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The 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer sets out to probe where some of the most influential people in this increasingly disenchanted world place their trust. By surveying more than 3,000 opinion leaders - college educated, wealthy with a significant interest in economics and politics - in 18 countries the study was able to gauge their levels of trusts in institutions, companies and sources of information.

The study’s findings throw out intriguing questions. Why is business more trusted than government in every region of the world? Why do people usually tend to regard their peers, rather than experts or media professionals, as the most reliable source of information? Why do opinion leaders place praise companies more for their treatment of employees than for solid financial perfomance?

Now, it is your chance to enter a debate that is fundamental to today’s economic and political discourse.

Richard Edelman (above left), president and chief executive of Edelman, the world’s biggest independent public relations company, and David Brain, Edelman’s European president and CEO (above right), answer your questions.

Transparency International seems to be leading the way in this century by sorting out the good from the bad companies. American CEOs average tenure is less then four and a half years. Is short-termism and manipulation of the books a result of this? Can transparency be realistic if historic accounting concepts are still in vogue?
Paul Winter, Dublin, Ireland

Richard Edelman: Transparency is more than about accounting. We need to separate corporate performance and reputation from a simple equation with CEO image. The era of the rock star CEO is over - now it is about quiet competence and strong leadership with employees, customers and investors.

Great companies are aspiring to address the big issues such as environment--note Wal-Mart’s leadership in pushing for fluorescent light bulbs as an example. Interesting point that tech companies regularly score at the top of the study in looking at sectors--insurance and entertainment at the bottom.

Why do suppose NGOs beat business to the top spot in North America and Europe?
Claire Atkinson, Cheltenham, UK

David Brain: NGOs have been top of the pile in Europe ever since we started the study in 2000. They became top in the US last year for the first time and as you point out are the globally most trusted institution, though less so in Asia.

I think the answer to your question is in the very reason for an NGOs being. Most tend to be single issue. Most campaign for a better world (in their view). Unlike business, which makes products and services for US but also makes profits for owners, NGOs are seen to be untainted by ulterior motives.

Also, many NGOs have been successful on important issues and I think people see them as being a very important driver of a better way of life for us and in some instances, a useful check or balance between government, the media and business.

Richard, I don’t understand why we should trust your company to deliver insights on this topic. Didn’t your firm make a huge mass pitch to all of the companies participating at Davos to do business with them, when the purpose of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos is to debate the most important issues facing the world today? And didn’t your firm recently try to disguise a Wal-Mart-sponsored blog as independent editorial?
Mark Meup, New York

Richard Edelman: Mark, you should trust our company to deliver this information because we have been in business for 54 years, and we have been doing this study for the past seven years.

I acknowledge that we blundered on the Wal-Mart blog in the sense that we did not identify one of the two bloggers. I have been quite clear in apologising and in showing a way forward. On the note to companies attending the WEF, that was a clear violation of the Forum’s standards and we issued a note to the same companies apologizing and rescinding our offer.

I think it is important in this world to look at the totality of a company’s work, not at the two exceptions and point to them as indicative. Our work on GE, Starbucks, J&J and our other clients has been exemplary. If mistakes are made, we will acknowledge them and move forward with a better system to ensure 100 per cent quality in the future.

How is the internet and in particular, Web 2.0, changing the concept of peers? How will this influence trust in politics in the future?
Willy De Backer, Brussels

David Brain: I think it has made a big difference. Over the past few years we have seen a rise in the trust ascribed to “a person like me”. This year “a person like me” is the most trusted source of information across the EU, North America and Latin America.

In the the US trust levels are at 51 per cent and in the UK,Germany and France they average 45 per cent. We believe that the web and the rise of social networks has been a big driver of this. It has had a democratising effect if you like in that the “answers” can now be found to many questions from sources other than the old institutions. I think we are seeing an erosion of deference in all fields.

So while we trust our GP and their specialist training to prescribe the right pill, we still take a bunch of print-outs from the web in with us and ask questions of both diagnosis and prescription. The same is happening in politics - arguably more in politics than in any other arena.

