Edelman PR has studied trust for more than 20 years and believes that it is the ultimate currency in the relationship that all institutions—companies and brands, governments, NGOs, and media—build with their stakeholders. The firm speaks highly of trust and places its importance at the center of everything.

Trust defines an organization’s license to operate, lead and succeed. Trust is the foundation that allows an organization to take responsible risks, and, if it makes mistakes, to rebound from them.

For a business, especially, lasting trust is the strongest insurance against competitive disruption, the antidote to consumer indifference, and the best path to continued growth. Without trust, credibility is lost and reputation can be threatened.

Foundational or not, Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer is not the most optimistic report. Not this year.

This is one of the main takeaways from the report: Nearly 6 in 10 say their default tendency is to distrust something until they see evidence it is trustworthy. Another 64% say it’s now to a point where people are incapable of having constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on. When distrust is the default – we lack the ability to debate or collaborate.

Distrust is now society’s default emotion. Let’s find someone or something to blame.

Media and Politics Are Sucking the Air from the Room

According to Edelman, the media business model has “become dependent on generating partisan outrage, while the political model has become dependent on exploiting it. Whatever short-term benefits either institution derives, it is a long-term catastrophe for society.”

I’m inclined to be hopeful about this and say people are right to question elected officials and widespread bias in the media. What concerns me is how “divisive forces” can take root and then people turn off completely. When we’re outraged, we fail to pay attention, to listen, or to learn.

In 2021 the major news channels and opinion networks faced deep dips, according to Variety. Fox News was down 34%, although still tops in cable, MSNBC  was down -28%, and CNN -38%. Business channels experienced similar slumps: Fox Business Network was down 48%, while CNBC was off 13%. The one exception to this trend, apparently, is right-wing Newsmax, which increased viewership by 48%.

Because the content from these talk shows is not compelling, which leads me to see the dips in viewership as natural and good. At the same time, I recognize how we may not like government or media, but we need both to function.

Without faith that our institutions will provide solutions or societal leadership, societal fears are becoming more acute, according to Edelman. Most notably, 85% are worried about job loss and 75% worry about climate change.

Edelman Says “Societal Leadership Now a Core Function of Business”

Trust Barometer respondents, by an average five-to-one margin, want businesses to play a bigger, not smaller, role on climate change, economic inequality, workforce reskilling, and racial injustice.

Nearly 60 percent of consumers now buy brands based on beliefs while 6 in 10 employees choose a workplace based on shared values and expect their CEO to take a stand on societal issues.

At the same time, millions of people believe that businesses ought to stick to making products and delivering services and leave public policy alone. What about the captains of industry, how do they see the lack of trust and widespread worrying? Do they see it as a threat to business as usual?

It’s an open-ended question, but let’s admit that most people desire stability and sustainability. Therefore, the more chaos that unfolds, the more opportunity there is for brands to solve for people who want calm, sensible, trustworthy answers to their daily challenges.