Suddenly, it’s Trust Barometer time again…

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As regular as the first snowdrops, the Edelman Trust Barometer pokes over the top of the New Year towards Spring. This week, the executive summary was unveiled and, having waded through the clips, notes and pictures, I don’t think it has really come up with anything new, startling or provocative. And, as usual, I was particularly disappointed with the sample sizes and inclusions for something that purports to be a global survey.

Only 20 out of the 195 countries in the world – and that 195 can increase or decrease depending on whose statistics you go with – were included in the  survey. Just under 4500 ‘media-attentive opinion leaders’ were questioned for 30 minutes each in order to come up with the goods. Given the noise generated around this year’s survey, on inspection I would have expected more countries to be included and a much higher number of participants involved. 4475 is a very tiny percentage of the global population. Even if you opt to partition your sample and then slice your segment – in this case the ‘opinion leaders’ – I’d put a dollar or two on there being more than 4475 around the place.

Still, on to the content. The report indicates that trust in business is down, CEOs are regarded in a much poorer light, non-government organisations are more trusted and good communication helps build trust.  To be frank, I think a monkey assigned to an outer-space mission for the last year could have returned to earth and told us that without too much prompting.

I appreciate that the value of research can often be found in the confirmation of what we already know, but there is a fine line between confirmation and, in the words of Monty Python, ‘stating the bleeding obvious’. Over recent years, the Trust Barometer has produced some interesting material (despite the sample sizes and country omissions) but so far – and I qualify this with a ‘so far’ because the full report is held over until February (a sure-fire way of maintaining coverage ‘globally’) – this year’s report has missed the mark, notwithstanding the great positioning at Davos, cleverly organised partnerships and neat dissemination tactics.

I am convinced that if the research had questioned ‘opinion leaders’ in the 170 or so countries left out of the survey it would have revealed a very different picture – after all, I can think of several places around the world where trust in government and NGOs would be significantly down or completely witheld and trust in business, as means to escape economic poverty and deprivation, would be increased. Equally, the expression of distrust as demonstrated by purchasing patterns would be unlikely to be replicated in places where people – ‘media-attentive opinion leaders’ or not – have little choice or face chronic shortage.

As Jeff Jarvis observed in his Davos Diary report:

“After all this talk about trust, though, breakfast ended up serving spin. An executive of AIG split a very long hair, drawing a distinction between distrust over morals and distrust over competence and he argued that our issue now is the latter. An executive at another company said trust fell from a record high to a record low and he wondered whether business had simply oversold itself. Then there was much discussion of a new concept (or new buzzphrase): “private sector diplomacy.” Isn’t that a fancy way to say PR?”

Absolutely Jeff. You’re on the nail there. Definitely part of our job.  For me, the most confusing aspect of the whole thing was why practitioners would seemingly distance themselves from public relations by serving up a new buzzphrase or two. I may well have misinterpreted the presentations, reports and their intent, but it does prompt the question –  is it remotely possible that such ‘distancing’ might have something to do with trust and confidence in our own profession?  Now there’s an interesting research project.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Good analysis. The survey is full of contradictions. Edelman: By a 3:1 margin, respondents say that government should intervene to regulate industry or nationalize companies to restore public trust.
    PS [Me]: Regulation and nationalisation are profoundly different things. And both come in lots of forms. The question and answers are sort of meaningless.
    So, we’re a bit short of people to trust just now. Good, one might say. A bit more scepticism (a bit less trust) might have kept us safer all along. More here:http://paulseaman.eu/2009/01/would-you-trust-a-trust-survey/

  2. I find it refreshing to have research to criticise.
    Some time back we didn’t even have that…

    Also, the value of the trust barometer case is that one may trace the dynamics of the variables over time.

    In too many cases as here, the universe is unclearly defined and therefore there is no pretention by the researcher to claim that the sample is or not representative.

    The whole concept of representativity of a social, political or market research effort is today increasingly and seriously questionable, as I tried to argue some time ago here http://www.prconversations.com/?p=422

    I remember when, in the late seventies and early eighties, we began to commission research on client issues, not to learn anything we or they or common sense did not know, but only to have …objective…data to feed to reporters who were new to the game and avidly bit the bait.

