Trust in business, government falls after pandemic spike

Confidence in public, private sector fading as COVID-19 wears on

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A rising tide of public trust in government institutions, traditional media and business leaders in Canada during the onset of the COVID pandemic last March has now receded, a new report finds.

In fact, some demographics are showing trust levels in these institutions at a lower state than pre-COVID numbers, according to public relations firm Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer.

The report, which collected responses from 33,000 respondents in 28 countries (1,500 in Canada), was released in February and reveals a “crisis in leadership and expert credibility” for Canadians as the pandemic wears on – with trust in businesses falling back to 56% in January from a high of 61% last May.

Trust in government saw a similar drop from 70% to 59% during the same time period, while trust in NGOs (61% to 55%) and media (58% to 54%) also fell after all categories posted at least a 5% gain months after the pandemic started.

Ari Indyk, vice-president at Edelman Vancouver’s crisis and risk group, said while the Trust Barometer did not explore why public trust in such institutions fell, it is clear that part of the loss of trust came from disappointment about the handling of the pandemic by government and business leaders.

“I would say there’s definitely unmet expectations,” Indyk said. “And it’s across all institutions.... For businesses, people expect them to speak out on a wide range of issues. They even want companies to take more dramatic stances in addition to action, and that may be where some of the unmet expectations come from.

“This study was done around the time of October 2020, so at that time, you would have had the conversations about the emergence of vaccines and their safety. We were also dealing with economic challenges and the U.S. elections, and what it did was to put front and centre the broader issue of information hygiene.”

The report showed that only one in five of those surveyed practiced “good information hygiene,” such as engaging with news, avoiding information echo chambers, verifying information and not amplifying unvetted information.

Indyk said that lack of information hygiene is a key reason officials believe the level of public distrust of government, businesses and media has receded in the months after the height of the pandemic’s first wave last summer.

“One of the key findings that really jumped out from the report was the role of misinformation in breeding mistrust,” he said. “We saw that, essentially, half of Canadians believed that businesses were trying to mislead them. We saw similar numbers for government, as well. It speaks to a strong misalignment between public expectations and institutional performance.

“Poor quality information is driving mistrust. I think that’s a key piece of the report – to call attention to misinformation driving this crisis of leadership.”

A lack of vetting of information, combined with a lack of trust in public leaders, created side-effects such as a preference for trusting local, immediate voices rather than experts from outside a person’s immediate contact sphere, the report found.

The result is a pervasive low level of trust in leaders, as the report found Canadians’ trust in CEOs to “do what is right” sits at only 39%. That number rises only slightly to 45% for government leaders, whereas “people in my community” received a trusted rating of 64% – trailing only scientists (77%).

Despite such a loss in trust, Indyk said respondents in the survey continue to expect much from businesses executives. The survey showed that 65% of Canadians agreed that CEOs “should step in when government does not fix societal problems,” and 69% said business executives should be accountable to the public, not just their company’s board and shareholders.

“There are a few key takeaways for all institutions, and the first would be to lead with facts while simultaneously acting with sympathy,” Indyk said. “What it means is to be transparent in communication and leverage truthful, unbiased sources of information. That, however, needs to be balanced with the recognition people are dealing with challenges big and small; the conversation needs to be framed from their perspective.”

The full report can be read at https://www.edelman.ca/trust-barometer/edelman-trust-barometer-2021.