Are there any institutions that we trust? According to an article from Edelman, which has just published the firm’s 23rd annual trust and credibility survey, while, as a society, we are still polarized and deeply distrustful, business was viewed as “the only trusted institution” at 62%. It’s sure not the ‘60s anymore! As the article recognizes, “[s]ome might have a hard time believing that today’s corporate leaders now stand as a stabilizing power in a fragile world.” As detailed in the new 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, “business is now the sole institution seen as competent and ethical; government is viewed as unethical and incompetent. Business is under pressure to step into the void left by government.” From 2020 to 2023, international survey participants increased the ethics grade for business by 19 points. Edelman attributes the stunning increase to business’s response “to the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 and Russia’s attack on Ukraine—among other pressing issues,” during which many “corporate leaders put self-interest aside.” In the survey, government and media were viewed as neither competent nor ethical, driving a “cycle of distrust” as “sources of “misleading information,” particularly social media. To what does the barometer attribute these poor outcomes? In large part, to a sense of entrenched division and polarization that both arises out of a loss of faith in institutions and also generates it. Economic anxiety and income inequality are also seen as major forces in fueling polarization. “Given the unsettled state of the world,” Edelman asks, “can business remain a stabilizing force”?
The survey consisted of 30-minute online interviews conducted between November 1st and November 28th, 2022. The online survey sampled more than 32,000 respondents across 28 countries.
For the most part, survey participants wanted more societal engagement from business, especially on issues such as climate change, economic inequality, energy shortages and healthcare access, although they recognized the risk of politicization. Among participants, 48% thought it possible for a business to address societal issues without politicization, advocating that business be a trustworthy source of information (46%), base its actions on science (43%), avoid alignment with one political party (39%), be consistent on values over time (36%) and link actions to staying competitive (33%). In the survey, 89% expected CEOs to take a stand on treatment of employees, 82% on climate change, 80% on discrimination, 77% on the wealth gap and 72% on immigration. However, most thought that the best societal outcomes would result from business working in partnership with government.
A substantial percentage believe that CEOs have a role to play in improving “economic optimism,” including by paying a fair wage (84%), ensuring that their home communities are safe and thriving (79%), paying fair corporate taxes (78%) and retraining employees (78%).
A large proportion of participants believe that CEOs have obligations in terms of holding divisive forces accountable: 72% believe that CEOs should “defend facts and expose questionable science used to justify bad social policy”; 71% indicated that CEOs should “pull advertising money from platforms that spread misinformation”; and 64% said that business “could strengthen the social fabric if they support politicians and media that build consensus and cooperation.” In addition, 68% (63% in the US only) advocated that business fight division by helping to create a shared identity using the power of the company’s brands.
Edelman advocates that, as the most trusted institution, business must continue to lead; business “holds the mantle of greater expectation and responsibility. Leverage your comparative advantage to inform debate and deliver solutions across climate, diversity and inclusion, and skill training.” Business should also seek to build consensus and collaborate with government “on policies and standards to deliver results that push us toward a more just, secure, and thriving society.” Because “a grim economic view is both a driver and outcome of polarization,” Edelman advises that business should “invest in fair compensation, training, and local communities to address the mass-class divide and the cycle of polarization.” Finally, business should not ignore its “essential role…in the information ecosystem” and should be “a source of reliable information, promote civil discourse, and hold false information sources accountable through corrective messaging, reinvestment, and other action.”
In the article, Edelman suggests that, to retain its position as a trusted institution, business “can take steps to respond to today’s volatile world, such as pursuing rational policy and promoting civil discourse.” To that end, Edelman advocates that business:
“1 – Push back against polarization in pursuit of rational policies. It’s unrealistic for CEOs to not engage in public policy issues that affect their businesses. After all, business operates best in stable, functioning societies. If leaders want to achieve more rational public policy, they must engage and stand against political extremes. They should not try to assuage either side. The model of moderation, adherence to strategy, mindfulness of long-term trends—social, technological, economic, environmental—offer a powerful benefit to society.
2 – Work across institutions to forge pragmatic solutions. CEOs should use their convening power to bring NGOs, government leaders and others together to prompt rational dialogue and urge pragmatic solutions on issues like reskilling workers, combating climate change and addressing inequality. To effect meaningful change, all institutions must work collaboratively to find common ground and foster progress.
3 – Promote civil discourse by first engaging employees. CEOs should ignite a more balanced conversation, starting inside their own companies. Employees want to be heard, so involve them. Move beyond episodic employee surveys and create a continuous listening system to understand their sentiment on critical issues more fully. Make the workplace a safe place for employees to engage with leaders, and one another, to drive dialogue and better inform the company’s stance on societal issues.
4 – Distribute trustworthy information. Raise the integrity of your content by ensuring what you distribute is balanced, based on sound science and accurate facts. Business can also prevent the spread of disinformation by not using platforms that propagate misinformation and sow discord.”