About 43 per cent of the 13,000 people polled said they believed companies were protecting their employees sufficiently © AP

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People around the world think that business has done a poor job of responding to the Covid-19 crisis, according to an 11-country study that points to potential trouble for companies looking to persuade customers and employees to return to their shops and workplaces. 

Just 43 per cent of the 13,000 people polled by Edelman, the public relations consultancy, said they believed companies were protecting their employees sufficiently and only 29 per cent named chief executives among the list of leaders who had shone during the pandemic.

Despite high-profile pledges by business groups to put other stakeholders on an even footing with their investors, only 45 per cent of survey respondents trusted business to put people before profit. 

The survey, an update of a study Edelman has conducted annually for 20 years, showed that trust in business has risen since the start of the year but has been eclipsed by a record surge in trust in governments. 

“It is a far more pronounced declaration of faith in the public sector than after 9/11 or the great recession of 2008,” said Richard Edelman, the company’s chief executive, but he cautioned that political leaders may be enjoying a shortlived “trust bubble” which could be punctured by surging unemployment. Separate polling by Morning Consult suggests support for authorities’ response is already falling in the US.

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The survey found notable increases in trust in government in the UK, Canada and Germany since January. In the US, Japan and France, majorities still distrust national governments, but give high marks to local officials’ response to the crisis. 

In the US, the view of companies’ response is almost as split by party affiliation as the view of government. Just 54 per cent of Democrats said they trusted business to do what was right, compared to 64 per cent of Republicans. 

The public expected governments to lead the initial response to the crisis, Mr Edelman said, but business leaders faced a “moment of reckoning” as they prepared to bring employees back to their workplaces. Some three-quarters of those polled said CEOs should not rush to restart operations.

“Our promises about stakeholder capitalism are being put to the test,” Mr Edelman said, calling for “a new social contract” with employees that emphasises the protection of their health and jobs and advising business leaders that they would need to co-ordinate closely with more trusted politicians and scientists. 

Companies would also need to adjust their marketing, he said, to emphasise their role in solving problems and providing affordable products and services to consumers, many of whom are newly unemployed. 

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