Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 9 July 2020

Amid coronavirus, public trust will be a company's most precious commodity

In a more insecure world, businesses need to help government get people back to work, revitalise the economy and advocate for causes

A pedestrian walks past reader board advertising a job opening for a remodeling company in Seattle earlier this month. AP Photo
A pedestrian walks past reader board advertising a job opening for a remodeling company in Seattle earlier this month. AP Photo

For the past 20 years, we have been studying the power and impact of trust in key institutions, including business, government, media and NGOs through the what we call the “Edelman Trust Barometer”. During that time, we have seen dynamic changes ranging from the dot-com stock market crash and 9/11 terror attacks in the early 2000s, and more recently of course, the coronavirus pandemic. This year, we reflected on the role that trust has played in shaping our society, as well as exploring how and why it must act as the linchpin between our institutions and the public in the future.

The Middle East has always led the way when you look at trust in government. But when it comes to trust in institutions around the world – be it government or businesses – they are increasingly seen as wielding power over society and ultimately viewed as unethical. Since 2011, government in other parts of the world has languished in distrust.

However, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update reveals a remarkable shift in the landscape of trust since January. The update shows that amid the Covid-19 pandemic, trust in government surged to an all-time high, making it the most trusted institution for the first time in our 20 years of study.

The colours of the UAE flag are projected onto the Matterhorn. The UAE government is highly trusted by the people. Light Art by Gerry Hofstetter / Foto Michael Kessler
The colours of the UAE flag are projected onto the Matterhorn. The UAE government is highly trusted by the people. Light Art by Gerry Hofstetter / Foto Michael Kessler

What is clear from the results is that during a pandemic, more than ever, people are searching for someone to put their faith in. During an unprecedented time when government response at all levels could mean the difference between life and death, the public is placing its faith in government to lead the fight against the virus.

Despite the high trust in government, the pandemic appears to have cast a spotlight on systemic inequity. In January, the Trust Barometer showed that a growing sense of unfairness in the system was driving distrust across institutions. The update shows that 67 per cent of respondents believe that those with less education, less money and fewer resources are bearing a disproportionate burden of the suffering, risk of illness and need to sacrifice during the pandemic, and more than half are worried about long-term, Covid-related job loss.

The search for reliable information related to the pandemic has led to a significant increase in trust in news sources. Despite these unparalleled high levels of trust, there is an urgent need for credible and unbiased journalism, especially with concerns about fake news still looming large. With that worry, comes a strong public demand for expert voices – people want to hear from the most trusted sources of information on the pandemic: doctors (80 per cent), scientists (79 per cent) and national health officials (71 per cent).

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr Anthony Fauci speaks as US President Donald Trump listens during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House in Washington in April. Reuters
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr Anthony Fauci speaks as US President Donald Trump listens during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House in Washington in April. Reuters

While business saw a slight increase in trust, the pandemic has exposed several areas of concern: 50 per cent of people believe business is doing poorly, mediocre or completely failing at putting people before profits; only 43 per cent believe that companies are protecting their employees sufficiently from Covid-19, and 46 per cent do not believe business is helping smaller suppliers and business customers stay afloat.

Business is therefore being called upon to demonstrate both its ability and integrity – the key building blocks of trust. As the focus shifts to reopening the economy, business should join government in charting the path forward rather than resuming its backseat position.

In short, with health and safety paramount, the public wants to see a stronger partnership between government and business in getting people back to work and revitalising the global economy.

Above all, it is CEOs who must demonstrate public leadership and show that business is ready to live up to the promise of stakeholder capitalism – this is a moment of reckoning for business.

The good news is, despite Covid-19, there is striking optimism – more than two thirds of respondents say they believe the pandemic will result in valuable innovations and improvements in how we work, live and treat each other. It is now up to the four institutions – government, business, media and NGOs – to deliver on expectations and build a more resilient system for the future.

Lufthansa employees protest against planned job cuts in Frankfurt this week. Reuters
Lufthansa employees protest against planned job cuts in Frankfurt this week. Reuters

For the Middle East specifically, trust in government is once again significantly higher when compared to other parts of the world, a result of strong and consistent leadership.

Despite these differences, several parallels can be drawn. Much like the global trend, 94 per cent of those surveyed in the UAE believe that business leaders should move to the forefront, with CEOs being more vocal on issues such as training for jobs of the future, automation’s impact on jobs, technology’s impact on ethics, privacy, climate change and more. Nearly three in four believe that CEOs should be leading on change, rather than waiting for the government to step in.

In 2020, ethical drivers are three times more ​important to company trust ​than competence, with 73 per cent in the UAE indicating a company can take actions ​that both increase profits ​and improve conditions in communities where it operates​.

Simply put, from both a global perspective and here in the region, companies must take action.

People wait in line at a Uniqlo clothing store at Ginza shopping area in Tokyo earlier in the month. Customers are increasingly brand-conscious. AP Photo
People wait in line at a Uniqlo clothing store at Ginza shopping area in Tokyo earlier in the month. Customers are increasingly brand-conscious. AP Photo

But more than this, the public feels strongly that brands, too, have a moral obligation.

Recent events have shown that it is more important than ever that brands use their voice to advocate for causes and act to create change, using their influence to inspire customers to get involved too. Consumers are holding brands accountable for their actions and expect them to deliver on the promises and pledges they are making.

It is no longer enough to say the right thing, brands have a fundamental responsibility to be the driving force behind the solutions. Two thirds of consumers globally now self-identify as belief-driven buyers, they are exercising brand democracy, supporting those products that stand with them on important issues. In order to retain loyal customers and advocates, action is now imperative.

The findings of this year’s surveys confirm that trust is undeniably linked to doing what is right – a key consideration for business leaders and brands looking to the future.

Omar Qirem is the CEO of Edelman Middle East

Updated: June 25, 2020 07:15 PM

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