Across the globe, distrust is on the rise.
People's confidence in governments, the media, and NGOs is falling, while their trust in businesses continues to grow.
In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre discuss the latest research on trust and what the public wants from executives and other business leaders.
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
Need to hire a PR firm?
We demystify the process and give you some helpful advice in Episode 19: "How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona: Insider Tips for Executives and Marketing Directors"
Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
It has been said many different times in many different ways that trust is an essential component of relationships, of society, of business, and of the fabric that holds our lives together. People need to trust in each other and in the institutions that govern our society, govern our relationships, and in the companies that we do business with. But trust itself is a slippery thing. Research shows that in fact distrust and mistrust are on the rise, and business has an opportunity to either lead or fall behind. This is a critical topic. Here to discuss it is Abbie Fink, vice president and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, I trust you have something on your mind.Abbie Fink:
It's a pretty good bet, yeah. So a couple of things as we begin the show today. First, I feel it's important for us to recognize what is happening in Ukraine right now, and the conversations that have dominated the airwaves and certainly dominated between individuals is what is happening over there and what that's going to mean for that part of the country and the impact that's really going to have around the world. So I don't want to spend a lot of time chatting about it today, but it has certainly been part of a guiding conversation as it relates to some of the communications efforts we're doing for clients and whether... And what should we do or shouldn't we do in terms of recognizing the conflict, the war, what can we do to help? So I think it's been an interesting handful of weeks. And coming on the heels of what is two-year, if we can call it an anniversary, but the two-year anniversary of the fact that COVID has been part of our vernacular now. And I was reminded that this week, two years ago, we did not know yet what was coming in terms of the impact that that was going to have. So it's been an interesting couple of weeks since our last conversation, and what things like trust and confidence in our elected officials and confidence in our business partners and the media in these places where we rely on so heavily for information and for facts, factual information. And what is our personal beliefs and how those are being impacted by conversations like the war and two year anniversary of COVID, and other challenges that have been facing us, not necessarily because of the last two years but really a heightened sense of what worldwide discussions can do on our businesses and our own belief and our own trust in these institutions that we rely on so heavily.Adrian McIntyre:
Well, with both of those issues, with the COVID-19 pandemic and with the conflict in Ukraine, Russia's invasion of that country, what you think is going on depends a lot on who you trust, on who you believe. And whether you get your news from TikTok or CNN or Fox or any of the other media channels that have continued to share information, misinformation, disinformation, however you fall on your views of the media shapes your view of government, shapes your view of the economy, shapes your view of the world. So we really do have a complex and interconnected set of issues here, and trust is at the center of that. What you think is happening, what you think is true, who you trust, who you believe, it shapes your actions and it shapes the collective that we participate in to whatever degree that we do. So trust, let's get right into that. What is the latest research on trust?Abbie Fink:
Edelman Public Relations, which is a global public relations company, annually produces what they call the Edelman Trust Barometer. It's been a survey that they have done since 2001, and they conduct the research typically in the fourth quarter and then release it in the first quarter of the following year. So the data that they just published would've been conducted in October, November of 2021, released in 2022. So some of these things, obviously COVID was still top of mind, but the war, Russian and Ukraine war was not something necessarily that was at the front of the line. But depending on where you were in the world, that was certainly something that you were considering. And so they take a look at what people's perception of trust are around the globe, not in their countries, in the government, in the institute, in the businesses that they do business with, and then extrapolate some information that they create a barometer about around the concept of trust. So for example, in 2018 the United States had a trust score of 43 and was ranked 18 among 36 countries that were measured. And that increased to 49 in 2019, and then up to 12 last year in 2021's numbers, report. In the 2022 report, we dropped to 43, and it's still ranking high in the countries but a decrease in trust. And there's a lot of things that go into that, just the way that the data is and the numbers are crunched. But it's interesting that institutions like business and media and government are building up trust and are doing things around trust, but we're still not 100% sure yet or still that we trust everything that's coming from the media or coming from the government. And that those of us that live our businesses in that media space, that's a pretty hard one to manage because we rely so heavily on media as an information exchange and want and believe in the power of the media. But media literacy and trust in the media is not where it should be for as much effort as we want to and as much confidence as we want media to have.Adrian McIntyre:
