Categories: Opinion research / Trust and reputations

28 January 2010


Edelman’s trust survey interrogated

Unaccountably, neither WEF nor Richard Edelman invited me to Davos (I’m just down the road, chaps) to discuss the latest Edelman 2010 trust study findings. So, I’ve decided to interrogate the findings anyway from my Zurich lakeside villa.

The survey is much less gloomy than it was a year ago, so two cheers for that.

According to Edelman, trust in business has stabilized and is trending upward, with a substantial jump of 18 points in the US (from an all-time low of 36% in 2009 to 54% in 2010). Trust in business falls into three categories (High: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, at 60-70%; Middle: Canada, Japan, US, at 50-59%; Low: France, Germany, Russia, UK, Korea, at 35-49%).

Moreover, Edelman reports that the three leading factors burnishing corporate reputation are now “quality products and services, a company I can trust and transparency of business practices.”

Financial results are now the least powerful factor in positive corporate reputation in most regions.

Overall it is all good news, but some of the conclusions are questionable.

Edelman’s survey reveals that trust in business is highest in some of the world’s least democratic countries.

The results don’t really support the notion that financial results matter least in most regions. It would seem that trust is high where performance is strong and weak where it is not. The modest recovery in trust in the weaker regions appears to be in line or apace with the recovery of economic fortunes there.

Transparency seems to matter most where results have been poor, and least where they have been good.

Moreover, the banking industry has suffered a profound fall from grace, with three-year declines of up to 39 points in markets ranging from the UK to the US to Germany. But banks remains highly trusted in China and India. While the automotive sector staged a comeback and is very highly ranked in developing markets.

I’m not surprised by these results. Scapegoating bankers has become a popular sport among politicians seeking popular appeal. Consumers in developing countries are now enjoying cheap motor cars and motoring, which their booming economies can deliver on a large scale.

But it is surely nonsense to imagine that Chinese and Indian banks are more responsible, more ethical, better managed and more trustworthy than their Western counterparts.

According to Edelman, NGO trust has jumped profoundly in China in the past six years, from 31% to 56%, a level comparable to that found in Western Europe, India and the US. It seems that about 70% of respondents trust a company more when it partners with an NGO on important social issues.

But I ask myself whether partnering with NGOs is behind the high trust levels of  Indonesian, Indian and Chinese businesses compared to their counterparts in London, Amsterdam and New York.

Moreover, when people say they trust a company more when it partners with an NGO, we should ask some tough questions.

Does a firm partnering with an NGO acquire a share in the other’s reputation or vice versa? If it’s the NGO which confers trustworthiness, what exactly does the respondent trust in that relationship?

A partnership with an NGO does nothing to alter core business practices or performance, which is the real trust business needs to have bestowed upon it if it is to function effectively in the market.

According to Edelman, this year, business tends to be more trusted than Government. Government trust has risen in the US (substantially), France and Germany, but fell in Russia and was mostly stable elsewhere.

I’m surprised by the US result. Polls and election results there suggest that trust in Barack Obama’s regime is collapsing fast. It’s collapsing faster than anything George W Bush experienced in his first term. Obama, it would seem, is more popular abroad than at home.

Last year, by a 3:1 margin of Edelman’s respondents said that government should intervene to regulate industry or nationalize companies to restore public trust. Now it seems business is making a comeback in terms of favourablity.

That seems likely. But as governments seek to reduce their level of public debt the cuts will probably soon make governments more unpopular than ever. It is almost as if having got what they wanted, respondents will turn on governments when the latter attempt to balance the books (they’ll also turn on those governments that don’t).

Edelman’s survey reports that the credibility of chief executives has recovered but remains well below that of academics, financial analysts and NGO representatives. In a reversal of past trend, a “person like myself” has seen a drop in trust and fellow employees has remained stable, now at levels comparable to CEOs.

As a PR I welcome this. I think the results reflect how our business has helped CEOs reappear armed with messages. But clearly there’s more work to be done on that front. I’m also chuffed to hear that “persons like myself” (so to speak) are losing credibility and that expertise is once more rising up the scale of credibility.

Meanwhile, business magazines and analyst reports have widened their lead over TV, radio and newspapers as the most trusted sources of information about companies over the past few years. Corporate advertising is the lowest at 14%.

Well that’s no surprise either. But I’ve never trusted much what people say about the media. That’s not least because messengers often get confused with the message – and shot as a result. But the truth is the mass media matters as much as ever, and still sets agendas internationally.

Social media is all very interesting but it mostly feeds off the commercial media. Moreover, there has been a long-term decline in newspaper readership in the West and in the fashion of things magazines are filling much of the gap that that left.

Yes, I’ve never liked corporate advertising, particularly when its greenwash BP-style with slogans such as beyond petroleum.

There remains great skepticism about future behavior of business, with almost 70% expecting “a return to business as usual” by companies and financial institutions once the crisis is over. Two-thirds of respondents expect government to have active influence over the financial sector. More than 70% said reducing the gap between senior executive and ordinary employee pay and firing underperforming management was central to restoring trust in companies.

Linking pay and bonuses to performance makes sense, but that could result in even larger remunerations than during the last boom once things start booming again.

In conclusion, I ask is trust really, as Richard Edelman claims “an essential line of business to be developed and delivered,” or is it, as I maintain, something which flows from innovation, performance and delivery on promises? Is the heart of trust setting expectations and meeting them? I think so.

6 responses to “Edelman’s trust survey interrogated”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Judy Gombita, Keith Bossey, Yancey Thomas, paulseaman, paulseaman and others. paulseaman said: @DavidBrian #davos Edelman’s trust survey interrogated […]

  2. Chuck says:

    I do not understand your use of the word “interrogate.” Do you?

  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Chuck, sure I do. For me the word interrogate used here means to examine and ask questions.

  4. Charles H. Green says:

    Paul, nice work on this series. The Edelman work seems to me to be at its strongest when it talks about longitudinal trends in a single question for a single group: e.g. consumer trust in banks. Though, as you point out, those results are often quite understandable given politico-economic events.

    The data are more troubling the shorter-term they get, and the more they risk the apples/oranges problem. As an earlier commenter (last year?) pointed out, trust is highly contextual. I would say it begs a predicate, as in “I trust my dog with my life; but not with my ham sandwich.” Trust–to do what? is a key question, and when left out of the survey (or its results), the ‘findings’ are anything but clear.

    In general, what Mr. Edelman is largely measuring is very short-term opinions. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s very different from the longer-term social trust measured by such academics as Eric Uslaner, relying on the now-long-running General Social Survey. He would say that trust, while gradually declining over the years, hardly jumps about the way Edelman’s data do; Edelman is measuring what Uslaner calls ‘strategic trust,’ which as someone else pointed out is much more along the lines of ‘do I believe what X person or organization is saying is true, will they act that way.”

    Incidentally, stay tuned to my blog TrustMatters where I began a series of interviews with trust experts called Trust Quotes, starting this Wednesday; one of those interviewed will be Uslaner. The blog is at

    Thank you for your very useful and thoughtful commentary.

    Charles H. Green
    Trusted Advisor Associates

  5. […] (that’s an issue I’ve looked on my PR blog in relation to the Edelman trust survey results here here […]

  6. […] Trust Barometer conclusions, and in initiatives such as the Stockholm Accords (see here here here here and here). It is an outlook which pretends that all stakeholders are equal. It is an arm of PR […]