Who Should You Trust on Trust in Business: Yankelovich or Fortune?

Whom do you trust on the subject of business trust?

Before I give you any data: write down which you’re most inclined to trust on the subject:

a. Daniel Yankelovich, doyen of opinion research, who says trust in business is down these days;


b. Fortune Magazine, who says trust in business is up these days.

Here’s what each has to say.

Fortune, April 30, says:

the big picture showing a broad business return to a respectable role in American culture is undeniable. Americans today trust business far more than at any time in recent years, at least by some measures. A new poll from the New York City-based Edelman PR firm, the latest in a series conducted since 2001, shows the highest level of trust in business that the poll has yet recorded: 57% say they trust business to "do what is right." That’s even higher than in the palmy days before the Enron scandal broke.

By contrast, Daniel Yankelovich, interviewed in McKinsey Quarterly (subscription only), says:

A lot of business people are under the impresion that because there isn’t as much talk about the scandals, mistrust of business has receded. Research shows the opposite: the lack of trust in business has grown. At the peak of the scandals—say, in 2002—36 percent of the public agreed that you could trust business leaders to do what is right most of the time or almost always.

Since the scandals now seem to be behind us, you would think that the level of trust would rise. Instead, it fell to 31 percent in 2004, and to 28 percent in 2006. So there’s a continuing erosion of trust.

[we’ve had] three waves of mistrust in business and other institutions over the past 75 years…the other two waves lasted about 12 years, and we are now in the 5th to 6th year of this one…you shouldn’t be misled by the lack of media attention to the scandals, because the mistrust continues to grow.

There. Now that’s cleared up—what can we conclude?

1. Surveys depend strongly on how one words the questions
2. That’s especially true for terms like “trust.”

To find out the answer, we turn to you, dear readers.

What do you think? What has happened to trust in business in recent years?

0 replies
  1. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, my first reaction to these opposition viewpoints was to ask myself cui bono?

    I have to admit, I don’t know anything at all about Yakelovich, his politics, or his agenda.  (I looked up Daniel Yankelovich’s Wikipedia profile and his website, danielyankelovich.com.)  Can you or your readers shed any light on that? (E.g., is Yakelovich a generally independent voice, or is he for sale? When he is wrong, who has he traditionally sided with?)Also, do you know anything more about the studies that he cites in the passages you quote (e.g., by whom they were performed)?

    On the Fortune magazine side, I find it very interesting that the polling data they cite is from Edelman — a public relations firm; i.e., a company that makes its bread and butter manipulating public opinion for its clients.  Does Edelman’s client roster includes companies that benefit from consumers having greater trust in businesses and business leaders?  Given that the "areas of expertise" section of the Edelman website lists these five industries: financial services, consumer, health, technology, industrial — my answer would have to say yes.

    I am not saying there is anything wrong with Edelman’s study, as I have no specific knowledge of their study methodology or their data.  What I am saying is that Edelman is in the business of spinning data for their clients (what else is the definition of modern PR?), that they face a powerful conflict of interest in performing a poll on trust, and that it would take a great deal of self-restraint  and integrity to create an accurate poll with no bias.

    Are there PR firms out that there perform unbiased polls generating data that harm their own clients, and then broadcast the results? (Rhetorical question.)

    (I also found it odd that Fortune describes Edelman as a "New York City-based … PR firm" — given that Edelman trumpets itself as a global firm on its own website. Does Fortune always characterise companies by the location of their head office?  (I don’t know the publication well enough to say, and I don’t have an issue on hand to verify.)  Or, is Fortune trying to make Edelman sound more "local" and "more American" in order to present it as a more trustable, authoritative source?)

    As to your actual question of what has happened to trust in business in recent years, regardless of the reality of business, I find there seems to be an increase in public perception of  both conflicts of interest and agenda-motivated spin — and that certainly increases my skepticism.

    And that comment is completely personal, anecdotal and not based on any formal data analysis — but I also don’t anticipate making any money from it.

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    To Shaula’s question about Yankelovich, here’s how McKinsey Quarterly introduces him:

    As a founding father of public-opinion research and its preeminent practitioner, Daniel Yankelovich has been probing attitudes toward business and other issues for more than four decades. Yankelovich, 82, introduced the New York Times/Yankelovich poll in 1975, has written 11 books, and served as a consultant to business and political leaders. He has also established four companies, including his latest, Viewpoint Learning, which helps organizations to develop special-purpose dialogues to expand their options, anticipate obstacles, and broaden support for difficult decisions. Yankelovich is no stranger to the boardrooms of large enterprises, having served as a director of Arkla, CBS, Educational Testing Service, Meredith, U S West, and other companies, as well as foundations, universities, and nonprofits.