There's certainly a lot of nuance in this report, and I think a few things are worth teasing out here. One thing that is a through line in all of this is that of all the institutions, media, non-governmental organizations, nonprofits, government organizations and agencies, and businesses, it's business that continues to be the most trusted, which is interesting. I think we should circle back to that, because there's some gaps and some opportunities there that I think are important for our audience of business leaders. But what strikes me as overwhelmingly urgent is the failure of media organizations to establish trust in the face of growing distrust. So distrust is on the rise, we've all heard and we've discussed here how the accusations of fake news have been weaponized. And basically anybody can say that about anyone as long as you don't like what they said, you can just undermine the whole thing. Certainly, the proliferation of social media channels has created a dis and misinformation echo chamber, and there's genuine concerns to be had about that. But legitimate media organizations, those that still uphold the principles of journalistic ethics and integrity are not effectively reclaiming the trust that is so urgently needed in order to have a well-informed citizenry. What are your thoughts about that?Abbie Fink:
Right, so the survey says that none of the major information sources are trusted. And I think we can say that's what we might consider media, the general topic media, with trust in search engines at 59%. Now what's interesting about that is search engine is a mechanism, if you use Google or Yahoo or Bing or any one of the others, that's the search engine. The terms that you put into that search bar to pull up the data is really then how you get the information. So this is an interesting. At 59%, we have trust in search engines at 59%. Well, in part that's past history, what I've searched for before, what I tend to click on when I do find something and it's all an algorithm. So the number is a little bit skewed in my opinion, that a search engine is a trusted information source. But followed very closely by traditional media at 57%. And then something that we've talked about before, which is owned media and social media. So owned media is content that I produce, so things that you can find if you were to go to my website or on my blog posts, or even on this podcast, is trusted at about 43% of the respondents ranked owned media. And then social media behind at 37%. So we rely on these sources. If you ask someone where do they get their information, I read the daily newspaper. I watch television. I scroll through pick your social media of choice, yet we do these actions but we still aren't 100% convinced that they're trustworthy. Which as you said is a bit unsettling and an opportunity I think for the business of the media to look at itself and what can we do in this industry to change that perception. And can we lead in that conversation around trust, and putting confidence back into the institution of media so that conversations like fake news are no longer part of what we talk about. And it goes back to something we've discussed several episodes ago, fake news was a publication that said, grandmother gives birth to an elephant, and we knew that was fake news. It was made up, it was just a story to entertain. Well, now the idea of fake news is news that we don't believe in and we don't trust, and we think is somewhat... Or the individual that's sharing that news is not someone that we can trust. So this is an incredible opportunity for the industry, for the institution of media to continue to look at itself and those of us that work within it, how do we continue to ensure that the neutrality and the objectivity of what the media stands for continues to be held at the highest esteem?Adrian McIntyre:
Now, let me just push into this just a little bit further, because I think there might be something here we could talk about. I have worked as a journalist, you have worked with journalists for many more decades than I was involved in the industry, but we both interact with lots of journalists in the course of our work. And it seems to me that journalism, the news side of journalism has a PR problem. So we both know lots of folks who are working hard and not getting paid a lot of money to do it to try to talk about the truth and communicate that in their writing, in their reporting, in their TV segments, et cetera. And yet they're working in an environment where the audience, now distrust has become the default. So people don't believe what they see anymore. You're a PR professional. If the news media was your client, which is a little bit of a silly concept, but as a thought experiment, how would you advise them to reestablish some of that lost trust given they don't entirely control the narrative about their own work?Abbie Fink:
Really, really interesting question. So let me frame it with this, in that the first step in that is a understanding of what is news? What is news entertainment? What is editorial? What is opinion? And being able as a consumer of that product to understand the distinction. As the consumer of the product we have to understand that, but also the producers of that content have to remind us. They have to remind us that that's the place that they're playing in. So for example, if you open up your daily newspaper, typically within the opening section, the A section of the newspaper, there is an opinion page. That's where there are letters to the editor, those are where editorials are being written by individuals who are being paid to have an opinion. And that is where they belong in the newspaper and it is clearly identified as opinion. And the letters to the editor are those of us that write in to express our opinion. And