Can You Trust the Data on Trust?

It’s late January. That means the business media are full of two events: the Davos World Economic Forum, and the Edelman Trust Barometer (announced at Davos, of course).

This is the 11th year of the Trust Barometer, which means it’s a measurement that increasingly permits study over time. It’s a rich source of information and idea generation, and Edelman deserves a lot of credit for establishing and continuing the series. And yet—the survey is still frustratingly unclear about the very definition of the thing it purports to measure—trust.

What is Trust?

Let’s break this down. Let’s get simple. You can trust—and you can be trusted. They are not the same thing.

  1. You can measure people’s general inclination to trust; in fact, it is regularly measured in the General Social Survey, an NSF-funded effort that has been in place for over forty years. It shows a long, slow, steady decline in the US population’s tendency to trust others.
  2. You can measure the objective trustworthiness of institutions by identifying behaviors and marking them with metrics. This is the approach taken by Trust Across America to identify trustworthy companies.
  3. Finally, you can take opinion polls about the level of ‘trust’ that people have in business, media, banking, etc. This is Edelman’s approach; they do phone surveys of over 5,000 people asking them how much they trust an entity or institution.

The problem with approach 3 is that it combines approaches 1 and 2, to the point where you can’t identify the cause of a shift in answers.

A concrete example: Edelman’s comments on a chart titled Trust Index: Brazil Rises, US Declines:

“[From 2008 to 2011] we took an average of trust in NGOs, business, media and government… The US moved from fourth from the top to third from the bottom [ahead only of the UK and Russia]…that’s a major change. The other major change is Brazil went from eighth place to first place.”

What in the world does this mean?

  • Does it mean that, in the last three years, Brazilian government, business and media have become more trustworthy, while US government, business and media have become less trustworthy?
  • Or does it mean that Brazilians as a people have become more trusting in the last three years, while Americans have become less trusting?
  • Or does it mean a blend of those two forces? If so, what’s the mix? Are trustworthiness and trusting-ness moving in the same direction, or in different directions? Whatever does this all mean?

Here’s a hint. It may not mean any of those things. Look at the 3-year growth in GDP in the United States—pretty flat, with that horrible negative number set around 2008-09. Now look at the 3-year growth in GDP in Brazil—7 of 11 quarters show growth above 4%, and 6 of them growth above 6%.

What would the US survey numbers look like if US GDP had matched Brazil’s? I suggest—about the same as they did in Brazil.

The thing is, short-term surveys about specific objects of trust are more like popularity contests—they are heavily driven by economics and current events. When the economy turns up, so will trust in business, and in government. This kind of ‘trust’ changes quickly.

The ‘trust’ that Edelman is measuring has a lot in common with consumer sentiment surveys, brand recognition surveys, or even popularity contests. Nothing wrong there. Nobody has a patent on any one definition of trust. But what are the implications of using this particular definition?

Just what is it we’re talking about here?

Trust, Reputation and Communication

Here’s Reuters’ opening paragraph in a story on the Trust Barometer titled Trust in Business Tumbled in 2010: Survey:

Americans’ trust in institutions of all kinds dropped last year as persistently high unemployment sapped people’s confidence in business and government, a newly released study found.

So—is trust the same as confidence? Or is confidence a driver of trust?

The Financial Times offers yet another synonym, in its headline, “US Public Loses Faith in Business.” Is trust the same as faith? And, by the way, faith in what? Faith to do what?

The story gets more muddled. Reuters again:

People in the United States…said they trusted the auto sector, following the successful initial public offering of General Motors Co…That change, [Edelman] said, reflected a belief among the public that automakers were starting to tackle their problems.

What is it that people are trusting the auto sector to do? I may trust GM to get financing, but not to sell me a better car. Which question am I answering when I say, “I trust GM?” (To put it technically: the meaning of ‘trust’ is highly contextual–trust to do what? Without context, the meaning is unclear).

The Financial Times reports, “Mr. Edelman said he was “shocked” by the global rebound in trust in carmakers.” I’m less shocked, because it’s clear that only the people who answered the question knew what they meant by their answers.

