The findings from Edelman’s latest annual global trust barometer make shocking reading for any comms or media professional because they reveal declining levels of trust in the key pillars of the pluralistic, democratic society in which the modern PR industry has grown up.
Worryingly, there has been a fall in public trust in just about every type of ‘societal leader’.
When asked if people trusted different types of leader ‘to do what is right’, trust in government leaders has declined from 43 per cent of people last year, to just 41 per cent today. Trust in journalists also declined by a further five points to 45 per cent, and trust in corporate CEOs was down three points to 48 per cent. Even the most trusted leaders in modern society – scientists – saw a decline in trust by seven points to 73 per cent of the public.
Perhaps most worrying for comms professionals, trust in traditional media (down 12 points over two years to 53 per cent) and in social media (down 12 points to 35 per cent) as sources of general news and information have fallen to all-time lows. Sixty per cent of respondents described the media as ‘politicised’ and ‘not objective'.
Indeed, we have reached (hopefully) a nadir where more than half the people that Edelman surveyed believed journalists, government leaders and business leaders may deliberately be trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.
Global CEO Richard Edelman described this as ‘an infodemic’ - a pandemic of bad information contaminating the information ecosystem and starting to make people doubt even accurate and good information.
The world’s most powerful PR professional pulled no punches when he said: “The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 finds a new era of information bankruptcy and a trust ecosystem unable to confront it. The pandemic and infodemic are two strands of a Rambo DNA, inextricably linked in their destructive force. Government and media, the usual sources of quality information in crisis, have both failed to meet the test.”
Perhaps New York-based Edelman’s view was enhanced through the American lens; the results being released in the aftermath of political turmoil in the US. It is a country still emerging from a hugely divisive presidential election and shocking scenes last week as Donald Trump-inspired protestors stormed the Capitol building.
Interestingly, the levels of media distrust do seem to vary hugely between different political viewpoints. Edelman research carried out since the US election showed a 39-point gap between Joe Biden (57 per cent) voters and Donald Trump voters (18 per cent) on trust in media. It revealed a 15-point drop in media trust among Trump voters.
Most Americans (57 per cent) find the political and ideological polarisation so extreme that they believe the US is in the “midst of a cold civil war”; Trump voters (64 per cent) versus Biden voters (58 per cent).
But there is also concern that the same polarisation and media mistrust is prevalent in the UK and many other countries around the world.
Brexit has been hugely polarising in the UK with many on the right, during the process to leave the EU, turning on Parliament, the judiciary and the BBC, accusing these hitherto pillars of democracy of being ‘biased’, even ‘traitors’ on occasion.
New broadcasters are being set up in the UK to provide an ‘alternative’ to the nation’s public sector broadcaster, which is perceived in some quarters to be overly representative of a liberal, metropolitan elite.
As a PR agency, Edelman tends to seek a solution in business ‘stepping up’ and taking on responsibility to inform the public and lead on societal change for the better.
There is little doubt ,however, that declining trust in business leaders goes hand in hand with the wider ‘infodemic’.
Declining public trust in governments and media, indeed all ‘experts’, represents a real threat to modern democratic societies and principal stakeholders in these societies, including brands, PR agencies and media firms.