    Throughout his career Yankelovich has unwaveringly stressed the need for organizations to embrace ethical integrity in their operations and their ties to the outside world.
    Here is a bit more from the interview with Yankelovich:

    It will take both concrete behavior and a shift in business philosophy. Boards and CEOs are going to be the main carriers of a new business philosophy. You can’t have a huge hypocrisy gap. Ordinarily, the US public attitude is generous and open minded toward profits and compensation. If somebody makes a lot of money the response is, “Great, someday it might happen to me.” What drives people crazy is when you make a lot of money at people’s expense. This is a powerful political form of resentment. It’s resentment at being exploited. Americans want companies to make a profit but to make it by doing some good for others, not just themselves.

    The Quarterly: What in business ideology would have to change to arrive at that point?

    Yankelovich: Business doctrines have to change. Ideologies like shareholder value are being abused to rationalize and justify outrageous behavior. One of the tests for whether companies are aligning themselves with a broader social engagement is the extent to which the doctrine of shareholder value loses credibility. I don’t think it’s going to be openly repudiated, but I suspect that, gradually, executives will stop making as much reference to it to justify their actions. It privileges one group, one constituency, over all the others, and it carries so much baggage now because it’s been so perverted and linked to short-term profits.

  3. Lark
    Lark says:

    "There are three kinds of lies: [White] lies, damn lies, and statistics." – Benjamin Disraeli

    Who participates in these polls?

    For starters, is the pollster. Someone heavily vested in a poll’s outcome – whether "good", "not-so-good" or "bad" is of little importance.

    The pollster represents himself as a trusted business adviser by virtue of his having measured the "scientific" results.

    Secondly, are its participants, who seem largely to be made up of active, engaged capitalists and mindless consumers… who’ve more-than-likely given little thought about their roles in a cycle of spiraling abuse and destruction.

    Whatever is a poll’s "outcome" is then spun from and for the dream weavers who participated and finally caused this data-driven drivel to be spoon-fed to the masses.

    All involved feel self-important.  They cling to the belief that something valuable can be derived from data which assumes our society is effectively split nearly down the middle – those who have, and those who have not… those who get it, and those who don’t.

    And the vast majority of humankind will be left behind – or left out – altogether.

    It’s indicative of our very real and too-often self-perpetuating everyday nightmare that moral and spiritual bankruptcy – a scenario where the blind lead the blind and none is the wiser for it – is actually upon us.

    Thus, from a purely economic and statistical viewpoint, this idea of generating polls from, and narrowly for, a “recognized” business community is a colossal waste of time.

    Does anyone seriously believe that what I’ve said here matters one iota in the scheme of things?

    What if I told you I have no credentials whatsoever? That I fancy myself a capitalist and a consumer too?

    The results are in – in matters of ethics or of law, business or economics, statistical analysis or accounting… human behavior… and in fact, with an honest appraisal of these areas which constitute our collective human “busy-ness” – when money  factors into the equation… all virtue flies out the window.

    With change an ever-present reality… this is the central challenge of our times:

    "Who will tell our stories? What will be left of the world we inhabit that we deign to leave our children?"

    Thankfully, there are those who still care…

    … That honesty starts from within… and trust really does matter.

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Uh, Lark, love the passion, but I ended up short just a few breadcrumbs of being able to follow where you went from where you started.

    If surveys have any use at all–and I think they do–it’s not clear to me why the subject matter of trust in business should be an exception.

    For example, I find Yankelovich’s statement "[we’ve had] three waves of mistrust in business and other institutions over the past 75 years…" to be quintessential historical contexting–valuable in a time when we’re short of historical perspective.

    I personally don’t agree with your view that "the results are in" regarding money chasing out all virtue. To the contrary, virtue without temptation isn’t worthy of the name.

    Finally, when you suggest your opinion isn’t worth an iota, I beg to differ. You’re a bright guy and I’ve just invested 20 minutes in understanding your message. Not wasted time, either. But, IMHO, you’ve written more clearly at other times.  (Though I kinda liked where you ended up).

    Thanks for chiming in.

