Episode Transcript – Digging Deeper Into the Edelman Trust Barometer

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 84

Guest:  Tonia Ries, Executive Director, Thought Leadership, Edelman Trust Institute

Published March 19, 2023

Listen to this episode

Doug Downs (00:02):

Imagine you and I were talking with one another right now on a video conference call using Zoom or Teams or Google meets. We’re meeting for the first time, so naturally we’re both kind of sizing one another up to see what we think of each other. Now imagine my face you see on your screen isn’t entirely my real face. Imagine I have a filter that can extract some key features from your face, your cheekbones, your dimples, the shape of your eyes, shape of your nose, and with great subtlety, I can blend those features into my own face. Okay, creepy. Sure. But think about this. You would have no idea this is what’s happening. You’re seeing me for the first time. Do you think just by appearance that would influence how much you trust me? In 2002, a study at McMaster University in Canada sought to find out exactly that. They discovered people trusted faces resembling their own more than two times out of three. Now, they took it a step further and changed the filters. So the blended features were those of recognizable personalities, Hollywood actors like Ben Affleck, and they found no impact on trust whatsoever. For the past nearly quarter century, the Edelman Trust Barometer has been an important indicator for PR and marketing pros, business leaders and political strategists to better understand who we trust and who we don’t. Today on Stories and Strategies, what are the issues? Media channels, psychographic factors, and other influences helping shape our changing levels of trust.


My name is Doug Downs. My guest this week is Tony Ries from the Edelman Trust Institute. Hi Tonia.

Tonia Ries (02:10):

Hi, Doug. It’s nice to be here.

Doug Downs (02:12):

Great to have you. And you’re joining us today from New York. Just a matter of time now, before spring is in the air and the Mr. Softy trucks are outside it. It’s going to be warming up anytime soon.

Tonia Ries (02:22):

Well, we haven’t seen much of winter yet, so I hope we get a little bit of snow before the flowers come out.

Doug Downs (02:28):

Yeah, well said. Well said. Tonia You’re the Executive Director of Thought Leadership at the Edelman Trust Institute, which is Edelman’s Center for the Study of Trust. Your role includes stewardship of the Trust barometer, the largest global survey of its kind and used as the authority on trust by institutions and brands. You have more than 30 years experience in marketing, research strategy, and media. Originally from Belgium you now live in New York. Belgium excited me because actually my maternal grandfather was from Verviers in the Wallonia region of Belgium.

Tonia Ries (03:05):

It’s a great country. Anyone who has not visited should please make plans to do so soon.

Doug Downs (03:10):

I would love to see it someday. I’ve never been. Tonia The Edelman Trust Barometer is cross-cultural, covers 27 countries, surveys nearly 32,000 people. So it’s exhaustive. It’s now evolved to be an ongoing series of reports that examines trust across stakeholders and studies what’s expected of business and societal leaders. Let’s start first from that famous 10,000 foot level overall, what are the trends that we see with trust over the last, say, five years or so?

Tonia Ries (03:42):

Yeah, that’s a great question. So I’ve been spearheading the team that produces the trust barometer for eight years. And just in those eight years of its 23 year history we’ve seen some real changes in shifts. The top trends that we’re paying attention to, I think the first one I would name is the mass class divide, right? Or rather income-based trust inequality. And specifically what that means is today we have a double digit gap between the trust level of those in the highest quartile of income and those in the lowest quartile. And that gap has really started widening around about 2015 or 16 is when we noticed it going from about a seven or eight point gap to opening up to become 15, 16 points. And today, in many markets, including the US, it is over 20 points where people in higher income groups are feeling good, they’re trusting of institutions, the system is working for them.


Trust has actually increased among that segment. But for those who are in the lower income quartile, they are stuck in distrust. And so that gap just keeps widening, right? Leading to a lot of a sense of unfairness, which is further eroding trust among those groups. The second big trend that we pay attention to, and I’m sure many in your audience does as well, is what we’ve called the info demic, or rather the battle for truth, the fragmentation of the media landscape, the sense that we can’t trust what we read here or see in the news anymore. And really to a point where people believe now that institutional leaders, business government leaders, even journalists, are deliberately telling untruths or lying to them. So that’s a really tough situation with an ongoing developing story there. And then finally, the big trend that we really pay attention to is sort of the balance of power between the core institutions that we measure.