    The fact that an agency now performs a similar exercise to position itself is nothing different but indicates that they do for themsleves what they advise to clients (a rare feat, I might say…for example how many agencies present an annual sustainablity report???).

    Also, when that same agency also invests substantial resources to learn from basic reserach in, on and for public relations…then we should, I believe, be more indulgent and attempt to refrain, but surely not in the case of Catherine, sarcastic comments from what might appear to be competitive envy for a typical and generical pr success story….

  3. Toni,

    First, I would just like to say there was no sarcasm intended in my post. As we have said before, tone is a tricky thing to judge, particularly when reading from a screen. Second, I don’t do, nor have I ever done, ‘competitive envy’ – life is much too short, I have better things to do and it is just not my thing. I am generally delighted to see consultancies, individuals or collectives producing research and gaining commercial ground as a result – good on ’em, the more the merrier and I am sure they will reap (hopefully measurable) benefits. I also completely support your view that it is a truly grand thing to have such research to look at after many arid years in the information desert.

    But. I still take issue with the sample size, the fact that there are only 20 countries covered in a ‘global’ survey (for example, the ‘European’ research cited in the previous post covered, from memory, 37 countries) and that there are some obvious gaps that could have been plugged or explored further.

    I would also argue that just because this type of research didn’t exist a decade or two ago, doesn’t mean we should grasp without discussion any research put forward today. Only by debating research as and when it is presented to us can we hope to learn and improve thinking, skills and approaches. My point was that while in the past the Barometer has produced some noteworthy observations, this one – and as this is my personal opinion it is probably neither here nor there – did not.

    For a large consultancy, positioning itself as it did with this extensively published research, I felt it could have been better. I am sure, given the weight and deference given by the research source to social media, continuous conversation and participation such discussions and debate would be actively welcomed and encouraged as a reflection of the values they have been seeking to demonstrate.

    As far as I am aware, peer-reviewed academic research is subject to critique and discussion long before – and after – it is published. I cannot then see the problem of applying the same approach to commercial research that seeks to benchmark professional thinking and perception – or have I missed something?

    I felt the introduction of buzzwords was unnecessary and may well have muddled the consideration of public relations in the minds of a community the profession has been seeking to connect with for some considerable time – what do we want to be, public relations practitioners or private sector diplomats? Do we want to continue progress towards ‘institutionalisation’ – the discussion of which peppered 2008 – or is the professional fragmentation that began some time ago likely to accelerate as everyone changes their name to suit the mood? And what, exactly, does that do for trust in our profession? Public relations has never been particularly good at consistently communicating an understanding of its value and function to those who need it most and it is this, rather than the commercial endeavours of others, that has concerned me greatly for many years. And that is why, if it purports to provide insight into my work, profession, concepts, colleagues and communities, I prefer my research served up smart, sassy and substantial.

  4. Catherine responds well. I would add that the current recession is as much the result of a failure of professionalism and competence as anything else. In the boom years, shareholders, bankers, auditors, regulators, PRs, journalists, analysts and other professionals were much too trusting. Tough questions were not asked about risk, for instance. But it is the duty of professionals to keep their colleagues in line and accountable. Had that duty been fulfilled during the boom years capitalist “greed” – and from PRs its hype – would have been marshaled properly by professionalism and expertise. How doe that relate to Edelman’s Trust Barometer? Well, when anyone says they have survey data on people’s happiness, or who they trust, it is our job to get forensic. Toni’s comments on the survey were probing, so were Catherine’s and mine. That’s all for the good. Debate is designed to test viewpoints and see where the issues lie. Let it roll on. In that spirit I say we need to look beneath the surface of the Trust Barometer’s results. So I ask again, “would you trust a trust survey?”:

    http://paulseaman.eu/2009/01/would-you-trust-a-trust-survey/

  5. I’m supervising an undergraduate student’s dissertation which is looking at trust and the BBC. Mark Thompson and others in BBC claim this is essential to the broadcaster’s reputation (it was the main argument made recently for not broadcasting an appeal to support charities working in Gaza).

    The question with trust is not quite so simple though – what type of trust are we talking about, and in what context?

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