Is the British public less trusting of big business than Europeans?
This is one of the major questions raised by a global survey unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week.
The fifth Edelman Annual Trust Barometer was conducted among 1,200 opinion leaders in the US, the UK, Germany, France, China and Brazil in December and January to investigate how opinion leaders in these six major markets view business, government, the media, and NGOs.
One of the survey's findings was that, despite the general strengthening of trust in business and government in the US and Europe, the British public does not trust multinational companies. In fact, the survey found that the organisations most trusted 'to do what is right' were NGOs such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, The World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.
If the findings are accurate, they have major PR implications for the many global and international companies with stakeholders in Britain.
The question is: what do they plan to do about it?
Many of the companies and brands cited in the survey would not comment on the findings, perhaps in itself highlighting a PR issue that contributes to low levels of trust. Willingness to be open on such an issue would surely play in the favour of any company.
The McDonald's trust gap
But one of the companies with a low UK rating in the table that agreed to comment was McDonald's. According to the survey, there is a gap of ten percentage points between trust of the McDonald's brand in the UK and in Europe (see table).
McDonald's Restaurants UK head of corporate affairs Nick Hindle says he believes this is at least partly explained by the British media. 'The scope and reach of the news media in the UK is far greater than almost anywhere else in the world,' he says. 'There is more food news and more food scares.'
McDonald's, says Hindle, is prone to greater scrutiny than most companies, and this determines how much time and effort the company allocates to building trust through media relations.
'McDonald's is covered by more correspondents than almost any other business - environmental, health, financial news, advertising, children's issues - so it is an enormous effort to tell a consistent story across all those areas,' continues Hindle.
'As a result, in the past 18 months we have increased our investment in media relations in the UK in terms of spend on staff and resources.'
Kraft Foods corporate affairs manager Jonathan Horrell blames the company's position in the table not on the way it is covered in the media, but on the fact that few realise the popular brands such as Kenco Coffee and Dairylea are Kraft-owned.
'Kraft, as a parent company brand, is not well recognised in the UK, and we know from our own research that trust is strongly associated with recognition,' Horrell says. 'If you don't recognise a brand, you won't trust it.'
He claims that even though consumer trust is one of the highest priorities for the company, the survey is not a cause for concern.
The company runs two key corporate social responsibility strategies, which it launched last year, tackling subjects such as obesity with its Worldwide Health and Wellness Strategy and environmental concerns with its sustainable coffee-sourcing partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.
'We expect the view of Kraft to change over time as the parent brand becomes more familiar,' Horrell says. 'As it stands, each of our brands is well known in its own right.'
Oil company ExxonMobil also takes issue with the survey, challenging the finding that trust levels are lower in the UK than in Europe.
'The conclusions of the Edelman survey appear to be different from our own independently commissioned research,' says ExxonMobil media relations manager for companies in the UK David Eglinton.
However, he adds: 'We recognise that in the past we have not been as open as we need to be. We are rectifying that with, among other things, more briefings with the media on the outlook for the global energy supply and future fuels, and better updating of the media on our own initiatives.'
Little impact on some issues
The answer to building corporate trust, then, is through a strong commitment to talking to the media. But there are some things upon which better media relations can have little impact.
Another issue highlighted by the survey is the link between a brand and its country of origin, and the impact this has on trust. The survey finds that US-based companies are the least trusted in the UK (at only 28 per cent).
This seems to have some connection with how a country's government is perceived. In the case of the US, the Bush administration is the least trusted government in Germany (12 per cent), Brazil (20 per cent), France (13 per cent) and the UK (21 per cent).
When asked the extent to which the Bush administration affected their choice of product, 42 per cent of British respondents said they were less likely to buy a US product because of Bush. In Germany, 66 per cent were less likely to purchase US products for the same reason, and 65 per cent of Germans said they would not buy British products because of the Blair government.
This would suggest that the invasion of Iraq last year by US and British forces has had an impact on trust for companies whose corporate identities are known to be either British or American. Some circumstances are beyond the control of even the most finely honed PR departments.
How much do you trust each organisation to do what is right?
ORGANISATION Europe %* UK %*
World Wildlife Fund 59 74
Amnesty International 63 64
Michelin 61 56
Samsung 48 44
Kraft 44 38
Coca-Cola 40 33
Nike 43 29
Exxon/Mobil Esso 34 26
KFC 24 19
McDonald's 27 17
Source: Edelman Annual Trust Barometer *percentage of respondents
expressing a high degree of trust.