There’s an Important Warning Label on the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer

High Expectations for Business Should Not Drive CEOs Down a Path of Politics and Polarization  

1/23/23 – – The Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey by the world’s largest PR firm, was released last week and the findings are not surprising. People don’t like what politics and polarization have done to their lives, and they are pessimistic about the future. Only business remains trusted enough to make things right.

For the last 23 years, Edelman has been interviewing thousands of people in 28 countries to measure public trust in four institutions: government, NGOs, the media and business. The findings have trended in one direction: As the anchors in our lives become increasingly political and polarized, we lose trust in them. And so far, business has been perceived as relatively apolitical.

Asked if businesses — given their enviable position — should do more to set the world back on its axis, respondents said yes. So, Edelman is encouraging corporate leaders to grab the reins; leverage their trust equity to act and “inform debate” on climate change, race relations, and a whole host of the most controversial and contentious issues facing society. Edelman recommends that companies “collaborate with government,” and “hold information sources accountable.”

You may be wondering how businesses can do all this without becoming as political and polarizing as the three other institutions that keep falling from grace. To its credit, Edelman slaps a warning label on its Barometer, stating:

While people want business to do more on social issues, it risks being politicized when engaging on contentious issues.

Edelman CEO Richard Edelman emphasized in an interview last year that a distinction must be drawn between responsible leadership and politics, which has “incapacitated” both government and media. If CEOs taking more active roles are perceived to be political, they will suffer the same diminishment of trust. Edelman warned, “Be careful, you have not been elected to anything.”

I hope communicators don’t go running to their CEOs with copies of the Trust Barometer without sharing Mr. Edelman’s critical caveat. Sure, consumers and employees want companies to speak out when they are aligned with their priorities and views. But consumers and employees hold a range of priorities and views. The U.S. population is split in half between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Navigating today’s toxic political environment without infuriating half the world is almost impossible.

We’ve seen plenty of evidence that leaping into this briar patch can be painful.

My guess is that Elon Musk has some regrets about his change of reputational fortune. Before placing Twitter at the center of the debate about freedom of speech and government censorship, Musk was perceived as an eccentric genius, respected if not loved by people on the left and right of the political spectrum. Today he’s revered by people on the right as a savior of the First Amendment and despised by people on the left as an existential threat to democracy. This new image is not helping with any of his business endeavors.

I’d also bet that there are a few folks at Disney who rue the day the company’s now-departed CEO Bob Chapec decided to take on Florida’s super powerful and popular Governor Ron DeSantis. Pushed to act against the state’s contentious “Parental Rights in Education Act,” Chapec found a way to disappoint people on both sides of the issue. The negative financial and reputational fallout from this inept attempt at politics is still being felt throughout the Magic Kingdom.

And Edelman itself, which represents clients in the fossil fuel industry, felt the political heat last week when Duncan Meisel, director of a group called Clean Creatives, offered this criticism on the marketing industry platform The Drum:

After more than a decade of controversy – a decade that also was the hottest in recorded history – CEO Richard Edelman has all the information he needs in Edelman’s own reporting to make the call to drop fossil fuel clients. Ending work with polluters would restore trust in his own brand, and make the next edition of the Trust Barometer the most compelling one yet.

Should CEOs just look the other way and let our world continue to crumble? There is plenty business can do (and is good at) to address societal wrongs without getting political. Here are some suggestions: Hire and advance people in your company fairly, on merit, assuring that all have the opportunity to succeed; make safe, quality products/services that add value and enjoyment to life without damaging the environment; be good neighbors, creating jobs and contributing to the prosperity of the markets you serve; and give your employees the time and opportunity to vote and otherwise participate in the political process.

In a guest editorial in the January 16, 2023, edition of The New York Times titled, “The Crypto Collapse and the End of the Magical Thinking That Infected Capitalism,” Mihir Desai, a professor at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, makes a relevant point:

Corporations are valuable socially because they solve problems and generate wealth. But they should not be trusted as arbiters of progress and should be balanced by a state that mediates political questions.

Our society works best when our core institutions do what they do best. With the media no longer reporting the news without bias, governments hamstrung by partisanship, and NGOs operating with blatant political agendas, the last thing we need are CEOs taking their eyes off of the primary responsibilities entrusted in them.  

Here’s my common-sense warning label for readers of the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer:   

CAUTION: As the only institution still trusted by the public, the last thing business should do is follow the same path of politics and polarization that has destroyed our trust in government, NGOs and the media.  

The report is well worth reading. Here’s a link:

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