According to the study, “someone like me” or my peer does not have to look like me, but has to think like me or have common interests. It’s a psychographic not a demographic if you like. And so in politics I think the net has and will continue to drive a change in the way people come together on issues in a much more fluid way. Arguably, the rise of the temporary peer group will have a big impact on political parties which have tended to be more monolithic and static in their bearing in the past.

Former Thai PM Thaksin Shiniwatra was elected from going from rags to riches and subsequently kicked out of office at least in part for the same reason. Do you think this lies in societies’ acceptance that business men behave in their own self interest which does not align with those serving in public office? But then again most western politicians are at the top of the wealth echelon. Is this why we as Westerners do not trust our politicians - assuming that they will serve their own interests once in office? Or is this due to their actions during their tenure in public office? In the United States some have questioned Halliburton’s link to Vice President Dick Cheney and its war profiteering.
Arash Nazhad, Austin Texas

Richard Edelman: I think that people separate their perceptions of politicians and business people. There are not enough examples of crossing over between sectors. In fact you could argue that people like John Corzine, now Governor of New Jersey, or Hank Paulson, secretary of the Treasury, are more trustworthy because they have made their money in private sector and now seek to do good in public sector.

NGOs seem to be at the top in Edelman survey. Given that NGOs are perhaps the least transparent organisations in the survey, would you say that the perception that they are the most trusted, as ranked by the elite sample in your survey, is based on their ability to shape their message, to focus on relatively discreet issues, or on their ability to criticise and hold up to the light the other three sectors represented in your survey?
James Murphy, Washington DC

Richard Edelman: NGOs benefit from the perception that they are objective and independent voices. It is interesting to note that for the first time in non-US markets such as the UK that there is a drop in NGO trust as an institution.

In fact business is the number one trusted institution in the UK with NGOs in second place. I would say that NGOs that cooperate with business - example the World Resources Institute with GE on the EcoImagination campaign or Environmental Defense Fund on the announcement on Monday with Alcoa DuPont Duke Energy on carbon emissions, are the smartest because they can achieve change more quickly.

Final point from me - the NGOs fill a trust void left by more established institutions of business, government and media.

Why do you suppose that, given recent corporate scandals at Enron and Worldcom, business is now more trusted than government in America? Is it all down to Bush’s foreign policy, and would a change of administration make any difference? What can politicians do to regain trust?
Hazel Oliver, North Carolina

Richard Edelman: It is an interesting parallel situation. Business had its terrible days with Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, Parmalat, then more recently the CEO options scandal for tech companies and the United Healthcare situation. The US government has really declined in trust since the peak in 2002, which was the post 9/11 burst of confidence.

Politicians are getting accustomed to communication on the horizontal axis - peer to peer. My friend Ned Lamont, who gave Joe Lieberman a good race for US Senate, spoke often to the bloggers and went online often with his ads on YouTube. It is partly a matter of communications, but it is also a matter of reality and policy.

In selecting your opinion leaders, were you aiming for a group representing the general public, the investing public, or another grouping?
Ryan Candee, New York, NY

Richard Edelman: We were surveying opinion formers making $75-100,000 reading or viewing several media each day college educated often professional school as well this was aimed at getting a real quantitative and valid look even though we surveyed 18 countries and total of 3,100 people.

The survey claims that business has regained trust and the trend might be upwards, but percentage ratings in the low 20s suggest an overwhelming lack of trust. In the US, for example, only 22 per cent of Americans trusted corporate leaders. Do you agree that there is still a long way to go?
John, UK

David Brain: We think that’s right John. Whilst business has recovered trust levels to a degree (possibly in developed markets because profits and share prices have been good and in developing markets because business is seen as the harbinger of a better life by opinion formers) CEOs have not. In fact, CEOs are generally rated as less credible sources of information about their companies than employees. So, that’s a long way of saying you are right, there is a long way to go.

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