Edelman’s Trust Barometer is a major highlight of the PR calendar because it provides global and historically comparative data we can mull over. This year there’s a welcome shift in Edelman’s narrative. Gone is the anti-profit, anti-business and all stakeholders are equal tone that I’ve criticised in the past.
In has come a bold recognition that business must be seen, as Edelman’s press release puts it, “as a force for good and [more significantly] an engine for profit”. But – yes there’s always one very BIG one of those – there’s a major contradiction at the heart of the lessons Edelman draws from its own results:
Consistent financial returns, innovative products and a highly regarded senior leadership are primary factors on which current trust levels lie. However, listening to customer feedback and putting customers ahead of profits are more vital to building future trust. [taken from press release: here]
It is as if Edelman is saying profit, innovation, new products and good leadership will win you trust today but not tomorrow. This message is suspect for a number of reasons. For example, trust is strong in business in every part of the world in which there is sustained economic growth. We should note, indeed, that current evidence from China suggests that future trust levels will fluctuate in proportion to the rate of, and the degree to which people are optimistic about, continued growth and social development.
Now let’s look at the cognitive dissonance among the public that Edelman’s survey uncovers. Edelman reports that while business is on average much more trusted than governments across the globe, 49% of respondents want governments to impose more regulations and supervision on business practices. On this point Richard Edelman usefully takes the lead:
The interventions people are asking government to take are changes business can step up and implement on its own [taken from press release]
That’s seemingly a robust pro-business message. Except it isn’t enough. Honesty is called for. In the future the West is going to continue to compete with emerging markets in the BRICS and elsewhere in Asia, Africa and Latin America. As a consequence, many of the calls that the public are now making to restrain and control business are going to have to be resisted; of course that’s not the same thing as ditching corporate responsibility. Winning that argument by challenging the public’s current perceptions will take a protracted and frank debate.
Otherwise it is more likely that business will say one thing and then be forced to do another under the pressures of the real world. Already, business has had to cut back on its biggest social responsibility to its employees and society at large: pension provision. In the future things are likely to only get tougher still on many many fronts – so let’s be straight or we seriously will lose people’s trust.
The key to building and maintaining trust and confidence is not difficult to fathom. Today, wherever there is uncertainty and angst about economic growth in the future, there has been a massive fall in trust and confidence in the present, which looks set to continue if things don’t improve.
Hence the best PR from now on must be focused on making growth happen by removing the barriers to innovation, experimentation and profit making; be they limits imposed by governments or self-abnegation and concessions to protest movements. That calls for a battle for hearts and minds in the realm of public opinion. It will involve making consumerism and corporations chic once again and advocating rapid technological progress and economic development.
The upbeat culture we require to win back trust and overcome cynicism is totally at odds with today’s downbeat anti-growth, anti-technology and anti-corporate, pessimistic climate, particularly in the West with its Occupy Wall St protests. However, as yet, the PR world, including the Edelman PR Agency, does not agree with my viewpoint. So I predict we will continue to remain part of the problem for some more time to come.
See also: Edelman’s wonky 2011 Trust Survey