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.
“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.