within the context of those pages, opinions are allowed. That is the space for them to be. The rest of the newspaper is intended to be an objective, neutral position. And that is really where at the core what the news is supposed to be, neutral and objective, to put forth factual information. When you watch a television newscast on your local station, it should follow the same guidelines. It is reporting the news without opinion. If they choose to venture into an opinion, they would like their anchor or one of their reporters to express their own view, there needs to be a distinction between this is the newscast and this is my opinion. And I think where the challenges have come is this melding and the blurring of the lines. And there are media outlets that are very... Leaning one direction or the other, but we know that as we watch them or as we read them that they tend to have a leaning in one direction or the other. More liberal, more conservative, wherever it may fall. If you're consuming that product, and only one side or the other, then you are not getting a full grasp of what the particular situation is. And we can adjust our thought process by any information that we gather. And so if I'm advising the media and recommending strategy is being out front with those distinctions and being very clear that this part of our product is intended for opinion, and this is the only place that opinion will be. This part of our product is factual, and this is how we gather our facts and this is how we check our facts. And we need to rely on the multiple sources for stories and we have to no longer have a one-sided view in a particular news story. And when we can do that, and when the media outlets who practice the concept of being the watchdog for society and being that objective voice to bring forth facts, we start to trust again in that institution. Now it's taken years to get to the place that we are now, where that distrust might exist. But I think with a concerted effort we can return and look at our colleagues in the media as trusted, and that the sources for stories are reliable and credible and have been fact checked before what they say is allowed on the airwaves or in the written word.Adrian McIntyre:
It's been said that news is that information which someone somewhere is very uncomfortable about having been shared, and the rest is PR. Now, I'm not sure that's accurate. It's cute, but I'm not sure it's exactly right. But it is kind of pointing to something, that there still is at the heart of hard journalism, this commitment to the truth, speaking truth to power, exposing things that the powerful would rather have covered up, and so on and so forth. And that leads me to think that one thing that needs to also be considered is the degree to which journalism is willing to make its own audience uncomfortable. See, it seems to me that if we are just pandering to one type of audience because that's where the money comes from, we inexorably get pulled into that trap. We start speaking only to the things that our audience already agrees with, and it creates this self-reinforcing thing. And that may lead to some of the decline that we're talking about. If media outlets were willing to share stories that they knew even their own audience wouldn't necessarily immediately agree with but could be convinced about through the rigors of their reporting, we might be getting somewhere. What do you think about that?Abbie Fink:
I'm going to disagree to some extent, because again, it comes from where... The positioning that the media outlet wants to take. And I'm not going to call anyone out in particular. A more left leaning media outlet is going to report stories that follow that line of thinking, the sources for their stories are going to come with that similar thinking and the content that they're going to produce is going to have that same mindset. That's what they have set themselves out to do. And if they are open and honest about that, then as a consumer I have to expect that what I see on that television station or read in that printed publication is going to have a more left leaning take. If I am a smart consumer of news information and news content, I also find a similar story on that topic in another publication to get a different perspective on how it's being reported. There's 2, 3, 8, 12 sides to any given story, it's how the reporter packages it, the sources that they get, and how it comes together. What quotes they pull from their interviews and such. But the outlet themselves I think are responsible to us as consumers to frame their content, so we understand where it's coming from. And then as consumers, we owe it to ourselves to get information from more than one source. And we will always tend... This doesn't matter if we're talking about the news or conversations we have with our friends, we surround ourselves with like-minded people. That's just common. You and I can argue about a particular point, but our connection is that we agree on a lot of the same things, and we disagree on a lot of the same things. And that's what builds the friendship and the trust in each other, is we support each other's belief. I can disagree with you and still trust you. I can disagree with your perspective on something but still trust you as someone that I appreciate and understand, and I can agree to disagree with you. And where we've I think blurred these lines in my view is that it's becoming increasingly more difficult to figure out what is news and what is opinion or entertainment. And that's a responsibility that all of us in the business need to take ownership of.Adrian McIntyre:
