The Trust Barometer

I’m writing this post after listening to a fascinating podcast (podcasts make treadmill time go faster…) from a site called “Capital Isn’t”–part of the University of Chicago’s impressive podcast network.

The scholars were interviewing Richard Edelman, the CEO of Edelman, a company that describes itself as a “global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands and reputations.” In other words, a PR organization. The conversation focused on the withdrawal of hundreds of companies from Russia in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, presumably at some considerable cost to their bottom lines, and the motivations that prompted those companies to become partisans in a geopolitical conflict.

The interviewers, who are economics professors at the University of Chicago, suggested that the willingness of big business to speak up on social and political issues is a relatively new phenomenon, and Edelman agreed. Citing his firm’s extensive research, he sketched out what that research has uncovered about the global public opinion changes that have  led to somewhat surprising changes in corporate and business behavior.

According to Edelman, it all comes down to trust–and it turns out that Americans trust business far more than government, for reasons that won’t surprise anyone who regularly reads this blog (or the comparative few who read my 2009 book, Distrust, American Style.)

The statement that absolutely gobsmacked me–and according to Edelman, absolutely stunned him–was that in the most recent iteration of the firm’s research–and for the first time ever–Republicans trusted business less than Democrats. Evidently, they view most business enterprises these days as “too woke.”

As Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld writes, he has watched this split grow in recent years, and has heard it from CEOs he knows and works with.

What the GOP cares about and what major businesses care about are, increasingly incompatible, he says.

“The political desire to use wedge issues to divide—which used to be fringe in the GOP—has become mainstream,” Sonnenfeld says. “That is 100 percent at variance with what the business community wants. And that is a million timesmore important to them than how many dollars of taxes are paid here or there.”

If you think about it, the implications of the “divorce” between business and the GOP are staggering–at the very least, it would seem to explain the flight of those once dominant “country club Republicans” from today’s cultish GOP, with its singular focus on religious/cultural issues and its abandonment of an economic policy agenda. It is also one more bit of evidence that the impetus for the nation’s polarization–the core  conflict– is between citizens frantically rejecting efforts at inclusion and acceptance of diversity–aka “wokeness”–and the rest of us.

And speaking of “the rest of us,” the survey found that suspicion and distrust of outsiders (however defined) had grown. Trust is increasingly reserved for ones’ co-workers and neighbors.

You can access the “Top Ten” findings of that Trust survey here.The much longer body of the survey is also posted on the company’s website.

Of all the institutions studied, business was the most trusted, at 61%. That was more than NGOs at 59%, government at 52% and media at only 50%. “Seventy-seven percent of respondents, however, trust “My Employer,” making the relationship between employer and employee incredibly important.” Despite business outscoring government by 53 points on competency and 26 points on ethics (!), respondents believe the business community is not doing enough to address a number of social issues–including  climate change (52%), economic inequality (49%), workforce re-skilling (46%) and the dissemination of trustworthy information (42%).

Concerns over fake news or false information being used as a weapon is at an all-time high of 76%. Forty-eight percent of respondents see government and media as divisive forces in society.  Government leaders and journalists are the least trusted social actors  today–fewer than half of respondents trust either, and majorities of respondents–including large majorities of business employees– want businesses to step up.

Across every single issue, by a huge margin, people want more business engagement, not less. For example, on climate change, 52% say business is not doing enough, while only 9% say it is overstepping. The role and expectation for business has never been clearer, and business must recognize that its societal role is here to stay.

The research also found that, worldwide, trust in democracy–already low– fell further over the last year. Given the gridlock imposed on American government by the GOP–not to mention its very public efforts to ensconce autocracy here– the 5-point decline in the U.S. is entirely understandable, albeit very worrisome.

All in all, I encourage you to read the findings and/or listen to the podcast–then join me in pondering the implications.


  1. I sure hope that this newfound desire to be responsible actors will lead these corporations to STOP funding the crazy in America. The crazy politicians as well as the crazy media actors. These corporations KNOW they are funding crazy and they need to stop it.

  2. Professor-were Indiana businesses being “too woke” when, in 2015, businesses throughout the state interceded and stopped the former Governor’s hateful RIFRA Legislation in less than one week. Did businesses jump into the mess so they could show society that they are “woke” or because RIFRA was really bad for business?

  3. Well, perhaps the University of Chicago Economics departments has finally moved away from the idiotic and seditious ravings of the Milton Friedman school of economic destruction.

    Yes, I wonder how business and corporations are problem-solving their marriage with the GOP’s elected officials. Clearly, they are still funding crazy. They are still funding those GOP lunatics who are defending Putin and his outright slaughter of Ukrainian citizens. This begs the question: When will businesses and corporations start walking the walk and cut the bribes to those wretches like McConnell who take bribes for making anti-citizen statements and laws?

    The whole world wonders…

  4. Public relations = Propaganda

    The primary problem is our media shouldn’t be in the business of telling news consumers what they want to hear. Read that sentence twice and then a third time.

