European disunion

Edelman’s 2016 Trust Barometer reveals a large trust gap is emerging between the world’s elite and mass populations with potentially far-reaching consequences for Europe’s future.



The Edelman Trust Barometer, now in its 16th year, asks respondents how much they trust the institutions of government, business, nongovernmental organisations and media to do what is right.

The survey shows that trust is rising in the elite or ‘informed public’ group – those with at least a college education, who are engaged in media, and have an income in the top 25 per cent. However, in the ‘mass population’ (the remaining 85 per cent of our sample), trust levels have barely moved since the Great Recession of 2008. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the mass population doesn’t feel optimistic about the future. In more than two-thirds of the countries we surveyed, less than half of the mass population feels they will be better off in five years’ time. The largest disparities are in the US where the divide is nearly 20 points, followed by the UK at 17 points, and France at 16 points. This divide is directly linked to income inequality. Nearly two-thirds of the 28 countries surveyed reported a double-digit trust gap between high-income and low-income respondents.

In Europe, the general state of trust continues to be dismal, especially among the mass population. There is not a single state in Europe that is a net-truster. Only the Netherlands is neutral and all of the other states are distrusters. We are seeing a lack of trust among the mass population play out in a number of ways across the region, whether it is the backlash of migration, the far-right movement in France or, in the UK, a strong movement towards Brexit which could disrupt the entire EU. The populations are having their discontent heard.

"In Europe, the general state of trust continues to be dismal."

The one bright spot in this year's data is the opportunity for business to repair the trust divide. Remarkably, business is now the second most trusted of all institutions globally, particularly on the dimension of managing through change and innovation. Driven in part by the gradual recovery in the financial services sector, trust in business has increased or remained steady in 25 countries – closing in on the historic lead held by NGOs as the most trusted institution.

In contrast, trust in government has plummeted, with one-third of the general population in Europe trusting government to do what’s right. While 59 per cent of respondents believe that it is the role of government to regulate, 79 per cent say it’s actually the responsibility of business to address societal problems. In Europe, 78 per cent of respondents say a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions of where it operates. Among the issues cited as most critical for business to address are: access to healthcare, protecting and improving the environment, improving human and civil rights and income inequality.

Adding to this stronger position for business is the increased credibility of the CEO as a spokesperson. While employees remain most credible spokespeople overall, CEOs experienced an eight-point gain – more than experts, analysts or a person like yourself. However, to continue to earn trust, the data show that CEOs will have to shift their focus from short-term results to job creation and long-term value creation, both economic and societal.

Clearly it's time for businesses in Europe to get off the side-lines and play an active role in addressing the problems and opportunities we have in the region. It is our job as communicators to help identify the opportunities for our sectors and companies to offer the leadership Europe so desperately needs. But as we all know, Europe’s diversity and market nuances means one solution will not fit all. The following are views from colleagues across the region into the state of trust in key European markets.

A tale of two Britains by Ed Williams, CEO Edelman UK

As we looked closely at this year’s find ings a tale of two Britains emerged. The Trust Barometer’s Index for the UK recorded a trust gap of 17 percentage points between the informed publics and mass population. That was the biggest gap we have ever recorded. The trust gap is even more pronounced when you consider the attitudes of the top one per cent with those in the poorest households.

While the trust gaps for NGOs and media were high at 10 and 12 percentage points respectively, when it came to trust in government the gap widened dramatically to 28 points (54 per cent for the rich group compared to 26 per cent for the poorer) and for business, even further to 32 points (67 per cent vs 35 per cent).Worse still was the inequality of hope: only 10 per cent of the poorest thought they would be better off at the end of 2016; while on the other hand just 10 per cent of the richest thought they would be worse off in 12 months’ time. We also found the divergence when it came to attitudes toward the biggest policy the UK is facing – in or out of Europe. If you are rich, you want to stay, if you are a low income bracket you want to leave.

This was our tale of two Britains. For the top, it feels like the best of times; for the bottom, the worst of times. It’s not yet clear what this means for society, but the obvious risk is that this trust gap is filled by populist political voices or malign economic forces such as deflation.

