Trust falls after a difficult 2020: Edelman Trust Barometer

A year of unrelenting, fast-moving news, and change coming from all directions (Don’t wear masks. Wear masks. Wear more masks), appears to have made Canadians less trusting of governments, businesses and media.

According to Edelman, which released its annual Trust Barometer report this week, Canada is facing a “crisis in leadership and expert credibility.”

“[A]mid urgent problems and in a year of crisis, leadership is failing,” said Edelman in a statement announcing the release of the findings. “The survey reveals government leaders, CEOs and religious leaders are not trusted to do what is right.”

While the year was upended by the global health pandemic, the resulting economic turmoil seems to have had a dramatic effect on how Canadians feel about business leaders.

Fully 50% of Canadian survey respondents say business leaders are intentionally trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false. The credibility of CEOs fell 5%, with only 29% of Canadians believing they are a good source of information. Just 26% of Canadians trust boards of directors.

However, the survey also found a significant number of Canadians expect businesses to help address societal problems:

  • 65% say CEOs should step in when government does not fix societal problems; and
  • 69% say CEOs should hold themselves accountable to the public and not just to boards of directors or stockholders

Furthermore, 67% of consumers believe they have the power to force corporations to change.

“There is a clear message for marketers in the Trust Barometer data: consumers’ expectations of brands are evolving quickly,” said David Ryan, Edelman’s executive vice-president, corporate and financial communications. “They now have a seat at the table and will not be shy about pushing brands and businesses to play a meaningful role in solving some of the big problems society is wrestling with. The brands that recognize this and play into it will lead the way in building and maintaining trust with consumers.”

As it does each year with its Trust Barometer, Edelman looked at how trust levels varied between the entire population and what it calls the “informed public”— those with higher education, higher incomes and higher levels of media consumption—and the “mass population,” which refers to the population excluding the informed public.

Edelman’s Trust Index, an assessment of the average trust levels in business, government, NGOs and media, fell among the informed public (67 last year to 64 this year), while it rose among the mass population (from 51 last year to 55 this year). Informed Canadians’ trust in businesses has fallen in the past year (from 64 to 61) while the mass population trusts them more (55 this year, up from 51 last year).

Last spring, Edelman released a special update to its annual findings that considered how the early weeks of the pandemic had changed trust levels. That survey found that much of the public responded positively to the ways businesses, government, NGOs and the media had reacted, with trust levels rising for all four. Less than a year later, many of those gains have been lost (see chart below).

In terms of sources of information, trust levels are at record lows. While still the most credible, trust in traditional media fell by 10% in the last year—from 65% last year to just 55% this year. Nearly half of Canadians (49%) said that journalists are intentionally trying to mislead the public by saying things they know are false. More than half say professional news outlets are more interested in supporting an ideology than informing their audiences. Trust in search engines, owned media and social media all fell in 2020, but to a lesser degree.

Edelman also looked at what it calls “information hygiene,” a scale based on four criteria: news engagement, avoid information echo chambers, verify information, and do not amplify unvetted information. Edelman concluded that 46% of respondents have poor information hygiene and 34% moderate, with only 20% having good information hygiene.

Poor hygiene could threaten pandemic recovery, said Edelman. Asked about willingness to get the vaccine within a year, for example, 73% of those with good information hygiene said they would, compared to 59% of those with poor information hygiene. Overall, 66% of Canadians said they are willing to vaccinate within a year.

While not an issue related to brands or media, Edelman also asked about feelings related to working from home and going back to the office.

Amongst those workers who had the choice of staying home or going back to the office, 60% chose to stay home, with concerns about COVID infection the most cited reason (51%), 21% saying they are more productive at home, and 35% citing enhanced work-life balance.

As for the 40% who chose to go back to the office, 35% said their employer made them feel safe to do so, 44% said they are more productive and 20% cited healthier work-life balance.

David Brown