Study: Business CEOs need to step up in 2021 as trust in government and traditional media plummets


CEOs have a huge role to play this year as business (61%) emerge as the most trusted institution, replacing government (53%), which fell substantially since its 11-point surge in our mid-year update last May.

Businesses are the only institutions deemed ethical and competent and outscored government by 48 points on competency. Businesses are also approaching NGOs in ethics as over the last five months, business seized the high ground of trust by proactively developing vaccines in record time and finding new ways to work. Trust continues to move local, with respondents placing even higher reliance on ‘my employer’ at 76%, and ‘my employer CEO’ at 63%.

Given the new expectations of business, there are now new demands of CEOs: Over 8 in 10 want CEO’s to speak out on important social issues, such as the pandemic’s impact, job automation and societal problems. More than two-thirds expect them to step in when the government does not fix societal problems. In the US, ‘my employer CEO’ is the only societal leader trusted by both Trump voters (61%) and Biden voters (68%).

edelmantb2021 employertrust

“There is a void in leadership that CEOs must fill,” said Dave Samson, vice chairman of Corporate Affairs. “It starts with a broader mandate for business that focuses societal engagement with the same rigor, used to deliver on profits. Business must work to fulfill the Business Roundtable’s promise of a stakeholder economy, but it cannot be a solo actor. It must partner with government and NGOs to take collective action to solve societal problems."

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that people don’t know where or who to turn to for reliable information.  A majority of respondents believe that government leaders (57%), business leaders (56%), and journalists (59%) are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false. The global infodemic has driven trust in all news sources to record lows with social media (35%) and owned media (41%) the least trusted; traditional media (53%) saw the largest drop in trust at eight points.

edelmantb2021 business trust

The stark, but radically different realities of escalating stock prices and Great Recession-like unemployment levels have helped trigger a record trust gap of 16 points (informed public at 68%, mass population at 52%). There are double-digit trust gaps in 25 of 28 markets, versus seven in 21 markets just a decade ago.

What are the opportunities for businesses

This year’s report reveals that the biggest opportunity to earn business trust is guarding information quality. Nearly 53% of respondents believe corporations need to fill the information void when the news media is absent. Communications from ‘my employer’ is the most trusted source of information (61%), beating out national government (58%), traditional media (57%), and social media (39%).

“The events of this past year reinforced business’ responsibility to lead on societal issues, such as upskilling workers and racial justice,” said Edelman. “It has also led to new expectations of business expanding its remit into unfamiliar areas, such as providing and safeguarding information.”

A December Edelman Trust Barometer Post-U.S. Election Flash Poll found a stunning 39-point gap in trust in media between Biden voters (57%) and Trump voters (18%); a 15-point drop among Trump supporters since November.

“This is the era of information bankruptcy,” said Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. “We’ve been lied to by those in charge, and media sources are seen as politicised and bias. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness. Around 57% percent of Americans find the political and ideological polarisation so extreme that they believe the US is in the midst of a cold civil war. The violent storming of the U.S. Capitol last week and the fact that only one-third of people are willing to get a Covid vaccine as soon as possible crystalize the dangers of misinformation.”

Trust dropped precipitously in the two largest economies. Respondents deeply distrust the US (40%) and Chinese (30%) governments from the 26 other markets surveyed. Trust among Chinese citizens in the country’s institutions fell 18 points in the last six months to 72%. The US, in the bottom quartile of countries as of November, dropped a further 5 points post-election (43%), a score which would place it ahead of only Japan and Russia.

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)