    A free press seeks out and reports the truth whatever it may be. They use the same method of inquiry as academia. Why, why, why…

    It’s beyond fascinating that a PR firm is making a living on Trust. Really?

    Here’s a concept…start telling the TRUTH.

    However, here’s the problem with telling the TRUTH. Humans don’t like it. They’ve been conditioned on propaganda from such a young age, that the truth is offensive. The truth prompts changes in perception and literally causes emotional pain many times.

    Humans avoid pain while seeking pleasure.

    Therefore, PR people or propagandists are paid good money to tell people what they want to hear. It’s the art of manipulation. Google is the master of collecting hard data to sell to corporations what consumers want.

    Julian Assange told the world the hard truths about our governments and oligarchs. The US/UK jailed him. The war criminals he disclosed walk free never even seeing a courtroom while the people turn their back on him.

    How can you have trust without truth?

    If I lie to you so that you’ll like me, how trustworthy am I?

  5. Todd – Having worked in corporate, public, and media relations for more than 25 years, your comment made me smile…wryly, not happily.

  6. I consider businesses to be trustworthy because I know that the driving force behind every decision they make is their bottom line. Being trustworthy doesn’t necessarily equate with either being right or being good.

  7. When CEO’s – in Large Numbers start cutting their renumeration and raising their employees’ pay and benefits – valuing – lasting, loyal employees and encourage cooperation and growth and mutual support – stop fighting unionization efforts in often illegal ways – and Confront – Zuckerberg and Bezo’s – and their Monopoly/Oligopoly – style of “capitalism” – no longer playing off BIPOC and white employees’ – moving their plants to the cheapest third world sites and similar – I’ll start listening more carefully! I’m almost 71 – and it seems doubtful it will happen in my lifetime!

  8. Right on George!

    My wife trusts everyone and I trust no one so that 50% plus or minus survey result sounds about right.

  9. I think the swing you see in corporations becoming “woke” is a direct result of the SCOTUS Citizens United vs FEC decision. Given that they have the power to “speak” with their campaign dollars, they are now articulating some content behind that speech.

    While, for me, Citizens United has fueled fears of a rising oligarchy, it now seems Sheila has pointed out what may also be a flip side, where many companies feel that they have some moral or ethical responsibility for their employees.

    Good news, I guess?!?

  10. The world is full of unintended consequences. Ask Vlad the Bad. What seems like a good idea, after being launched, reveals all of the assumptions and opinions that turned out to be wrong or incomplete and the truth acts nothing like the human presumption of it.

    Business has absolutely to befriend the government in order to prosper, and vice versa, but business collectively has little control over businesses individually. So some businesses, like those represented by the Murdoch family, make propaganda-based alliances, with others like those represented by the Koch family, and prosper at the expense of business and government and, most importantly, we the people.

    Also, many businesses prosper some of the time but few if any, all of the time. So what looks like a lucrative arrangement now may be a disaster in the fullness of time. Again, ask Vlad, the bad.

    So Vla the bad does his thing, global businesses recognize that the world has changed, and they react to continue prospering in this new world, and Vlad the Bad loses credibility at home and has to replace trust with propaganda (which is always a stopgap measure).

    Everything is connected.

    Getting back to the topic du jour, trust among we the peoples. It’s a fragile thing because it’s connected to fragile things. Some actors can choose to profit from interrupting it (the Murdochs and Vlad) but unless what they offer is revealed to be trust worthy, they get bit on their derriere after a while.

    Again ask Vlad.

  11. Given the track record of corporate holding back donations to politicians who do evil things combined with similar history of their virtue posturing on social issues…gimme a break. Yes, their ads are more diverse now – WOW, what a great benefit to society.

  12. The problem with PR groups and propaganda like American Exceptionalism is it normalizes wrong or inflated beliefs.

    For instance, we’ve never liked Russia or Communist China. Our country can’t say a good thing about them. Yet, quietly and noisily, American companies expanded into both for a variety of reasons. Never once did the media proclaim that these companies were being “unpatriotic” or spitting in the face of the homeland, etc.

    The media via propaganda or just plain ignoring these foreign moves to benefit the corporations over workers in the USA normalized it.

    Then, suddenly, these corporations are told to come home or risk being labeled unpatriotic. Screwing over workers for profits is okay, but Vladimir attacking a country in Eastern Europe is crossing the red line?

    Why didn’t the free press (media) take the side of labor the past forty years of Neoliberalism? Why did they side with the oligarchy?

    Because the media is part of the oligarchy; their PR division. They tell the people what they want to hear based on demographic research (target marketing).

    Some of the posters here believe that only the Fox News groupies live in an echo chamber.

    Wrong! 😉

  13. I trust DynCorp. I trust Raytheon. I trust Martin-Marietta. I trust Lockheed Martin. I trust Pfizer. I trust British Petroleum. I trust Boeing. I trust mining companies.

    It’s obvious we should place our trust in business. In fact,we need a system where business is the government.

