Trust in 2011: The ‘Elites’ Have Spoken

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Elliot S. Schreiber, Ph.D., a leading expert in corporate brand and reputation management.

The 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer is out and the findings are surprising, to say the least. They are so surprising that they actually bend credibility. The bottom line, as the study says, is that trust in business and government is up versus past years in Western societies.

When I read data like this I remember one of my research professors in graduate school saying: “research often shows us that common sense is not always common.” There are many reporters, then, who will rush to publish this data because it suggests that the general gloom and doom about our economy is “so yesterday”; that things seem to be looking up, and that we’re gaining confidence and trust in institutions again.

But wait a minute! We’re not talking about research debunking common sense here.  We’re talking about data that fly in the face of what we have been witnessing in the U.S. and around the world. How can we square the Edelman data with the global political and social upheaval?

The answer is found in what I used to tell my CEO and now tell my clients and students. The result of data has to be looked at against who were respondents.

The Edelman Trust Barometer focuses exclusively on “the educated, informed publics.” That is, “25–34-year-olds and 35–64-year-olds who are college-educated, have household income in the top quartile for their age group, read or watch the news several times a week and follow public policy.” In other words, these people are the very definition of the global “social and political elite,” encompassing the precise demographic that people who feel trapped at the bottom of society are railing against.

These are the same groups that are the focus of criticism by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and even John McCain. The Tea Party could use the Edelman data as proof of its claim that the “Washington crowd” (aka political and social elite) continues to feel good about the world. These data may be factual for the elite, but they may be the continuing “fuel on the fire” for those who feel they are on the bottom looking up. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Democrats continue focusing on social inequities, and have made many corporations and CEOs their “poster children” for greed. This doesn’t occur without strong support from the electorate.

Jon Low of Preditiv has been blogging about global unrest due to perceptions of blocked economic opportunity for those who are not part of the top demographic strata.  He points to trends in Egypt, Iran, the UK and in the U.S. As Low notes, in the U.S., where 70 percent of the economy is consumer-driven, we face prospects of limited growth and high unemployment when consumers lose jobs, homes, pensions and health care. This will create more angst, not less. Low suggests that this “bottom up” pressure will likely impact governments and corporations more than growing “top down” satisfaction.

I am in no way suggesting that the Edelman Trust Barometer is not important. It is. As a “data point,” it suggests that we likely will see more optimism in communications coming from Wall Street and commentators in the major media. This is important because economic ups and downs are partly psychological. We need to hear that there is “light at the end of the tunnel” if Western societies are to start investing, hiring and spending again. That’s important, and the data suggest we may hear better news from the political and economic elite

But — and this is a big but — we need to understand the parameters of the data so that we do not use it inappropriately.

Elliot S. Schreiber, Ph.D., is the founder of the corporate reputation firm Brand & Reputation Management. He is currently a professor and executive director of the Center for Corporate Reputation Management at the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he teaches courses in brand and reputation management and marketing strategy.

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Elliot Schreiber

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