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In conversation with . . . Edelman CEO Michelle Hutton | A pulse check on trust

March 10, 2021

The Shared Value Project sat down with Edelman’s Michelle Hutton to unearth the key findings from its 2021 Trust Barometer, with a focus on business. Seeking the story behind the statistics, we share Michelle’s insights and advice below.

What were the key findings of Trust Barometer’s in Australia this year, and how do they compare globally? Any surprises? 

This year’s Trust Barometer revealed all-time highs in public trust across all Australian institutions: business (63% trusted), government (61% trusted), NGOs (62% trusted) and media (51% trusted). Following Australia’s response to the pandemic, Australians have rallied around their institutions, and in fact, for the first time all institutions are now perceived as ethical. Business and NGOs are now the only institutions seen as both competent and ethical, which is a stark shift from last year’s results which found no institution to be ethical and competent.

We’ve also seen concerns shift – job loss is now Australia’s number one worry, with more than four in five reporting concerns about losing their job and more than half worried the pandemic will accelerate the rate at which companies replace humans with AI and robots. This was followed by climate change and cyber-security, where we found Australians are more concerned about the environment compared to contracting COVID-19 themselves.

What were the key takeouts for Australian business?

Leadership among the business community will be critical to Australia’s recovery, and we will be looking to them to step into less familiar areas and lead, with 66% of Australians agree CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems and 72% believing CEOs should act first rather than waiting for the government to enact change. Our study also found trust increased across all industry sectors, with the exception of technology. Healthcare (+9 points), energy (+8 points), telecommunications (+7 points) and financial services (+7 points) have recorded the highest growth of trust compared to the technology sector which fell by 5 points.

The 2021 research reveals what you’ve described as the largest ‘trust inequality gap’ in Australia – compared to globally. Can you explain what this means?

The divide between the informed public and the mass population continues in Australia, and it is the largest gap in the world. Australia recorded a 22-point gap, and worryingly the majority of countries that we studied also recorded a double digit trust gap.

While Australia retains the largest gap globally, the trust inequality gap isn’t anything new. It has existed since we started measuring trust. Across the last three years the average trust gap has been 19 points, with the largest gap recorded last year, and the 2021 results don’t look very different.

The result is a world of two different trust realities. The informed public – affluent, more educated, and frequent consumers of news – remain far more trusting of every institution than the mass population. This could be a signal of ongoing issues, as employment concerns remain and we prepare for the end of JobKeeper and other financial safeguards.

How can business and other institutions work to close this trust gap moving forward, and what’s at stake?

As the world transformed in response to the pandemic, Australians turned to their employers more than ever for guidance, reassurance and information they can trust. The workplace-home divide has been broken down, and employers have embraced a new role in their employees’ lives.

In an environment that demanded empathy and transparency, a strong bond of trust has resulted between organisations and their people. Having forged this bond, the opportunity exists for business to leverage this to enrich their culture and drive deeper engagement in the post-COVID era. Our study also shows that Australians are looking to their employers to engage on the pressing issues facing society – and businesses that take up this mantle stand to gain trust across the stakeholder ecosystem.

If you could offer organisations one piece of advice overall, what would it be? 

Having gained significant public trust over the past year, the challenge for Australian institutions now becomes how to build on this solid foundation. After a year of disruption, fear and uncertainty, the need for empathy and open communication is at an all-time high. Australians will be looking to business leaders to step in and act, particularly when the government fails to do so.

As we are quickly learning, 2021 by no means marks an end of the transformation and disruption brought on by 2020, and our shared success as a society will be vastly shaped by how institutions respond to the trust the public has placed in them.