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On Feb. 16, Richard Edelman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Edelman, shared insights from the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer about dramatic changes to trust in business and government.

In an annual tradition, an Exec Club audience heard details from the respected international survey on trust and credibility in society. Immediately afterward, a panel of business leaders related Edelman’s findings to their own work.

The 2022 Trust Barometer captured the frustration and dismay of respondents in a time of societal flux.

Many people distrust the news media, don’t believe governments can solve problems and have less confidence in non-government organizations.

Business is the most trusted institution, Edelman reported. Even though over half of respondents believe capitalism does more harm than good, stakeholders want business to take leadership roles. Those stakeholders include consumers, employees and investors.  

Societal leadership is now a core function of business. It is not ‘purpose.’ It is not ‘nice to do.’ It is ‘must do,’ because business has to step into the void left by government in particular on key issues.

Trust is local, something I can control: my relationship with my employer. Stunningly, my company’s own media channels are more believable than mainstream media or government or advertising. It means, about vaccines, for instance, or return to workplace, your company channels have to be the primary source because people have discounted media as politicized.”

—Richard Edelman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Edelman

Edelman called it “a shocker” that people want business to get more involved in societal issues. Given this new communication responsibility for business, Edelman offered cautious advice:

“Get involved in policy, stay out of politics. This is a tightrope. The big four issues that I think are certainly within businesses’ remit: race and diversity, sustainability, wage levels and reskilling. These are all very safe issues. Where you get into difficult areas are gun control, abortion, issues of voting rights.”

—Richard Edelman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Edelman

The most important trust builder across all four institutions is high-quality information. 

“We are in an immediate gratification model for both government and media, which responds to sugar highs. AOC (U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and (Sen.) Ted Cruz are the single most-tweeted politicians because they’re the most outrageous. We have to move back to the middle and stop the media from responding to what they see as activity in social.”

The key to breaking this cycle of distrust is good facts, frequently applied.”

—Richard Edelman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Edelman

After Edelman’s presentation of the Trust Barometer, moderator E.J. Schultz, news editor of Ad Age, got perspectives from three business leaders on the Trust Barometer. 

“It’s somewhat sobering but also a very important call to action for all of us. … This ‘cycle of distrust’ means there’s a key role for business and for brands. I really see that as an opportunity and an important responsibility. … I think we’ve got to take bolder steps beyond the front foot for some of the societal issues: Take a stand, be very authentic, be out there and be accountable.”

Andrew Clarke, Global President, Mars

Kim Seymour, Chief People Officer, Weight Watchers, said it’s important for businesses to build an effective communication channel with employees so it exists when needed. She said creating and maintaining a trusted relationship requires transparency, some vulnerability and consistency.

“We didn’t wait until a pandemic to start building our brand of trust with our employees. We were able to access it once the pandemic started.”

—Kim Seymour, Chief People Officer, Weight Watchers

Jano Cabrera, Chief Communications Officer, General Mills, acknowledged it can be challenging for companies to speak publicly about sensitive issues. He said General Mills wanted to contribute to the national discussion about race after the murder of George Floyd, but when the company’s Gushers confectionary brand spoke out, General Mills faced ridicule.

“I understand why: ‘Really Gushers? Do you have to be part of this conversation?’ But we leaned into that in large parts to say that, ‘Of course we do.’ Because if you think that this is a large complicated problem, that it will take everyone one to solve it, then it makes sense that a wide variety of us would speak up. I don’t think that we picked our shot carefully. I do think the better choice we made the very next day was when our CEO at the top of the earnings call said ‘Black Lives Matter.’ He was (among) the first to use that phrase in the aftermath of George Floyd.”

—Jano Cabrera, Chief Communications Officer, General Mills

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