So the four institutions that make up our trust index are government, business, the media and NGOs or non-governmental organizations. And for most of the early history of the trust barometer, the most trusted institution was NGOs. Makes sense. About 17 years, they were in the number one place, right? And then about two or three years ago, suddenly business trust grew to where business was on par. And now business is more trusted than NGOs. We’ve seen this remarkable increase in the last three years where business the ethical component of business trust, we divide trust into two broad dimensions. Are you competent? Right? Can you get things done and are you ethical? Do you do what is right in the right way with integrity, with honesty and all of the things that go into that. And business in the last three years has had a 20 point improvement in its ethical score to where they’re now almost seen as almost as ethical as NGOs are.

Doug Downs (07:04):

Okay, so let’s dig into that one just a little bit. As someone who’s worked for big businesses, I would say many of them behave very ethically. They’ve taken corporate social responsibility, CSR to heart they’re trying to provide proof points. They certainly have budgets to demonstrate that they’re doing a good job, they can provide proof of performance, so to speak. Help me understand what your thoughts are on why business has moved up the barometer so successfully.

Tonia Ries (07:35):

I think it’s many of the things that you touch on, right? The focus on CSR now on E S G. Yes right? The embrace of the idea of a multi-stakeholder society and multi-stakeholder capitalism. I think that those initiatives are paying off, but really if you think about what else has happened in the last three years where we’ve seen this massive rise in ethics for business is it was during the Covid Pandemic. And I think that perhaps even in contrast to the other institutions, I think people saw that the way business responded to the pandemic first in taking care of its employees

Doug Downs (08:19):

In the news media itself I’m a former journalist. I know you have some of a media background. I’m always saddened somewhat to hear that the trust in the news media itself is still on the decline. What are some of the elements that seem, the indicators that seem to indicate why people are trusting the media less and less? Are they just caught up in the vortex of perceptions of disinformation and misinformation? Is that essentially, it seems to go further back than that to me, I remember in the late nineties when I was a reporter, trust was still on the decline. Newspaper was starting to fade out. TV was about to have its day but even TV now is, what are your thoughts on that?

Tonia Ries (09:07):

And Well, so much of that has been driven by technology and the spread of new media platforms. Even in the nineties, what was happening is the evolution of the internet into a household tool. Suddenly, not too long after that, we all had our own search bars and were looking for the news for ourselves. Maybe we didn’t need editors anymore. And pretty soon we had tools that allowed us to create news post to post comments, to create blogs or even social media pages. And suddenly we became the reporters and the journalists. And why did we need journalists anymore? One of my favorite statistics in the trust barometer is from 2011 to 2012, we see this incredible 23 point rise in the credibility of a person like myself,

Doug Downs (10:02):

Someone just like me,

Tonia Ries (10:03):

Regular people just like me, yes, are suddenly just as credible as academic experts. And what is the other thing that was happening around that time was the widespread adoption of social media powering smartphones, right? The Apple App Store suddenly put Facebook and Twitter and other tools into everybody’s back pocket. So suddenly we all got on social media and everything looks the same, right? News from credible journalistic sources look just the same as news that was posted by my neighbor down the street.

Doug Downs (10:40):

So that concept of the big issues shaping who we trust and how we trust, and how much big issues like global conflicts, Russia, Ukraine, right now, globalization, I mean the world is shrinking. Social media you mentioned, and how we behave on social media and how we see others behave. Covid 19 economic troubles. You talked about the, I won’t say class divide, but the income divide that seems so far apart and the lack of middle class. How are big issues today shaping the way we trust and is it any different than how it shaped our trust, say 20 years ago? Are we changing as people and how we respond to those big issues?