So what can be done? There are signs of hope and most of them rest with the business community. The quickest way to rebuild trust in business is for companies to make sure they are paying expected levels of tax and playing their part in improving the common good.

"This was our tale of two Britains. For the top, it feels like the best of times; for the bottom, the worst of times."

It’s a harder task for politicians. Some of the most pressing concerns expressed in the Barometer are proving intractable: unemployment, immigration and refugees. But there is one area where they could rebuild trust quickly: communicate honestly. At the moment, people believe they are not getting the full picture from their elected officials. Our research shows that not a single political leader gets more than one third of the public saying they represent ‘someone like me’.

More than ever before we’re seeing a fracture in how different parts of society view their institutions. Those of us who are in a position to do something about it should first acknowledge this new reality. We then quickly need to think about how we address it. We must start with the basics: straight-talking, genuine understanding of the issues and remembering that trust is built on shared hope.

Italy: A renewed spirit by Fiorella Passoni, General Manager, Edelman Italy

Gains in trust and confidence while almost everyone else is growing increasingly sceptical: this is the paradoxical picture of Italy taken by the Trust Barometer 2016. Trust among Italy’s informed publics has vaulted 15 points in just two years among informed publics. Among the general population, while Italy is still among the distruster countries, it is at the top at 49 points, on par with the US.

Trust in government is still by far the lowest amongst the four institutions, but even here there’s a positive trend. Why is that? Italians are feeling that, after years of stagnation, something is finally changing in their country. A sense of freshness is coming from politics, where the dynamic government of prime minister Matteo Renzi is shaking old habits with its reformer stance. Moreover, the success of Expo 2015 in Milan, one of the biggest stories of the past year, gave Italy a healthy wave of self-confidence. But perhaps above all, the Italians are eyeing the end of a 10-year recession, with 0.8 per cent GDP growth for 2015, and international forecasts expecting a higher growth rate for 2016.

More needs to be done to completely restore trust in the future. However, the feeling that something is changing resonates everywhere in the Italian Barometer results. Another example is the five-point trust leap in traditional media, a clear sign of approval for journalists who are digging out corruption and exposing privileges and inefficiencies that many Italians are no longer willing to tolerate.

"Italy has the highest trust in business of all EU countries surveyed."

There’s a particular result that deserves special attention: Italy has the highest trust in business of all EU countries surveyed. Also, 85 per cent of Italians think that corporations can both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where they operate. This is important news for Italian firms and global corporations as the public are looking to the private sector for efficiency and greater social responsibility than they see government provide. Fulfilling this need is an opportunity that should not be missed.

Germany: decreasing trust in Merkel’s government by Susanne Marell, CEO, Edelman Germany

The Barometer results in Germany reveal a clear lack of confidence in government to solve society’s most acute problems. For the first time in four years, trust in Angela Merkel and her cabinet decreased among the informed public, with only 45 per cent trusting the chancellor and her ministers to do what is right. Overall, 43 per cent of the informed public believe government has what it takes to keep up with changing times, while the general population is far more cynical at 35 per cent. This loss of trust in government is an opportunity for business. Confidence in business as an institution increased two percentage points to 47 per cent. Sixty-three per cent of the informed public and 58 per cent of the general population view business as the institution most trusted to keep pace with change.

"The Barometer results in Germany reveal a clear lack of confidence in government to solve society’s most acute problems."

However this confidence comes with great expectations. Eighty per cent of respondents believe business can both increase its profits while improving the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates. In fact, when businesses also commit to helping solve societal issues, 89 per cent of respondents would recommend their products and services, 85 per cent have confidence in the company´s future, and 85 per cent would recommend it as an employer. When companies don’t make societal commitments, respondents’ likelihood to buy from or recommend them diminishes significantly.

Not all businesses are trusted. Results for the automotive industry show how fast trust can decrease and how long it takes to earn it back. Just a year ago, automotive was among the most trusted industries. Following challenges including a scandal about manipulated exhaust emissions, the trust value fell by 20 percentage points to 41 per cent.

