“Trust is a forward-looking metric” — Five key takeaways for business leaders from our chat with Tonia Ries on the Edelman Trust Barometer

February 1, 2024

Written by Paul Quigley

Edelman’s 24th annual Trust Barometer was launched last week and this year the focus was on innovation and the public’s perception of how those innovations are being introduced to society. 

To unpack this more and understand what it means for brands and businesses we sat down with Tonia Ries, who leads the Trust Barometer at Edelman’s Trust Institute, to discuss the findings from this year’s report. Here are our five key takeaways from the conversation. 

1. There is an opportunity for CEOs to lead on innovation

Though the study is a long-term tracker in part, a significant portion of the survey is devoted to a topic of interest for the team, and this year that was innovation. Ries notes that her team “had a sense that there is a debate about progress, about how innovation is being implemented in society, and how we move forward in a world where peer voices are trusted as much as expert voices.” This question informed much of their work in the second part of the survey. 

Businesses are expected to at least participate in, if not lead, this conversation, with 62% of people expecting CEOs to manage changes happening in society at large, not just in their own company.

Slide showing that 62% of survey respondents in the Trust Barometer expect CEOs to manage changes occurring in society

(Source: Trust Barometer, p.35)

Per the research, a significant number of people around the world are wary of innovations, with the chart below showing the acceptance levels of four technological breakthroughs — green energy, AI, gene-based medicine, and GMO foods. 

Ries notes that these are more in the public eye than ever before, and that is likely to continue as more technology is introduced. “People are just far more attentive and focused on the role of innovation and new technologies, there’s more of a public discussion around these innovations and transitions and transformations that society is experiencing. And so I think people just in general have stronger opinions around how we want to see innovation managed in society.”

Slide showing trust in innovations, including green energy, AI, gene-based medicine, and GM foods. Green energy is trusted, GM foods are not, while AI and Gene-based medicine hang in the balance.

(Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, p.14)

2. Business is more trusted than government and media, but also under more scrutiny 

The above demand for leadership is likely at least in-part driven by business being trusted more than its counterparts in both government and the media. While this is an obvious positive for businesses, the downside is this trust puts any potential failures under more of a microscope. This is especially true in a year of global elections, where the public is going to be poring over public statements and political contributions with renewed vigor.

One analysis in the report plots the four major institutions on a chart according to their perceived competence and ethics scores, connected by a triangle which serves to demonstrate how uneven the scores are.

Slide showing the levels of trust across government, NGOs, business, and media, with business viewed as the most competent and second-most ethical behind NGOs

(Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, p.7)

Ries notes that “the triangle that we show is showing that the gap between business and government on competence and ethics really has not gotten any shorter. It’s just gotten skinnier and longer, and that is both an opportunity and a challenge for business. You could say business having the opportunity to lead is an opportunity because it means that business has far more license to operate than it has in the past, but it also means that business is being asked to engage with the other institutions in ways that it hasn’t necessarily done in the past, and that then in turn puts business under more scrutiny.”

3. Respondents want businesses to play a role alongside government

Despite distrust in the government to regulate tech and its low perception of competence, business should not shy away from partnering with the institution as public-private partnerships can actually boost trust for business. There have been increasing calls for businesses to partner with governments on developing and implementing emerging technologies. 60% of people now say they would trust business more on technology-led changes with this kind of partnership.

Slide showing that 60% of respondents said they would trust government to lead more with technology-led changes if it partnered with business

(Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, p.33)

“Over the last decade, there’s been a 15-point increase in how many people say that public private partnership between business and government is something that will increase their trust in business with tech-led changes. Now 60% say that’s something that will earn their trust, and it’s been a double digit increase in nearly every country surveyed. So there’s much more demand for businesses to be part of the conversation around regulation, which in itself is an important action to driving adoption of new technologies. People are much more likely to embrace the technology if they see that it’s regulated well and effectively, but they’re concerned that the government can’t do it alone.”

4. People tend to trust their own employers 

Switching gears a little, one constant in this survey is the extent to which people trust their own employers. Businesses may be trusted broadly, but nobody is more trusted than your own employer, according to the data, and it’s probably because that’s where people feel that their voice is most heard, according to Ries. 

“[This metric] has been consistently high and employers are trusted regardless of what segment we look at. Even when I look at the most traditionally distrusting—people who see their country as polarized, low income people, those who think that generally innovation is not being well managed—employer trust continues to be high and strong across the board.”

Slide showing that 79 percent of people surveyed trust their own employer

(Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, p.44)

“[There’s] a sense of control over that relationship that I don’t necessarily have with the other institutions, and that’s the other important theme that is clear from this year’s report is when it comes to acceptance of new technologies and innovation, people are far more accepting of innovations if they feel that they have influence over them—that they have a sense of control over how these things impact their life.”

5. Earned media is still king

One final positive thing of note — while trust in traditional media has experienced some dips over time, but today has about the same trust score as 10 years ago. This shows the power that earned media still retains, especially compared to owned media, which has been distrusted since 2014. 

Slide tracking the trust in search, traditional media, owned media, and social media over the last ten years

(Source: Edelman Trust Barometer, p.54)

Despite dips from 2015-2017 and again from 2021-2023, it’s now at its highest level of the past four years, and only one point down compared to 2014. Ries is also keen to note that search remains the most trusted of the four buckets, with a three-point increase since 2014 and 66% trust overall. 

“There’s this interesting dynamic happening where I think that traditional media and journalism are struggling to offer something that people feel they’re getting through search, which is that sense of empowerment that people have when they’re in control of how they’re finding the information.”

Both traditional and search are well ahead of trust in owned media and social media, which have held trust scores of under 50% for the last ten years. 

We’d like to thank Tonia for taking the time to talk to us. If you’d like to read the full study these takeaways are based on you can do so here.

You might also like

How to go from reactive to proactive comms with NewsWhip

How to go from reactive to proactive comms with NewsWhip

When 25% of your brand’s value is tied to its reputation with the public, how can you make sure you’re being proactive when it comes to your brand and media monitoring efforts?  The old way of measuring makes this impossible, with metrics often a day or more old by...

Paul Quigley

Paul Quigley is CEO of NewsWhip, a technology that empowers the world’s leading publishers and brands to predict and understand the stories that will engage their audiences. Paul founded NewsWhip in 2011 to “find the most interesting stories in the world”. Each day its platform is used by thousands of journalists, marketers, and communicators in 30 countries to spot opportunities and deepen their understanding of what stories will engage audiences, and why. Email via marketing@newswhip.com.

Related articles

How to go from reactive to proactive comms with NewsWhip

How to go from reactive to proactive comms with NewsWhip

When 25% of your brand’s value is tied to its reputation with the public, how can you make sure you’re being proactive when it comes to your brand and media monitoring efforts?  The old way of measuring makes this impossible, with metrics often a day or more old by...

read more

The NewsWhip Note

Regular updates from the NewsWhip team on the crises, trends, and stories that are resonating with the media and public around the web.