Tonia Ries (11:23):

I do think that the way that trust works and the forces that are driving distrust have changed and shifted. We’re now at a point where we we’re seeing societies become severely polarized, distrusting of people who hold different opinions, who are on the other side of issues that are important to me. Very shocking finding in our 23 trust barometer is that when you see someone who’s on the other side of an issue that you care about, just one in five say, I would be willing to live in the same neighborhood as that person. I would be willing to work with that person. So this level of division has a real impact on our ability as a society to strengthen our social fabric or work together to address big issues. And then the more we lose the ability to address our important challenges or collaborate on solving issues, the more the polarization and the distrust becomes more entrenched.

Doug Downs (12:24):

Let’s talk about rebuilding trust. Lots of folks in public relations, marketing, communications focused on crisis communications inevitably on the rebuilding of trust. What are some of the best ways today in 2023 for brands to rebuild trust after something’s happened?

Tonia Ries (12:44):

Oh gosh. Well, if we’re talking about a crisis specifically, the first thing I would hope is that you have already invested in putting a lot of trust in the bank because you’re going to need it. We know from our research that brands and companies that have higher levels of trust are far more resilient in the case of a crisis, because people will give you a chance to tell your side of the story. They won’t necessarily assume that any bad news they’re hearing about you is true. So make sure that you’re not waiting for a crisis before you start to think about how much trust you have and what you can do to shore that up. And then of course, how you engage and how you respond to that crisis. In many ways, how you handle a mistake is one of your most powerful trust building opportunities.


Because if you embrace transparency, if you own the mistake, if you take accountability, if you show that you’re willing to make things right and engage with stakeholders around addressing the impact of whatever the mistake was those are all things that will go a long way to building trust for the future as well. It’s when people are going to find out really bad quickly if you’re hiding bad information or not being fully transparent or dribbling out the bad news because you’re trying to over-manage it, right? In today’s world, that just does not work. So full transparency when something does happen, but the best strategy is to be prepared and have a plan ready to go.

Doug Downs (14:25):

Last question and a little bit philosophical. I have to admit, most psychologists would point out that we as humans, our nature is actually to trust other humans, not distrust or mistrust. It’s not actually trust that needs to be learned. It’s distrust that we learn along the way. You can see this in children by nature. We spend a lot of our time as parents, as adults, teaching them to be afraid. Why then does it seem that we as adults today, are trusting less and less?

Tonia Ries (15:03):

Well, you’re right. It is part of learning that to navigate the world, you can’t put every berry in your mouth necessarily, and maybe be friendly with every stranger on the street. But I do think there are some things in particular about this moment in time that are new and unique. We’ve gone through and are still going through a technology and media revolution. The likes I could argue the world has never seen. And that is having profound effects on how we communicate with each other, how we build and nurture relationships with each other how we come together as communities. And it’s also having profound changes on how people consume information. And I think that for many of us, we have to be honest and say we’re all still learning the best practices in sort of the post editor world. And so that environment coupled with some very existential societal crises planetary crises, right, climate change, the Covid pandemic coupled with there’s sort of this distrust in leadership and the elites that is coming out of the class-based inequalities that we are seeing deepening and widening around the world. So there are many things adding up to putting us in a time where we desperately need leadership and a new way of coming together that is built on a new kind of trust.

Doug Downs (16:52):

And I think you’re right. It has something to do with the even greater awareness that we’re developing as a species just in our existence. Tonia, I really want to thank you for this. I must admit that the Edelman Trust barometer throughout the course of my career has been, it hasn’t just been, oh, good. That’s a really neat survey for me. It, it’s been a tool I have genuinely used to help understand and shape my communication philosophies personally. So I’m very grateful for the tool.

Tonia Ries (17:22):

Thank you. And that is so great to hear. I know that it’s a passion and personal project for Richard himself a way for him and for Edelman to invest in the industry and to show how important the industry is in these broader issues and boardroom level issues that need to be addressed. So always grateful to hear feedback and know that people are finding it useful.

Doug Downs (17:49):

If you’d like to send a message to my guest, Tonia Ries of the Edelman Trust Institute, we have the email address in the show notes, stories and strategies as a co-production of J G R communications and stories and strategies podcasts. One thing you could do that would really help boost awareness is to leave a rating and a review. Thanks for listening.