Navigating a State of Distrust
By Rob Rehg, Chair, U.S. Public Affairs and Lisa Ross, DC Office President
A State of Distrust
As a country, we have had a turbulent year, beginning and ending with hyper-partisan protests, party- line votes and growing doubts our institutions are capable of leading. Public confidence in the traditional structures of American leadership—government, business, the media, non-governmental organizations—appears undermined and has been replaced with discord, dissention and disillusionment. For many, the partisan division between Americans is wider than ever, and rhetoric from Washington is perpetuating a state of permanent protest. Gridlock appears here to stay.
The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer (Trust) results demonstrate what’s happening. Fewer than one in three Americans believe government officials are credible. Following behind government, there is a fundamental lack of belief in the media, which many people now see as existing to amplify partisan tension, essentially throwing gasoline on the flames of protest.
Navigating a State of Permanent Protest
Government and the media aren’t the only institutions impacted by declines in trust. Stock market volatility and public polling data shows institutional distrust is contagious, and business is not immune.
While trust in government declined more than any other institution—falling 14 points among the general population and collapsing 30 points among the informed public to an overall trust rating of 33 percent—business experienced noticeable declines as well. From 2016-2017, trust in business fell 10 points among the general population to 48 percent overall. Declines across institutions represent 18-year lows and the steepest, most dramatic declines Edelman’s Trust Barometer has ever recorded.
It is in this protest-rich and distrusting environment—that brands and businesses still have to find a way to grow, maintain customer loyalty and work with public officials to get things done. With uncertain capital markets and midterm elections on the horizon it will be critical for business to begin to lead.
These market dynamics and consumer demands have created new expectations of corporate leaders. As Richard Edelman noted in his analysis of the 2018 Trust Barometer, nearly seven in 10 global respondents say that building trust is the No. 1 job for CEOs, ahead of high-quality products and services. Nearly two-thirds say they expect CEOs to take the lead on implementing social and policy change, with or without government directing them to do so. Further, Trust Barometer findings confirm that a business’ long-term success depends on more than just profits. People want CEOs and companies to try and make a positive difference in the world.
The days of maintaining a happy blank slate when it comes to communicating your values are gone, pushed further into the sunset with each new digitally-fueled moment of confrontation. Companies aren’t off limits to public debate and issue dialogue, and those who are slow to acclimate may pay the price.
Take Your Public Engagement Local
In this climate, personal customer, employee and policy engagement is more relevant and important than ever at the state and local level. Opportunities exist within the communities you serve to recover trust, safeguard business and build affinity with select audiences.
Where institutions are suffering a crisis of trust, “employers” are among the most trusted. Among Americans, there’s been a 15 percent bump (to 79 percent) in the number of people who trust “their own company and other companies in their industry” to do what is right. Beyond that, trust in technical experts, CEOs, entrepreneurs and boards of directors each increased over the previous year.
By building and maintaining strong ties with employees, local opinion leaders and customers, engaging state and local policy makers and influencers in local communities, businesses can lead and make a difference—cultivating grassroots-style support on state and local issues and investing in brand loyalty. Whether it’s tax policy in Missouri, offshore energy development in Florida, a state-level response to the opioid crisis in Tennessee and Ohio, infrastructure spending in Colorado or discussing minimum wage changes in Pennsylvania, businesses must be present in their communities. Being active, engaged and available provides business with an additional platform to strengthen credibility and empower employees and stakeholders to join them in shaping mutually beneficial policies.
By mobilizing and engaging their employees and the communities they serve, businesses will lead by example and rebuild trust from the ground up. In this, businesses should leverage their regional, state and local footprints to lead on issues relevant to their customers, communities and industry.
Engaging with customers, key stakeholders, community influencers and the media at a place of shared values and perspective will drive value beyond the balance sheet.
Promote. Protect. Evolve
Using successful political campaigns as models, we build corporate public affairs campaigns that change minds and ultimately policy. Through advanced research and analytics, we find audiences that can be moved and we shape stories and pinpoint opportunities that can be leveraged to build stronger brands, challenge the status quo and deliver wins. Our core focus is to understand the intersection of our clients’ issues and what makes their audiences tick. The stories we tell are impossible to ignore, and they make a difference online, in the media, in boardrooms and with legislators. In this state of permanent protest, our Promote, Protect and Evolve approach is more important now than it’s ever been.
PROMOTE: Businesses must drive the conversation. Grounded in our heritage of powerful storytelling, Edelman shapes the conversation and spurs action by reaching those who matter at the right time, with the right message.
PROTECT: Reputation is everything. When the special interests are stacked against you, we design and execute integrated communications and advocacy campaigns that build alliances, engage the media and deliver outcomes – while protecting client reputations.
EVOLVE: Leadership is earned. Our team builds individualized campaigns that help our clients win today and position them to grow and lead tomorrow.
With offices in more than 14 U.S. cities, field teams and public engagement experts covering all 50 states and Puerto Rico, our clients have access to the strength of Edelman’s network to solve issues at the municipal, state, federal and international levels. We have people on the ground to get a real sense of what people are thinking and feeling about critical issues and whether public outcry at the national level will turn into a business problem at the local level.
During the last three decades, we have run some of the toughest policy and issue campaigns inside and outside Washington. Our team has deep expertise in politics, issue advocacy, communications and public engagement, which allows us to design and manage highly sophisticated and integrated communications campaigns that win the toughest fights.
Research: We develop sharp insights that win. Our best-in- class research and opposition strategy teams identify the white space you need to lead the conversation.
Planning: We define and tell stories that matter to high-value, hard-to-reach audiences through scenario and strategic planning.
Strategy: We build integrated advocacy campaigns that are designed to win where it matters; online, in the media and in the field.
Creative and Paid Media: We engage audiences at a place of shared values with emotionally resonant creative amplified in media that matters to our audiences.
Campaign Management: We leverage insights and best practices from the inner circles of politics, policy and business. Our senior leadership provides unmatched strategic counsel.
Analytics and Optimization: We help you stay in front of the conversation through advanced data analytics and campaign optimization processes.