Edelman began the Trust Barometer studies in the wake of the “Battle for Seattle,” the riots concurrent with the World Trade Organization meetings held there in 1999. During those meetings, protests against globalization, inequality and environmental degradation became the big stories. The dynamic tension between the media trying to cover the riot and the conversation inside the WTO was very interesting, and we wanted to know more. So, we decided to study whether trust exists and at what levels among governments, business, NGOs and media.

The study debuted at the World Economic Forum in 2001, so the Trust Barometer is about to mark its 20th year. Over that time, we have shown that trust is not stable year over year; it is very volatile. In 2008-09, for example, in the aftermath of the Recession, trust in business declined among the informed public, calling for a prescription for business to partner with government to rebuild trust. Today, that order is reversed, with business a more trusted institution than government.

A few key findings from the data this year: First, we saw an increase in trust on a worldwide basis, which might seem head-scratching at first because of the polarization we see globally, but in unpacking the data we have found some interesting trends.  Trust is highest in developing countries among the general population, for example, China is No. 1 for the second year.  In contrast, respondents in developed countries tend to be far less trusting.

Second was a return to credible information and seeking out news – up 22 points versus last year. A year ago, after a real collapse of trust, we saw that people really shut down with regard to news. A majority of those engaging with news report that they are sharing out the outlets that they seek and consume. This trend is particularly high among women in the informed public.

A third insight came from the employed sector. We saw an expectation that employers engage in social good activities and causes, and that there is high trust for employers, especially when the company is seen as being contributory to society and community. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed trust their employer.  This level of trust is significantly higher than for any other institution.  When employees see companies as trustworthy, loyalty, advocacy, and commitment follow, and this positive energy can be a strong benefit to the company. This creates real opportunity for agencies to focus on employee engagement, and CSR work.  Additionally, there is a call to CEOs to be engaged in societal issues and to make up some of the shortfall in trust in other areas, whether government or media.

Injustice and inequality were two topics where the informed public and mass population respondents were aligned. Only one in five feel the system is working for them. Pessimism runs particularly rampant across the developed world—in 14 markets, the majority of the mass population does not believe they will be better off in five years. This sense of worry unites both informed and mass populations in an urgent desire for change. It will be interesting to see how this manifests in the 20th edition of the Trust Barometer, as we in business and communications strive to advance positive change that will build a better future together.

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