  14. ill stick with trusting some aspects of,the goverment over any buisness model or rethoric. the study seems fair, and ongoing,the percentages (in some catagories) too close to make a decision.
    the fact is the bottom line. call the shots and make everyone dependant on your buisness for imspiration,sounds like fantasy land. being the republicans see fit to fully support any buisness as a cash cow to the rich and we still dont address inequality,its still a shell game of who knows what in any survey..,again,the percentages are formed from a less than knowlegeable public,and or,who were the ones asked for thier opinion? i have been asked a few times in my travels,running across the poll takers,or survey people,leaving me to think about the question,and a,b,,instead of my,informed opinion,which doesnt make the grade for a,b,c. this may be a algorythem study via social media, or,? i understand the opinion factor,and how it influences how hilary would win hands down also. fact is, if buisness is fighting unionization,its because they the worker are exploited and run by a authoritarian regime,not a respect for employees needs,like a living wage. since wall street makes sure, the quarterly dividens be paid,to the 10% who have stolen the show.
    i can relate how this factor comes about,again,a ignorant public,looking for a divide over needs.
    if real living issues are not a factor, we wouldnt need Bernie and the progressives if that was cut and dry. ill stick with informing a ignorant public on whos screwing who,and voting out the ones who succeeded in keep us next to poverty when the crap hits the fan,im sure everyones employer will see that thier employees are well padded then…

  15. theres a big issue, how much money is locked up by a few? and then theres the local economy that never sees anything that would give them economic and local growth. anti-trust laws are a leading reason why,small buisnesses fail,because they buy from one corp supplier,and compete with a like local buisness who also buys for the same,(diffrent name)corp supplier. profiteering is a crime,or it should be,tax them,the ones who have used our economy the working class and nation as a welcome mat for thier dirty feet..

  16. Aunt Polly: the business of business is to make money. The business of government is to provide service to citizens who can’t get those services on the market, primarily because they are NOT profitable. We have had years of politicians trying to make government operate like business. It only screws everything up.

  17. One thought –

    Some may cling to guns and religion, but for trust we cling to business?

    Perhaps the PR and news counteract each other, leaving a low opinion of both news and government.

    Meanwhile, business PR continues to tell us that businesses only care about their customers, or their employees and their customers, while the news is busy discussing politics. Mistreatment of customers and employees gets no coverage (99th on the list of what needs to be covered) and it seems like business is the only thing that is untainted.

    Just a possible explanation.

  18. Dan,

    I worked at a large electrical utility in Illinois. The CEO of the company at the time was named J.J. O’Connor. he was a pretty decent sort, and I met him when I was basically a rookie there. Until that man retired, about ten years after I started, he remembered my name and would call me! He said, it was like his family. Even then that was kind of unusual. He always said One hand washes the other. Get there will always be a give-and-take. In the end he said it always equalizes itself. When he retired, the new Honcho, John Rowe, came in and said, “my predecessor said you’re family? Well, this is not a family it’s a business and we will run it as such!” that was followed by what we called bloody Monday. They basically walked about 1400 middle management people out the door. They brought in contractors to replace them. Then, after they went and invested 300 million dollars in steam generators at one of the Nuclear Stations. afterwards they told the men they wanted them to wear a particular type of shirt which was some sort of a uniform deal. The reason I say men, is, there were no female nuclear operators in the company at the time. Anyway, they told the men if they didn’t wear the shirts, they would shut down the Nuclear Station and decommission it. The union leadership didn’t believe the company would eat three hundred million dollars. Actually, the ratepayers paid the three hundred million dollars! They closed that Nuclear Station in Zion Illinois! 400 jobs that paid above $200,000 a year, gone! And about six hundred more that paid well over $100,000 a year, gone!

    the new boss made his point! The union was officially afraid of the guy. So, the company was able to get quite a few concessions. Later on though, ethics went right out the window for upper management. bid rigging, payoffs, all sorts of shenanigans! authoritarian power is always corruptible. And as you saw by the Exelon indictments, a lot of those players got nailed.

    it’s all about the Dead Presidents my brother, there is no concern for the employees / workers. when they are done eating the small fish, they go after their own!

  19. Vern, Indiana Farm Bureau, Inc is a big supporter of the Indiana politicians (Pence) who take part in propagating the big lie.

  20. First, people are putting trust where they’ve been taught to put it … ala Citizens United. Businesses asked to be put into society- and culture-building.

    2. Corporations are two-faced: A few are actually worthy of trust. Most respond to their public reputation, while pursuing profits as usual. A few are evil: Koch Industries has refused to pull out of Russia. The Koch Affiliate Network of billionaires (now known as Stand Together) can raise over $900 Million in any one year to support their political agenda. And that’s just one billionaire cabal in the USA.

    3. Citizens reject that corporations force them to actively include and accept people who are different as a condition of employment, but most citizens practice passive tolerance almost automatically.

  21. OH!!
    Edelman represents the American Petroleum Institute (API), which pays the firm about $52 million a year according to reporting by The Nation’s Investigative Fund.
    You’ve been scammed … along with the rest of us.

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