Edelman itself says “trust is critical as a driver of corporate reputation.” Which says something about Edelman’s view of what is really important about trust—not trust itself, but its effect on corporate reputation.

As Edelman EVP Ben Boyd points out, these days one voice won’t do—the CEO must be coupled with a technical person for product crises, for example. He also says, it’s critically important that communications be multi-channel and frequent because, in the US, 85% of respondents “needed to hear data about a company 3-5 times before they would believe it.

And now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Edelman is a PR firm, and their perfectly natural tendency is to view the world through the lenses of communications and reputation. And if the survey says people won’t believe you until they hear it 3-5 times, then by golly you’d better tell them 3-5 times! Problem is: the overload of spam, tv ads, junk faxes, robo-calls spin interviews arguably caused the need for multiple information hits. This sounds like concluding that the solution to message overload is more message overload. Ask the pharmaceutical industry how that’s worked out.

From that perspective, the Trust Barometer is a longitudinal study of consumer sentiment, intended to improve corporate messaging and communications so as to ultimately improve corporate reputations.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think it particularly helps to make companies more trustworthy; nor do I think it helps people become more trusting. Which, I guess, means it doesn’t all add up to a net increase in trust.

I myself would prefer to see corporations more focused on doing the right thing, instead of focusing on trying to convince their consumers, through multiple iterations and multiple spokespersons, that they are doing the right thing.

The Trust Barometer cannot tell us the difference between trustworthy behavior and people’s moods. It is built to help those whose job it is to craft the images that people hold about companies, and not to help those who would take dead center aim at those companies’ behaviors.

That’s fine. There’s a valid role for communications, and it looks like this:

  1. If my company is doing a better job than the public thinks I am doing, then I need PR. No one is better off if people think worse of me than I deserve.
  2. But if I know my company is doing a worse job than the public thinks I am doing–then I had better hire consultants, shake up management, and tell the PR firm to shove off, until such time as I’ve fixed some basic issues in my business.

We have more than enough Type 2 situations to afford the luxury of over-indulging in Type 1.

Trust the Trust Barometer—but be careful about what you trust it to do.

7 replies
  1. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Charlie, the one thing many consumers seem to agree on…we don’t trust the PR or the Corporate Communications (ie, “our people are our most important asset”, etc. Ditto when you say you’d prefer to see corporations more focused on doing the right thing, instead of focusing on trying to convince their consumers, through multiple iterations and multiple spokespersons, that they are doing the right thing.” News [good or bad] travels in a NY Heartbeat these days. Enough with the “SPIN Docs”, put that energy,intellectual capital, time and money into just doing the appropriate thing for that business and the buyers of those products/services,etc. In other words…don’t tell me, just show me!!

  2. John Gies
    John Gies says:


    There is a lot in this post. The idea of economic prosperity and the effect on consumer trust is valid. We are all more optimistic when times are good. And yet, there may be another factor at play. Here in America corporations and Wall Street are participating strongly in the “rebound”. Consumers not so much. They see business operating with a high degree of “self orientation” in keeping cash and not hiring, while the economy could gain a lift from jobs. The consumer is paying attention.

    With respect to the idea that we need to hear messaging 3 -5 times to believe it; that works when there are limited sources of information. Today with Twitter, Bloggers and the 24 hour news cycle there are many sources. I am consistently astounded by the behavior of individuals who say one thing and convince people that they are lets say Righteous. We had a case here in Colorado a few years ago, big religious leader who was very outspoken on the issue of gays. And then he is caught on tape with a gay prostitute doing drugs.

    The only way individuals and organizations can build and maintain trust is by walking their talk. There is always someone watching and with today’s technology they are often recording.

  3. Gini Dietrich
    Gini Dietrich says:

    John is right – there is a lot here! The thing that bothers me about all of this (and to echo Barbara’s comment) is people don’t trust PR. And, as a PR professional, that’s really, really, really disturbing to me. Edelman is one of the leading agencies in our field, yet they do nothing to negate the perception of our industry. It’s sickening and disheartening.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sandra Styer, Shane Matthews. Shane Matthews said: Can You Trust the Data on Trust?: It’s late January.  That means the business media are full of two events: the … […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *