Trust Barometer raises salient issues for PR professionals

Feb 17, 2010
Published: 2/9/2010

By Vanessa Horwell

Credibility matters in the market place; how, then, do you promote without (excessive) ‘spin’?

Edelman’s Trust Barometer, now in its 10th year, is an ambitious project, quantifying something as imprecise and shifting as trust. It’s no easy task, and that makes the results of Edelman’s efforts all the more interesting.

The report doesn’t ask whether consumers trust the brand of toothpaste or shampoo they use, it asks whether citizens trust their government and why, and how the public shapes its opinions of industries as well as individual companies. How Edelman has achieved this without a hint of partisanship is really quite amazing.

Trust is transient and tenuous

The first and perhaps most persuasive theme is that trust itself seems to be extraordinarily transient and influenced by factors ranging from macroeconomic forces to perceived spin on an individual news item. Who knew? It seems that the level of trust enjoyed by governments, industries, companies and brands is by no means constant, nor certain. For big business, this implication—which is threaded very nicely throughout the Edelman report—is twofold. One, entities must be very cognizant of the public’s trust in and of them, and two, efforts can be made to address and modify the public’s trust.

In terms of trust in industries and companies, Edelman’s report links this transient nature of trust to the idea that business will return to the way it was. Although trust in business rose slightly this year over last, the report overtly indicates that this level of trust is fleeting and tenuous, undercut by the belief that businesses will revert to old bad habits as soon as they can—in other words, after the honeymoon period is over and businesses have regained the public’s trust.

Yet the report indicates that by placing more emphasis on honest and transparent practices, companies increase public trust in them. It also shows that trust in businesses to do what is right has returned to historical norms and that CEOs are viewed as more trustworthy in their comments and actions.

So despite a relatively hollow sense of trust, there remains reason for optimism but with a caveat:  It’s to be accompanied by trust-building practices. The PR implication, then, is that trust is both important and malleable, based largely on perception, and that with careful crafting it can be controlled.

Can you see the sales pitch forming here?

The new credibility is old news

The second resounding theme in the Edelman report looks at the way the public gathers its information. I don’t understand why this is less plainly explained in the report, but a few of the survey questions hint that the changes in trust as it relates to information about a company are shaped by changes in the way the public gathers information. This “finding” surely contradicts what PR professionals and the media have been grappling with for the past year—that social media will become a more powerful influencer than traditional sources and news media.

The report states that top sources for credible information are academics and experts (64 percent), followed closely by analysts (52 percent), and the top outlets for that information were analyst reports and business magazine journalism. Least credible were those sources most controlled by the corporate interest—the regular employee (32 percent) and advertising materials (17 percent).

Falling fastest in terms of credibility was information offered by “a person like yourself” and social media outlets and conversations with peers. Ha! Social media pundits be damned. That finding demonstrates the public’s weariness with regurgitated opinions schlepped about the blogosphere. Social media, blogs and the online opinion factory have soured the public on the worthiness of common information, and the survey indicates the public is hungry for expert, authentic, reliable sources. This hunger is best displayed by the top credibility ranking of analysts and stock reports, even though these analysts often are paid by the companies they analyze.

There is some good news here for PR. Corporate advertising and social media cannot achieve the transparency and authenticity the public values most. By obtaining coverage in reputable media (traditional media still rank relatively high—business magazine articles are considered credible by 44 percent of respondents; radio, 38 percent; TV, 36 percent), good PR can boost the public’s trust in a company.

This revelation, in my mind, is probably the most important part of this study for the PR industry, as it indicates the importance of credibility, authentic communications, transparency and, most of all, providing knowledge and value, which has proved difficult to achieve through social media or advertising.

Building trust = building business

Everything in the Edelman report, including the existence of the report itself, points to one great truth: Trust is an incredibly powerful business development tool. Looking at the values shown in the report as they related to trust in 2006 versus 2010, they’re almost entirely inverted. This, it would seem, is a very strong indicator of the new American psyche—profits come last, but honesty comes first. The cultivation of trust is becoming one of the most important goals for businesses in every sector.

For PR pros, that means that the importance of strong, effective PR is also on the rise—not that it ever waned. It is the answer to the credibility gap that has developed in the age of (shoddy) information overload.

As for Edelman, no doubt they’re already out there pitching the Trust Barometer report to exactly those companies who’ve been hit hardest in the trust stakes.

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the US, UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at

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