01 February 2017

With Growing Distrust Across Sectors, is Trust in Crisis?

Distrust in “the system” has been a trope of disenfranchised groups for generations.

In many cases, such as the distrust of the American healthcare system among African Americans, this distrust is rooted in long-standing issues.

Similarly, the prevalence of racialized youth distrusting the justice system, or Indigenous parents distrusting the education system, represent fractures in trust that are rooted in ongoing and historical tensions.

But the results from the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer hint at a different type of distrust in government, business, NGOs, and media.

Rather than an identity-specific distrust based on systemic failures, this widespread loss of trust hints at something else - the trope of “The Man” (which dates back to 1918), a metaphor for a system governed by elites who are not working for the good of the people they are supposed to serve.

This distrust is in the system as a whole, and is found across a wide variety of identity groups.

This is not a specific distrust, by a specific group, for specific reasons – it is general distrust, by the general population, for a variety of reasons.

The results are alarming - according to the Edelman report, trust is in crisis.

Trust levels fell in all four institutions: business, government, media, and NGOs.

Both the media and the government were significantly below 50% in terms of trust, meaning that most people do not believe that the institutions will do what’s right.

Trust in media, particularly, is at an all-time low.

This is supported by Gallup research released late last year, indicating that American trust in media has plummeted.

Similarly, trust in government is, in the words of the report, “evaporating” – government is distrusted in 75% of countries.

Trust in business also fell, although it remained higher than either government or media.

The Trust Barometer also tests trust in various spokespeople, and found that only 37% of people find CEOs credible, and only 29% find government officials credible.

This finding puts trust in CEOs lower than previously recorded.

Overwhelmingly, people believe that the system is broken. And this lack of trust fuels a global social climate that is fearful and susceptible to further erosions of trust.
The fear/distrust cycle is self-perpetuating, and leads to the kind of populist politics that are on the rise globally.  

The impact on marketers and small businesses is only one facet of the problem, but it may offer insight for others.

Consumer trust in brands has been falling for years.

It is currently reaching a crisis point, as indicated by the Edelman Trust Barometer. But research into how to fix a problem happens quickly in business, and researchers have been engaged with this issue for years.

Consumers distrust brands because brands have been caught, too often, posting fake reviews and misleading the public.

The solution is simple - though hardly easy.

Engage honestly and transparently with consumers. Welcome user generated content, especially in the form of reviews, and especially when those reviews are not always glowing.

The Edelman Trust Barometer showed that people trust their peers far more easily in this political climate than they do experts or spokespeople.

As marketers and small businesses, there is the potential to leverage new technology in order to give consumers a voice, and facilitate the peer-to-peer engagement that is so much more likely to succeed in this climate.

And perhaps “The Man” will learn from small businesses, and find a way to engage honestly and transparently, to start to build back the trust that has been so drastically eroded.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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