We Now Trust CEOs More Than "Folks Like Me," but the U.S. Is Low on Trust

Edeleman trust graph

Edelman's just released its latest survey, or barometer, of global "trust" measurements among consumers, and found a couple of trends of our age: Old news industry is out, tech is in, CEOs are trustable, and the U.S. really doesn't trust anyone or anything.

Edelman styles itself as the "world's largest public relations firm," with a global footprint, so one may think its research into levels of public "trust" are pretty trustable—they did speak to over 5,000 people too, and it's the eleventh time they've done it. We've dug among the stats, and pulled out some of the most interesting findings for you, representing some sense of the zeitgeist.

We trust CEOs a lot more nowadays

While financial, technical, and academic experts retain their trustworthiness in Edelman's data, as you may imagine they would (being long-standing roles the public is very familiar with) the notable changes between 2009 and 2011 are persons "like yourself" and "CEOs."

The CEO trust index has risen so much it's seen the category hop from sixth place to fourth place in the most-trustable list. Considering that the antics of big-company CEOs are more typically relegated to the financial pages of a newspaper (the part you may rarely flick to, if you're a typical man in the street) unless they've done something terrible enough to merit attention in the "news" portions of the paper, this is pretty surprising. This may be a reflection of the changes in the news publishing industry itself, with more "jumbled" news stories presented in online media than traditional texts. But it's also likely thanks to high-profile charismatic CEOs like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, and perhaps even Tesla's Elon Musk—these characters seem to challenge the stodgy old company norms, and promise better customer experiences

Meanwhile, the downward trend in trust in "people like me" is fascinating. Is it Facebook's fault, as Edelman intimates, with the ease of "friending" so many people actually devaluing the concept of "friend"? Or is it merely that we're being exposed to so many friends opinions, reinforcing the notion that everyone really does have different thoughts about stuff? Either way, it's worrying news for friend-based recommendation engines.

Old news publishing industry beaten by online sources and search engines

Search engines rank first "as the place people go first for information about a company, followed by online news sources" Edelman notes. People are familiar with, and trust, online news sources first nowadays—and only after these do they trust traditional print and broadcast news and info sources.

The story isn't all bad for traditional media, however, as for secondary info about a topic the public does turn to them...albeit after looking at online news sources. These sites do include the online version of traditional newspapers, so that's a good thing.

But this data proves for sure the future of news is online, via traditional computers or through smartphones or tablets. And it casts doubt on the policy of locking away news content behind a paywall—particularly since the primary source of news info is a search engine.

The U.S. doesn't trust much

By measuring trust in "institutions," Edleman's research highlights how much the public trust the infrastructure of our society across NGOs, government, business, and media sectors. The U.S. historic chart ably demonstrates the dip in institution trust in 2009 caused by the economic crisis, and the subsequent recovery, but since January 2010 U.S. public trust in institutions has declined almost as much as it did in 2009—much more so for media, which slipped from 38% in 2010 to just 27% in 2011.

Worse than this, the U.S. was the only nation in the global survey to show a decline in trust in all four institutional categories. Other nations showed gains and losses for different institutions ... but the U.S. seems to have suffered the biggest slump in trust. Looking over four years, the overall trust index for the U.S. has slumped. Edelman suggests it could be the "prolonged fighting between business and government, unemployment rate—not the full recovery the country expected" and the nation's role as the "epicenter" of many headline crises in 2010—including the Gulf oil spill.

Definitely something to think about, if you're one of those now-more-trustable big-name CEOs.

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  • Charles H. Green

    The Annual Edelman Trust Barometer indeed makes for stimulating reading, and we all owe them thanks for doing the heavy lifting to conduct it (though I don't doubt they get more than their share of beneficial PR for doing it).

    But the approach taken does raise an interesting question: just what do they mean by 'trust'?

    If that sounds trivially simple, note that trust is notoriously contextual. "I trust my dog with my life--but not with my ham sandwich." "I trust Amazon to tell me what books I want; but not to date my daughter."
    Open ended questions like 'how much you trust banks' begs the question, "To do what?"

    The report shows trust in auto companies is up; even Richard Edelman says he's surprised by that one. No wonder--I sincerely doubt any one but the respondent knew what context they were using to answer the question: trust them to build safer cars? To not go out of business? To compete with Toyota? Your guess is as good as mine, which is not saying much.

    But most importantly, the Trust Barometer measure is a combined measure that mixes up two metrics. When it says "Trust in CEOs is up--" does that mean that CEOs have become more trustworthy? Or does it mean that people have become more trusting of CEOs? Or does it mean both? Could it even mean that CEOs are less trustworthy, but people have become so much more trusting that the net answer is a positive? We don't know, because the survey can't answer that question. All the survey does is record the single response of a respondent to a two-part question.

    There are other studies that specifically look at the trustworthiness of companies, using objective behavioral data (and more that look at individual trustworthiness). And, there are other studies that look specifically at trends in the willingness of people to trust others (the General Social Survey in particular). But in the Trust Barometer, those two traits are fused; they can't be pulled apart. Which means, on a fundamental level, there's a lot of potentially false precision here--4 percentage points shift from year to year may sound precise, but not if you can't tell a company's trustworthiness from a customer's paranoia.

    The Trust Barometer, to be fair, is very aptly named. Like a barometer, it is sensitive to short-term changes in the environment--most notably, economic ones. As Edelman's analysis points out, many of the ups and downs are attributable to GDP. The comparison of Brazil to US, for example (higher trust in Brazil, lower in the US), makes total sense if you simply compare the two countries' economic performance over the last three years (Brazil--very strong; US--very weak).

    The Trust Barometer does a good job of telling communications professionals where their messaging is working, and where it's not, and where they have to beef up efforts to be seen as having better reputations.

    That's fine and good. But what the Trust Barometer does not do very well is to signal deeper trends in either the trustworthiness of institutions (banks, government, NGOs) or in the inclination of people to be more or less trusting of those institutions.

    The Trust Barometer is itself highly trustworthy--as long as we're very clear about just what we're trusting it for.