  5. Lark
    Lark says:


    You know, it’s easy to see why you’d have trouble following my line of reasoning!

    Some points of clarity:

    Yankelovich’s observations about trust are certainly more trustworthy than those observations from the Fortune magazine article – just a thinly-disguised puff piece with little value.

    So what did I go and say?

    I dismissed the viewpoints expressed in the Fortune article and focused my negative commentary on Yankelovich and the trustworthiness of survey data. 

    Even less precisely, I focused on the nature of business in general.

    You’re right though… about surveys or polls having value – I can grudgingly give you that.

    You’re also right about the nature of virtue too – it’s why I actually study esoteric subjects like utilitarianism. After all, virtue has to align itself with one’s ideas about temptation (or pleasure), as you suggest.

    But having reached a turning point in my life…  when I’m fortunate enough to be able to take the time again…  to challenge my old assumptions… and less-than-firmly-grounded beliefs… I find that more-and-more the subject of trust… factors into my reasoning.

    Perhaps it’s because I have a fear of living a lie. And I don’t trust myself.

    Then maybe it’s why I tend towards questioning the values of a capitalistic society hell-bent on self-perpetuating its own invincibility… its ultimate correctness in the natural order of things.

    Trust is at the heart of all business and social interaction. It can be said to be the engine of all economic activity too – what I whimsically term our "busy-ness".

    But trust which we understand is to be earned has to be counter-balanced with the facts as they exist on the ground.

    A brain trust is what governs corporate  behavior and drives performance; and misplaced trust in the truthfulness of one’s convictions is what often fuels our competitive  nature – itself driven by fear of non-conformity or false beliefs. 

    Big Business especially is the target of my  negative feelings. I just don’t like the hold it has on our politicians and lawmakers…

    … And I wonder about the powerlessness of the individual in a state controlled by its unfettered access – even its perceived right – to profits at any cost.

    We’ve also heard it said that "he who controls the media controls the message."

    In this business and political climate today I fear we have sold out to the worst kind of greed… and self-correcting mechanisms which are supposedly in place to protect us… are being ignored.

    Might makes right… and the rest of us be damned… or risk being branded as losers!

    Just because critical thinking is too-often sacrificed to expediency…  and the herd mentality still persists… I’m re-examining my positions about everything.

    It’s difficult to blithely accept a society’s dictates when the necessity of fitting in to a hierarchical authoritarian structure – like the corporate worldview espouses – is akin to fully embracing the notion that "he who owns the most ‘gold’ makes the rules" for the rest of us.

    Without sacrificing my very survival – my own tiny little place in the sun – I’m grateful you’ve provided this space for us to "speak some truth to power".

    Even if my spin on things confounds the dickens out of me sometimes…

    … You are to be thanked for at least hosting the discussion, Charlie! 

    We can only hope its lessons don’t go unheeded.


  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Thanks for the post.  I too think  "Trust is at the heart of all business and social interaction.  It can be said to be the engine of all economic activity too."  

    Your voice is a good one, thanks for coming back  and giving it some room to stretch out.

  7. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Speaking of integrity in (business) media, I imagine you and your readers have already heard the news that the Wall Street Journal may be going the way of Fox News.

    I’m afraid that the WSJ will continue to coast on its previous reputation; that most readers won’t notice or care about the ownership change; and that public perception of the Journal’s credibility will not appropriately adjust. 

    Am I too cynical or pessimistic here? My experience with US media has shown that in general I am rarely cynical or pessimistic enough.

    Charlie, you asked "What has happened to trust in business in recent years?"

    At least in the US:
    – regulatory bodies have been detoothed;
    – news media have been conglomerated into absurd monopolies;
    – PR agencies have ascended from a source of news leads to a source of "news;"
    – the quality of journalism has radically degraded.

    For a good example, see the Fortune/Edelman quote at the start of the post. (!)

    In that context, the erosion of trust that Yankelovich reports on goes beyond business, in one direction towards government and social institutions, and in the other towards personal relationships.

    The only way I can figure out how to counter the erosion is, at the macro level, to fight to restore the checks and balances and regulatory bodies that formerly guaranteed the integrity of different businesses; and at the micro level, to work hard to embody and encourage and reward trusted relationships between individuals.

    I really enjoy that you write so much about what individuals /can/ do.  Whether or not I can save the world, I appreciate your advice in helping me do a better job of my little piece of it.


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