The Edelman Trust Barometer surveys and measures trust indicators in 36 countries, and in every single one of those countries, business has increased in trust while media and the government have lost it. That process is slow, it's not that anything has radically changed it. But it's interesting, and as we turn towards the final minute of the show, I think we need to talk about this. Because for our listeners, the leaders of companies, nonprofit organizations, even government agencies, there is an opportunity here to look closely at what's working in business in terms of trust building and trust maintaining, and some of the areas of opportunity are... Said another way, some of the gaps that still exist. So why do you think business has continued to increase in trust while every other institution has declined?Abbie Fink:
Well, and maybe I'm going to put this in my perspective, that business is something that I can understand. I can touch, I can feel it. I'm in it. I work for somebody, somebody works for me. This is something I can grasp. And so, the family-owned businesses are amongst the highest trusted organizations, that makes sense to me. And whether I'm a member of the family or I work for the family, you're interacting with the individuals who have a personal vested interest in the business and are bringing you into the fold and are trusting you. If I hire someone for my family-owned business, I trust you with my family and what's important to us. And so that makes some sense to me. And we trust our employer and we have high demands of our employer. And one of the other things they looked at in the survey was the importance of the businesses that we work for and the businesses that we do business with take a stand, that they are vocal in society's needs, and that we are an active participant in things that are happening around us. And we mentioned at the top of the show about Ukraine and what can we do to help, and what should we be doing here to help individuals there? And all sorts of conversations around financial aid and humanitarian aid and other things that we can do. And so we as a society put a lot of trust and a lot of responsibility on our businesses and our business leaders to, as someone once said to me, be an upstander not a bystander, and speak out about that. And when they do that, when businesses do that, and it aligns with my personal thoughts and my personal beliefs, I automatically have a bit more trust in that particular business. And I think that's an important lesson for any business, and if we want to consider media and or the government as business, there's a lot to say for watching what the private sector might be doing. But we also... We place a tremendous amount of trust in our network of individuals that we connect with on a regular basis. We do that with our friends. We do that with our colleagues. We do that with our clients. We do that with our family, extended family. And that is the platform by which all things trustworthy start, is those people we bring into our fold and open up and trust and have open and honest conversations and agree to disagree when we can't come together on a particular topic. But recognizing that the viewpoint of all of us and the connectivity that we create is really where that concept of trust comes in. And why we should, and again, this might be a little bit pie in the sky, but we should be able to challenge our distrust by relying on those things and how we determine what we do trust.Adrian McIntyre:
It's clear from the data that businesses in general, any specific company obviously can be an outlier here, but in general, business is seen as highly competent and ethical. I think part of that has to do with the fact that their motives are less murky and people just understand, oh, a company with a profit motive is doing what they need to do in order to service their shareholders, their customers, et cetera. There's ways of holding businesses accountable, either in the market or with regulation or so on. So people generally assume that that's all working the way that it should. Technology companies stand out as particularly trustworthy, which I actually find kind of interesting given what's being revealed about some of the biggest technology companies and the way in which perhaps some of that trust may have been misplaced. But that's a story that will play out in coming weeks and months. What is interesting, and this is what our audience needs to hear, is that people are absolutely insisting that business leaders need to step up on social and environmental issues. 80% of the general population wants CEOs of companies to be personally visible when discussing important topics that impact public policy or the economy or things of that nature. There's never been, in my view, a clearer message, that if you're worried about whether or not your customer base, your clients, want you to take a stand. The answer is they do. They want you to be outspoken. They want you to have an opinion. They want you to weigh in, again, with that expertise, with that rational, measured approach, and share your point of view on technology, on global warming, on wage inequality, on jobs in the economy, all these topics, they want to hear your voice.Abbie Fink:
And they want to hear it consistently and openly and honestly. And even in the if I disagree, I want to know that where you, my boss, my business partners stand on a particular issue so I can form a responsible and a informative opinion. And to me, we all want to trust the businesses and the institutions that we interact with on a regular basis. It is how we ensure that our society flourishes, how we ensure that we are successful, that our businesses are successful, that our kids have an opportunity to go to schools and be educated and become contributing members of society. We have to trust in the institutions that allow those things to happen, that we can access and make these things happen. And we respond in different ways when we trust versus when we distrust. And in order to be a successful society, a flourishing society, we have to continue every effort we can to ensure that we have the kind of trust that we need and the kind of trust that we want in those institutions.