Categories: Opinion research / Trust and reputations

25 January 2011


Edelman’s wonky 2011 Trust Survey

I love Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, not least because it offers year-on-year comparative data. But its findings should come with a health warning.

The Economist, for instance, has been quick to trash Edelman’s headline that suggests “Trust Stabilises Globally”. It reports:

…on closer inspection of the data—garnered by polling members of the “informed public” (college-educated, in the top quarter by earnings for their age and country, etc) in 23 countries—it turns out that, rather than stabilising, in many respects trust is continuing to decline.

It goes on:

…[the] aggregate picture masks some bad news, especially for the world’s superpower, where the trust Americans have in their government has fallen to a lowly 40%, from 46% last year. Americans’ trust in business has also dropped sharply, from 54% in 2010 to 46%. Trust in business also fell in Britain, from 49% to 44%, though the British feel more trusting towards their government (albeit a hardly ecstatic 43%, up from 38%), perhaps because it is too recently elected to have totally disillusioned them.

But trust in government in Italy has risen sharply (that must have brought a smile to Berlusconi’s lipstick-smeared lips), though it remains no match for the trust put in Brazil and China’s governments. As The Economist put it:

Indeed, the level of trust reported in the Chinese government is so high that it makes one wonder if the sort of influential people surveyed by Edelman are reluctant to trust opinion pollsters with their real opinion of their political rulers.

It is also worth noting that trust in Italy’s media – mostly owned by Mr. Berlusconi – is also up from 38% last year to 45% this year (that compares to the drop in trust in the UK’s media from 31% to 22%). Chinese media is, of course, the most trusted on earth (up from 63% to 80%) . Yeah, right.

What was interesting this year was that Edelman tested how much trust people put in Milton Friedman’s economics and the pursuit of profit as the first duty of business:

Edelman asked its sample if they agreed with the view traditionally associated with Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Laureate in economics that “the social responsibility of a business is to increase its profits.” The United Arab Emirates proved to be the most Friedmanite, with 84% agreeing, just ahead of Japan, rather unexpectedly given its reputation as a stakeholder-oriented corporate world, with 72%. Sweden, which is also seen abroad as an anti-Friedmanite bastion also scored high, at 60%.

I’ve pointed out before how in Japan a long period of deflation, recession and reality broke the country’s commitment to consensus building. Japan has actually become more enthusiastically capitalistic than ever as it seeks ways to reboot its economy. However, The Economist reports that the public (in this context Europe and America) does not yet see the future the same way Japan does:

America, supposedly the land of profit maximisation über alles, scored only 56%, and Britain 43%. Less surprisingly, Friedman’s views drew little support in stakeholder-friendly Germany, Italy and Spain, at 35%, 33% and 30%, respectively—ie, less support for profit maximisation than in China, whose nonetheless relatively low score suggests that its public embrace of red-blooded capitalism still has some way to go.

Edelman found, there are very high levels of support for the view that firms should be willing to sacrifice some profits to meet their commitments to their various stakeholders. The percentages are startling—91% in Germany, 89% in Britain, Ireland and China. America is only slightly further behind. Even in those countries with the lowest support for this particular view—Brazil, Japan and the United Arab Emirates—there was still a majority who agreed with it.

The findings no doubt will fuel the argument that says business should work in partnership with NGOs, whose trust levels (up from an average of 57% last year to 61%) remain, on average, significantly below those of the Chinese government. So, if partnering with NGOs is a helpful means of securing a better corporate reputation, one wonders why partnering with the Chinese government would not be even more effective (ask Google, I guess). Of course, China represents the world’s largest and fastest-growing market, so it is an obvious win-win from a business perspective.

But Edelman, you can be sure, will use its results to boost its call to treat all stakeholders as equals. It will use the results to continue advising firms to outsource their reputations to NGOs and to seek ways to “prove” that they are doing well by doing good with the aid of a third party stamp of approval.

The fact that the facts don’t fit Edelman’s narrative – of business and society and shared values – should raise some eyebrows among the rest of us. Perhaps it is time to ditch the do gooding agenda and get back to business?

See also: Edelman’s trust survey interrogated

6 responses to “Edelman’s wonky 2011 Trust Survey”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by hannahloumurray, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog: Edelman’s wonky 2011 Trust Survey #PR @edelman #CSR #trust2011 […]

  2. […] So what are we to make of all this? The Economist finds the results as surprising as we do, and suggests that they offer plenty of food for thought for business leaders gathering in Davos. After writing a lengthy thesis explaining why the PR industry should drop its reliance on stakeholder theory, Paul Seaman is less convinced. […]

  3. Judy Gombita says:

    The Italy scenario did leap out at me as well.

    On the other hand, it was refreshing that the world’s largest independent PR agency, who has publicly stated that it wants to lead agency digital PR efforts, did not whitewash the results about the lowest-ranking trust indicators being “friends and family” and (at the very bottom), social media.

    The call is for social media to be more like journalism (online and traditional media outlets) and less like an online party, if it wants to be trusted and, presumably, respected.

    I don’t think it was influenced by the Edelman Trust Barometer, but I suggest you check out Mitch Joel’s recent post, “Get More Media Savvy”

  4. […] Edelman’s wonky 2011 trust survey, by Paul […]

  5. Howie at Sky Pulse Media says:

    None of the online influence efforts mean anything in my book. They have no idea about context or offline. And MOST not some, MOST of the influences in our life are still off line. A recent survey showed only 40% of social media users (still a minority of people over all) ever found a worthwhile recommendation from online friends. 3 of 4 US consumers will not use Social Media today. Only 6-10mil US people will use Twitter.

    The problem with Edelman is TRUST is about RT’s. If I tweet something and 1000 people go out and buy something but don’t RT I have no trust. That is a huge hole. If 1000 people RT but never take action I get a huge score. That is totally inverse of what is important.