In purpose and peers we trust, but in media we don’t, according to first local Edelman Trust Barometer results

For the first time, the Acumen Edelman Trust barometer has been conducted in New Zealand to determine the level of trust Kiwis have in their institutions and it turns out Kiwis are a very discerning and sceptical bunch, with trust levels ranking below our Australian and British counterparts. We also hold more trust in NGOs and businesses than we do in the media or government. And Acumen Republic say the findings in this study present opportunities for businesses to increase profit by lifting trust through doing more for the greater good. 

The trust barometer is conducted annually in 29 countries and the New Zealand version surveyed 1,000 respondents with all fieldwork being carried out in November last year. The timing should be taken into consideration, as no doubt trust waxes and wanes according to societal or political issues New Zealanders are dealing with at a certain time. 

The survey breaks the respondents up into groups: the informed public (among the top 25 percent of earners, tertiary educated and significant consumers of media and business news) and the mass population (representing 85 percent of the global population). The report also refers to the general population, which is these two groups combined.

According to the report, New Zealanders are the 18th most trusting out of the 29 countries polled and the trust gap between the ‘informed public’ and the ‘mass population’ is 12 points, equal to the global average, though much lower than the US (19 points), the UK (17 points) and Australia (16 points).

56 percent of New Zealand’s informed public have trust in New Zealand’s institutions compared to 44 percent of the mass population.

The largest disparities are shown by the U.S. (31 points), France (29 points) and Brazil (26 points).

The survey reports New Zealand, which is often viewed as an egalitarian country, has a bigger trust divide between its informed public and the mass population than Australia, Ireland and Germany.

Edelman president and chief executive Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa David Brain says this divide could have consequences.

“Trust inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ brings a number of potential consequences including the rise of populist politicians, the blocking of innovation and the onset of protectionism and nativism,” he says. “The trust divide goes some way to explaining the rise of populist politics ­— Donald Trump in the US, Marine Le Penn in France and Brexit in the UK. A number of developed democracies all have significant trust issues.”

Kiwis have the most faith in NGOs, which is the most trusted of the four institutions looked at, followed by businesses, the government and the media.

However, according to an Acumen Republic release, it also has the highest trust gap out of the four institutions, “which may indicate perceptions around a lack of connection or elitism with the mass population”. 

As mentioned, the second most trusted institution in New Zealand is business.

The level of trust in business is 57 for the informed public versus 51 for the mass population.

However, the study shows chief executives in New Zealand score three points lower than the global average for credibility of information about business, with New Zealanders finding employees more credible than the global average (54 versus 52).

Acumen Republic says businesses could have the most to gain from this report, and may be able to achieve a competitive advantage by using their power to address social challenges.

77 percent of the general population in New Zealand agree that a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.

When asked to cite a reason why their trust in business had increased or decreased, 46 percent of the general population said trust had increased if the business had contributed to the greater good, while 48 percent of the general population’s trust had decreased when a business had failed to contribute to the greater good.

Further, 72 percent of respondents said chief executives should be personally visible in discussing financial results, while 80 percent said they should be visible in discussing societal issues, including income inequality, public policy discussions and personal views on societal issues.

According to Sustainable Brands, research on the world’s 50 fastest growing brands found a cause-and-effect relationship between a brand’s ability to serve a higher purpose and its financial performance.

The list included brands such as Method, Seventh Generation, Stonyfield Farm and Chipotle.

The Trust Barometer survey also found employee advocacy increases with societal issue engagement.

Only 59 percent of respondents in New Zealand said they trusted the company they work for to “do what is right,” which is some way behind the global average (65 percent).

New Zealanders believe the most important issue for business to address is income inequality, followed by protecting and improving the environment and supporting human and civil rights, according to the report.

Acumen Republic general manager Adelle Keely says the trust gap has created a void that offers business a big opportunity to talk about, address and solve societal issues.

“Our research highlights that by doing so there is a good chance that trust will also increase, which is also good for business. Research also demonstrates that businesses involved in societal issues significantly lift trust, engagement and advocacy among employees. Edelman’s trust growth model centred on engagement, employee advocacy, values and actions will help guide organisations which seek to grow trust with their constituencies.”

Interestingly, journalists and the media are often seen to be untrustworthy, even though the media has long been called the ‘fourth estate’ and was put in place by people to be critical of our other institutions.

According to the survey, in New Zealand media is the least trusted out of all four institutions mentioned. The level of trust for the media sits at 47 for the informed public, compared to 38 for the mass population (see above), showing a nine-point gap.

This is slightly different from the global findings for which government, not media, is the least trusted institution.

The report shows New Zealand is also behind in the global trend of growth in online media, however, traditional media is not declining as quickly as it is globally and millennials are more trusting of digital media than the general population.

For 69 percent of New Zealand’s population, search engines are the preferred source for news and information. 

Although we seem to trust search engines, there is still plenty of dodgy SEO (search engine optimisation) out there, which uses short-cuts to unethically push brands, news, companies or individuals to the top of search-engine lists. 

  • See our article on dodgy tricks SEO companies use to lure customers here.

Trusting search engines seems to fit with the shift in the traditional notion of elites holding authority and influence and trickling information down to the rest of the population. Now peer-to-peer information is more influential than top-down information.

We are more likely to trust ‘people like me’ than we are a government official, board of directors, or NGO representative for example, with technical and academic experts being the most trusted.

As this is the first time the survey has taken place in New Zealand there is no trend data, but the main takeaways are that businesses need a higher purpose beyond making profit, business leaders need to express values through honest and ethical engagement and employees can be a company’s best advocates.

“While authority may still rest with the elites, influence has inverted and now resides with the mass population and the trust of the mass population can no longer be taken for granted. More than ever, it must be earned,” Brain says.

  • See the full report here.

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