Business can combat existential threat to democracy

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer places business above the other three major institutions - it must use this trust credit to aggressively combat misinformation and erosion of truth.

Business has a nuanced but active role to play in combating the war on truth. (Pic: Getty Images.)
Business has a nuanced but active role to play in combating the war on truth. (Pic: Getty Images.)

The Edelman Trust Barometer, probably the most high-profile annual piece of IP produced by a PR agency, is normally unveiled on a biting cold early morning in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Form.

This year, while the unveiling of the report at 2:00am ET still tipped its hat to Davos, the virtual launch was very much in line with what we have come to expect in COVID-19 lockdown. It had also been brought forward a week to come out before next Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Edelman’s annual survey of 33,000 respondents in 28 markets showed an erosion of trust in all four major institutions, government, business, NGOs and media, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic that has paralyzed the world over the past 12 months.

The U.S., China and the media come out particularly badly in the research, with trust in the U.S. down to 40% and China to 30%. Trust in mainstream media is down to 53%, social media to 35% - 61% believe media is politicized and not objective.

According to CEO Richard Edelman, half of U.S. respondents to the trust survey identified as supporters of President Trump, a cohort within which only 18% trust media.

That is a staggeringly low number. We’re living in a world where many people don’t believe anything they read and don’t trust the leaders elected to represent them. They chant the mantra of fake news and, as the U.S. Capitol riots demonstrated last week, some of them are finding disturbing alternative facts elsewhere.

In his note to accompany the Trust Barometer launch, Edelman said: “Media must restore its position as the even-handed arbiter of truth, focused on news not opinion.”

Yesterday Axios, a new media channel based on the concept of smart brevity founded three years ago by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allan, unveiled a Bill of Rights and Mission Statement that almost seemed inspired by Edelman’s statement.

Axios committed to “never be a platform for incitement of argument” and stated it “will never have an opinion section.” It said it will “go the extra mile to earn your trust” and instructed all employees “to refrain from taking/advocating for public positions on political topics.” 

Adding context, Axios added: “Misinformation and the erosion of truth, often propagated on social media, are existential threats to democracy. Journalism must be fact-based.”

I wish them well on this mission and I hope other media owners follow suit and move toward a more bipartisan approach that leans into facts and eschews the opinion-led rhetoric that has infected all parts of so-called news coverage, whether that is on Fox, CNN, MSNBC or elsewhere.

The Trust Barometer also showed business has become the most trusted institution and source of information, at 61%, although CEO credibility is down to 44%.

Now is certainly the time for business to step up, but there are big challenges involved in doing that and false steps could prove catastrophic in a country where a mass class divide has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the subsequent recession it caused.

This week, Mariah Cooper from PRWeek’s sister title Campaign U.S. talked to Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble and one of the most influential voices in the worlds of marketing and communications.

Pritchard has long been passionate about the need for a safer media ecosystem within which his brands can exist, and he’s growing impatient with social media platforms in particular. “We're off a lot [of platforms],” he said. “We don't want to monitor ad content. That's really something the platforms need to do.”

Pritchard added: “We want a responsible media supply chain, and we don't want any of our brands near or on hateful content. We're doing a lot of monitoring on that, a lot more needs to get done.”

Pritchard was speaking at P&G’s virtual immersive LifeLab experience at CES, a platform it intends to scale across the whole year, especially for other high-profile events including Cannes and the Olympics. It’s an example of the CPG behemoth using owned media to cut out the middle person and go direct to consumers, another strategy to counter lack of trust in mainstream and social media.

He explained that the first recourse is to talk to social media platforms and, if they don't change, P&G takes action that can culminate in brands stopping advertising.

“The problem is, we're spending too much time on this,” he noted. “We've got some guidelines, but we need standards. They need to be enforced and audited. There needs to be accountability for that to happen. Right now, the accountability we can provide is that we don't advertise.”

The holder of one of the largest marketing budgets in the world ended by saying that, if industries can't self-regulate, at some point the government will have to step in. And what he’s saying about social media should be a shot across the bows of mainstream media too, because the same frustrations exist there.  

So, brands and corporations are holding media platforms’ feet to the fire. As we saw with the P&G example, they are also increasingly becoming media platforms in their own right.

This is even more prevalent in the area of employee engagement, which is taking up increasing chunks of in-house PR leaders’ time and energy, especially in the last 12 months of a horrific health pandemic, widespread working from home and racial injustice.

For the time being at least, citizens regard business as more ethical and competent than the government or media. But that regard will be tested in the coming months as the egregious effects of the coronavirus-induced recession kick in even more deeply than they have already.

Some industries have been decimated by COVID-19, especially in the brick'n'mortar retail, airline, travel, leisure and hospitality sectors. But, as the artificially inflated stock markets are currently demonstrating, many businesses have prospered in an environment of low corporate taxation that has principally been utilized to fund share buybacks and the ongoing reduction of physical jobs in favor of cheaper technological solutions.

The 2021 Trust Barometer shows business has some temporary credit in the trust bank. But, if it is to continue to benefit from this positive perception, it must commit to doing the right thing moving forward.

Richard Edelman sums it up: “A lot of businesses are really suffering. Jobless claims went over 1 million this week. It's a bifurcated moment and that's why the mass class divide is so severe. That's why business had better pay attention here on upskilling.

"This is the beginning of the so-called next decade of automation, starting with retail and financial services. The prediction is that 25,000 stores will close in the U.S. this year. That shift is like the iceberg looming and that's the real trust issue. If businesses throw these people out of work without training, that's going to be fodder for populists."

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