Economic anxiety, a lack of trust in societal institutions, a widening gap in perception about trust between different income groups and distrust in media are weakening the social fabric and deepening divisions in society.
According to the recently released 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, this has made 62% of more than 32,000 respondents across 28 countries feel that business is the most trusted institution. Just half the people surveyed say that they trust the government.
The report reveals that family-owned businesses are significantly more trusted than privately held, publicly traded and state-owned companies. Companies from the technology sector are the most trusted followed by education, and interestingly, social media was the least trusted sector with just 44% of people saying they had trust in it.
While a majority of people reposed their faith in scientists, their co-workers, neighbours, people in their local communities and their CEOs, there was increasing distrust in governments, journalists, and CEOs in general. Here, business was perceived to be both ethical and competent and saw its ethics score rise for the third consecutive year.
The overall message of the report is loud and clear. The increased trust in business comes with higher expectations. People want companies and business leaders to increase their societal engagement.
More than half of the respondents in Edelman’s survey expected businesses to address critical societal problems like climate change, economic inequality and energy shortages, healthcare access, trustworthy information, and workforce reskilling.
Dave Samson, Global Vice Chairman of Corporate Affairs, Edelman says that we are in a period of huge systemic change and CEOs, and the companies they lead, must play a central role in addressing these issues and in helping restore economic optimism.
Companies need to pay heed to that because more than 70% of people surveyed expect CEOs to take a public stand on the treatment of employees, climate change, discrimination, the wealth gap and immigration.
Not only that. Consumers and employees are also increasing the pressure on businesses to stand up for them. For instance, 63% of people buy or advocate brands based on their beliefs and values and 69% say that having a societal impact is a strong expectation or a deal breaker when considering a job.
So how can companies ensure constructive action? Interestingly, they don’t inspire much trust when they do things alone. The report reveals that people in 25 countries excluding China and Thailand believe that business and government working together are four times more likely to result in constructive action rather than business working alone.
That’s not all. 64% of the respondents say that companies supporting politicians and media outlets that build consensus could help to increase civility and strengthen the social fabric.
No doubt managing societal problems is a big task and there is always a risk of becoming politicised. Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman has warned that businesses must tread carefully because more than half (52%) of the respondents do not believe business can avoid being politicised when it addresses contentious societal issues.
This is where companies and CEOs will need to strike a fine balance. Experts suggest that businesses should stay focused on areas like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), sustainability and reskilling where they have a comparative advantage and can make a tangible difference.
Ideally, companies can build a consensus and collaborate on policies and standards to deliver results for a more just, secure, and thriving society. In addition, they have a role to play in building and restoring economic optimism via fair compensation, training, and local communities to address the mass-class divide and the cycle of polarisation.