed, as a global trend, is these global events are actually and dramatically effecting the level of trust in governments. In fact, governments are the least trusted of the four institutions the barometer measures at 48% with NGOs as the most trusted at 63% followed by business at 57% and Media at 51%. Moreover, there has been a general decline in trust in NGOs, Business and Media compared to last year's levels. It's important to remember, despite the abstract percentages and statistics, that governments and business need the publics trust in order to function effectively.

After talking with Richard it becomes clear that Edelman's Trust Barometer sheds light on this idea of interconnectedness and that the individual is not alone but in fact belongs to something bigger. It also provides a lens for consumers, to realize that they have more power and influence then perhaps previously understood.

The paramount theme of the 2015 Trust Barometer is innovation. The pace of innovation has never been faster and while innovation should be a trust accelerator, the Trust Barometer found that by a two-to-one margin people find that innovation is accelerating too fast. Consumers feel there is not enough time for adequate vetting and testing of new technologies, this fear is an influential factor when it comes to trust. Since a climate of trust correlates with the kind of consumer confidence that breeds growth and prosperity, both commercially and politically. Then the essential question becomes how can businesses, governments, and NGOs earn and increase trust? Transparency is the fuel of trust, Richard argues, and it is through transparency melded with consistent long-term efforts where we will see long-term positive changes.

As a solution to the rebuilding of this dramatic evaporation of trust, Edelman calls first and foremost for transparency. The primary cause for fear -- and therefore lack of trust on the behalf of the public -- is the lack of knowledge. When corporations exhibit transparency, the public then has access to information they can mine, and subsequently use to choose whether or not to place trust in a company; and most importantly they will know why they do or do not trust them. In this regard, the Edelman Trust Barometer functions as an impetus for inquiry of the consumer.

What conclusions can we find form these somewhat discouraging results of the Trust Barometer? Richard explains that the power is in the hands of the consumer. When the consumer demands transparency, corporations are pressured to provide it, and in response corporations will be rewarded with loyal consumers and from there change can evolve. If consumers want to see change, they must ask for it, they need to be not only curious but active; Richard's advice to consumers is to "know your rights, participate, speak up, and have the companies you do business with respect those rights."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2015 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 21-24). Read all the posts in the series here.


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