Growing decline in trust presents huge opportunities for savvy organisations

Australians’ trust in business, media, government and NGOs is down across the board. This is the first time all four institutions have declined in trust in the one year, and the shocks don’t stop there.

According to new research released by PR giant Edelman, non-establishment voices are growing louder and they’re capturing the mood of the nation. Brexit and Donald Trump are large-scale reflections of this sentiment globally, but we continue to see it take place in myriad nooks and crannies of society across the board.

Here are a few stark snapshots from the 2017 Australian Edelman Trust Barometer (presentation slides were photographed at the Melbourne launch event).

We don’t trust company statements

The Edelman research shows Australians find individuals more believable as sources of information versus institutions (70 per cent vs 30 per cent); interestingly, 74 per cent are more likely to believe leaked information about a company over official press statements.

Along a similar theme, at 64 per cent we trust a speaker (e.g. company representative) who appears spontaneous a lot more than someone who comes across as obviously rehearsed (36 per cent). Also, while providing data can be an effective way to get our message across, we find that speakers who share personal experiences to be more believable (59 per cent).

DIGITAL CITIZEN INSIGHT: After years of putting up with meaningless jargon-filled press statements, it’s little wonder the public does not swallow the official line issued by companies. The opportunity is for the leadership of businesses and community organisations to become more open and connected – not hide behind overly-polished press releases but rather, use the likes of Twitter, blog posts and YouTube videos to communicate directly with the public. Two examples of this are Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison’s message about unacceptable behaviour and GoDaddy CEO, Blake Irving, who pulled a Super Bowl Ad featuring a golden retriever puppy that found its way home after falling out of a truck, only to find its owner had used GoDaddy to set up a website that let her sell the dog to a new owner. The ad attracted a flood of complaints and Irving promptly used the company blog plus his personal Twitter account to communicate to the public how his company had ‘missed the mark’. In short, authenticity, humanity and telling stories all help build trust!

Who do we trust?

One of the fascinating findings of the Trust Barometer year in, year out, has been who we trust as a source of information on behalf of a company or organisation.

Academic and technical experts continue to top the table as the most trusted and credible sources of information for a company or organisation sitting at 58 per cent apiece – this has been the case for years – while “a person like yourself” weighs in at 56 per cent and employees fourth at 48 per cent.

Meanwhile, the CEO’s credibility has plummeted to a low of just 26 per cent (a drop of 13 points from 2016), just a smidgen above boards of directors at 24 per cent.

DIGITAL CITIZEN INSIGHT: The figures might change from year to year but the pattern largely remains intact. Academics, internal experts and peers are trusted, but organisational leaders are not. This throws up two powerful ‘book-end’ scenarios all businesses and organisations should be thinking about from a PR and communications perspective (a) Get your people – especially technical experts – out of the cubicle farm and onto your owned media and social channels, plus consider partnering with credible academics relevant to your brand and your business, and (b) get your leaders out from the shadows of the boardroom and again, onto your owned media and social channels – but not in a stiff, polished and jargon-filled way, but as genuinely passionate human beings who show interest in people and topics beyond their brand, products and services.

Trust in media plunges (but there is evidence of a rebound)

The media took a hit in this year’s Trust Barometer, plunging to an all-time low in the trust stakes in 17 countries and distrusted by 82 per cent of countries that are included in the global research.

In Australia, the level of trust in the media sits at 32 per cent, down 10 percentage points on a year ago.

Whether the shenanigans in the US with Trump & Co. have skewed our perception of the media is partly to blame is anyone’s guess. But there’s no doubt the stripping back of newsrooms has made life difficult for journalists who are under constant deadline pressure and perhaps do not have the time and space to research stories and double-check facts like they once did and this is starting to have an effect.

Interestingly, it’s not just the Edelman research that has identified the public’s distrust of the media.

Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with just 32 per cent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media (coincidentally, this is the same as Australia). This is down eight percentage points from last year. (SOURCE)

But on the flipside, a recent study by Morning Consult found that the majority of the people find the major media outlets are credible. At the top, ABC News was found credible by 67 per cent, CBS by 65 per cent, The New York Times by 63 per cent and CNN by 60 per cent of the public (SOURCE).

Indeed, The New York Times is experiencing a surge in popularity, with the paper recently reporting it added 276,000 new digital news subscriptions in the fourth quarter of 2016, its best quarter since 2011. On the print side, NYT added 25,000 subscribers, its best result in six years.

DIGITAL CITIZEN INSIGHT: Companies and organisations should take the opportunity to become their own media channel and communicate directly with customers, influencers and other stakeholders. At Digital Citizen, we are still very bullish on the power of ‘earned media’, but remember the media is not just represented by mainstream newspapers, magazines, TV and radio any more; there are plenty of blogs and podcasts and YouTube channels that have the potential to influence niche audiences in any industry, sector or niche you care to name. But the power comes from having an active owned media platform first that feeds both social and earned media ongoing.

Influence continues to shift hands

Interestingly, we are seeing a seismic shift of influence away from leaders to the masses. This has been occurring for some time and will continue to do so while business and community leaders remain disengaged with the real world.

Put bluntly, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and it ain’t going back in!

DIGITAL CITIZEN INSIGHT: The future belongs to those brands that are socially-connected with the community, including at the organisational top end . It’s not about being authoritative, but building genuine authority that people recognise and respect; equally, it’s about bringing people along for the journey – your customers, stakeholders, employees and the people who influence them. Business and community leaders need to earn the right to influence, it doesn’t come from a title anymore.  

Glass half empty, or half full?

On the surface, we might bemoan this ‘lack of trust’ trend. And with good reason. Many institutions are behind the eight-ball and have a lot of catching up to do. That’s the hard-arsed glass half empty view.

But let’s look at the glass half-full version. With so much distrust around, companies and organisations have the opportunity to rise above the plethora of disconnected and disengaged companies and organisations that continue to operate like it’s 1999.

Trust leads to reputation.

Reputation is forged by deed but shaped by communications, and communications is driven by public relations.

At the heart of a robust public relations program beats five foundational elements that are critical to the ongoing reputational health (and success) of any business, government body or nonprofit organisation.

We call them PR’s VITAL signs, and they are Visibility, Influence, Trust, Advocacy and Leadership. You can learn more about them here. Bottom line – a strategic ongoing program of owned, earned and social media can have a positive effect on an organisation’s reputation, and the level of trust people place in it.

FURTHER READING: An Implosion of Trust by Edelman’s global CEO, Richard Edelman 



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G'day, my name's Trevor Young. Subscribe to the PR Warrior blog today and receive regular updates from me on all things PR, social media, content marketing and thought leader branding.

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