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Report: Amid Growing Mistrust of Governments and Media, Business Must Provide Credible Information

After a turbulent year of the coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest and political instability, public mistrust of societal institutions is widespread around the world, Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer finds. The PR firm’s annual survey, which tracks public sentiment about business, government, nongovernmental organizations and media, says ordinary citizens feel misled and don’t trust the leaders of those institutions “to do what is right.”

Trust scores have dropped for government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders. According to the survey, 57 percent of Edelman’s respondents believe that government leaders, business leaders and journalists are spreading falsehoods or exaggerations. The pandemic and resultant job losses have accelerated that erosion of trust.

Trust in all news sources has fallen to record lows. Only 35 percent of respondents have faith in social media, while 41 percent consider corporate “owned media” truthful and 53 percent trust traditional media. Around the world, the majority of those surveyed said the news media was doing a poor job at being objective and non-partisan. People “reject talking heads who they deem not credible,” the study says.

As the Associated Press reports, public mistrust of governments and media threatens to limit the rollout of coronavirus vaccines, particularly in the United States. People who rely mostly on social media are more hesitant to receive the vaccine, the study finds.

Despite low public trust of business leaders, this year’s report nonetheless ranks business as the most trusted institution among the four studied, and the only one seen as ethical and competent. People now expect corporations to address today’s challenges as rigorously as they pursue profits, the report says.

To rebuild trust, businesses must provide reliable information to their employees and, by extension, to their communities, Edelman says. More than half of survey respondents (53 percent) say that when news media is absent, corporations have a responsibility to fill the information void. For their part, CEOs are advised to lead on a range of issues, and to “take meaningful action first and then communicate about it.”

Societal leaders are similarly urged to “lead with facts and act with empathy” while providing “trustworthy content that is truthful, unbiased and reliable.” In Edelman’s view, business, government, media and nongovernmental organizations “must find a common purpose and take collective action to solve societal problems.”


Greg Beaubien is a frequent contributor to PRSA publications.

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