France: business has the right to build trust by Nicolas Narcisse, Executive Vice President, Elan Edelman

The Barometer shows that France is a distrusting country, and this is hardly a surprise. Only 39 per cent of the mass population trust institutions to do what is right. Worse still is that both the informed and the mass population have among the bleakest views of the future, with only one in five believing they will be better off in the next five years. Like other states in the region, the good news this year is a new sense of trust in business, providing an opportunity for companies to have a positive influence in society. Business institutions experienced an important increase in trust of 16 points year over year amongst the general public. But this doesn’t mean that the French like business and companies – that would be too simple. Instead, the French believe that business can solve problems, under certain conditions. And expectations are high when it comes to demonstrating integrity, societal engagement and a long-term vision. In fact, 73 per cent of the general population agree business should take actions that improve both profits and social conditions.

"The French believe that business can solve problems, under certain conditions."

This is particularly important when you consider the general population doesn’t trust the companies they work for. Only one in two employees trust their own employer. These defiant employees are not only an issue for companies: these results show that the system in France no longer works. Employees are concerned about losing their jobs, companies do not provide them with enough reassurance, and the government has no solutions to create jobs. Government and business must work together to change this. And with an important election coming up next year in France, it is also the moment for the government to redefine a new social contract with business and society.

In conclusion, we have an amazing opportunity and data which say that it’s time for business to lead as a powerful force not only for economic good, but for societal as well.

EU: in business we trust by Esther Busscher, General Manager, Edelman Brussels

Whilst trust in all four institutions mounted to its highest level globally this year, trust increased slightly in Europe, making the European Union more sceptical than the rest of the world when it comes to trusting NGOs, business, media and government to do the right thing. Considering the trust levels over the past five years, and comparing these between the EU9’s informed public and its mass population, we notice a worrying trend. The trust gap seems to be entrenched in society at an average of 11 percentage points in this region. Has the elite let distrust and discontent amongst the mass population simmer for half a decade? As a result we’re now seeing a rise in anti-European nationalist movements and an inversion of influence where the elite may still have the authority, but the masses have the influence.

Zooming in on countries which are member states of the EU, eight out of nine are considered ‘distrusters’, with the Dutch being the neutral exception. The Netherlands currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU. In the run up to its presidency, the Dutch have consistently emphasised their desire to function as an ‘honest broker’ during their term. The general population of the EU members states surveyed would welcome such an approach, as elected officials only get 31 percentage points when it comes to trusting the information they provide, compared to 77 points for information from friends and family (people like me), and 58 for companies they use. In addition, this presidency is striving for “a Union that focuses on the essentials, creates growth and jobs through innovation, and connects with civil society.”

"Zooming in on countries which are member states of the EU, eight out of nine are considered ‘distrusters’."

Interestingly, these are exactly the themes that the general population believes business must lead on. Seventy-eight per cent agree that a company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates (up from 71 per cent in 2015). At 55 percentage points, business is most trusted to keep up with the changing times, compared to just 32 for government’s ability to keep pace. But with increasing trust levels in business, comes the responsibility to deliver. Hence all eyes on business with purpose. •

About the survey

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer is the firm’s 16th annual trust and credibility survey. The survey was powered by research firm Edelman Berland and consisted of 20-minute online interviews conducted between October and November 2015. The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer surveyed more than 33,000 respondents consisting of 1,150 general population respondents ages 18 and over and 500 informed public respondents in the US and China and 200 informed public respondents in all other countries representing 15 percent of the total population across 28 countries. All informed publics met the following criteria: ages 25-64, college-educated; household income in the top 25 percent for their age in their country; report significant media consumption and engagement in business news and public policy. For more information, click here.

Michael Stewart

Michael Stewart is the president and chief executive officer of Edelman’s Europe and CIS region where he oversees 1,000 professionals in 18 offices and 13 markets. Prior to joining Edelman, Michael was a partner and global director of communications for McKinsey and Company, where he spent 12 years. Before joining McKinsey, Michael spent 15 years as an executive with international institutions concerned with business and society. He has held executive positions in the private and voluntary sectors in Brussels, Geneva, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Singapore and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Manufactures, on the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Public Affairs and a member of the Page Society, The Seminar and Chatham House.