2019 Edelman Trust Barometer places focus on employee communication, chance for strategic dialogue

Back in October of 2013, I remember being shocked by the Gallup Employee Engagement study results when they came out. Engagement was in crisis. But I remember being even more shocked at the audible gasp from a very large room full of communicators at a conference in June 2014, when one of the presenters quoted from the results: “Only 13 percent of employees are engaged worldwide.”

This second shock wasn’t at the data; it was that nine months after their release, these numbers were unknown to so many practitioners in the room. One statistic, used in so many different contexts by human resource directors, employee experience advocates, vendors, recruiters and leaders was, by that stage, already over half a year old, yet was news to a lot of people in the room. A strategic opportunity missed.

Earlier this month, I saw the release of another industry-shaping set of data, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer. The Trust Barometer has been significant in shaping communication practice for a range of reasons: It is an established data set and methodology (2019 marks the Barometer’s 19th year); it is global; and it is embedded in the dialogue of business strategy. The timing of the report as part of the World Economic Forum also means that it informs not just communication leaders, but CEOs and business leaders as well. It is communication as strategy.

Edelman’s findings have been influential in creating the case for a number of major shifts in internal communication practice over the past decade, including focus on:

  • Employee ambassadors (trust growth in a person like self/peer or in subject matter experts, decreased trust in CEO/government in 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016)
  • Employee social networks (trust in “a person like myself” grew in 2013, 2014, 2015)
  • Employee voice (2018)
  • CEO/leadership authenticity (multi-year)
  • Brand value alignment (multi-year)
  • Integrity of CSR and local efforts (2015 and 2016)
  • Crisis and reputation management.

Unfortunately, in some cases, external research is valued more highly by some executive teams than internal voices. Many communicators, often feeling limited or constrained in their ability to conduct first-hand research in their companies, find this (and other studies, see below) a useful “third voice” when it comes to engaging with leadership in their organizations.

This year’s Trust Barometer headlines

This article is not intended to substitute for the comprehensive Edelman resources, which include presentation decks, video and executive summaries, but rather to push communicators to consider how, in their own environments, they can leverage those resources and the discussions generated by the study to advance issues in their own organizations.

For 2019, an overarching theme of the study is “Trust at Work.”

Amid overall findings that trust has risen slightly, and that that the global trust gap (the difference in trust between the “informed public” and the “mass population”) has grown, see these killer stats:

Source: 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report

Extremely quotable, and already in shareable infographic form, these numbers will soon be shaping strategy in business and agencies globally. But they need to be examined in context and considered in relation to other data sets before being used as the only basis for business cases.

Angela Sinickas, ABC, IABC Fellow, points out in a discussion on IABC’s The Hub community that, “People misunderstand trust. The most trusted source is not always the preferred source.” Substituting global research for first-hand organizational knowledge presents a risk. Each audience, while sharing characteristics, has its own perceptions, preferences and needs.

From the detailed global report, I found these two, potentially contradictory findings also interesting:

  • 71 percent of employees expect their CEO to be responding not just to their business’s issues, but a broader range of areas. (2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report, page 22)
  • And yet, a company expert, a person like yourself, a regular employee and an NGO representative all rank higher than CEO, board of directors and journalist as credible sources. (2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report, page 33)

Summing up the opportunity for communicators to use this year’s report as a catalyst for driving positive change, IABC Fellow Shel Holtz, ABC, added in The Hub discussion: “If a company is not living its purpose and values, it’ll soon be in trouble. It’s time to hold leadership’s feet to the fire.”

As a communicator in Australia, I find that the global study tends to round out some differences (which are well explained in the subsequent reports Edelman release regionally). For example, the timing of the study in Australia was just after a pretty messy change of leadership in government: It does look like Australia took a dive on “trust in government” factors this year.

Adding insight is the strategic opportunity for communicators

The great opportunity for communicators is to be the providers of insight by being familiar with the data and studies available.

To borrow a term I first heard from Australian academic and author Leena van Deventer, communicators have the opportunity to become context advocates. By understanding studies, their context and application, and bringing their insights to the table strategically, we can aid our organizations in reacting to the changing trust and communication landscapes around us.

Using more than one source

When time is short and pressures are multiple, it can be appealing to find that magic number or the survey pull quote that provides the shorthand for us to use to build a strategic case (I’ve done it). The growth of infographics and lists, along with the need for shareable insights, means that key numbers can sometimes become separated from their context and original use.

Currently, communicators are lucky that there are a number of studies, surveys and reports that can be worked into dialogue with leaders, benchmarking, strategy development, and shaping primary research within their own setting.

Additional resources

IABC members can also join the conversation on the Trust Barometer in The Hub, IABC’s member-only collaboration platform.

The author is not affiliated in anyway with Edelman and the commentary in this article is based on interpretation and professional opinion of the 2019 Trust Barometer. 

Jonathan Champ

Jonathan Champ helps organizations communicate meaningfully. He is the founder of Meaning Business and creator of the Shorter COMMS Plan. He has two decades experience delivering change communication, leadership and engagement across corporate, community and NFP sectors. He tweets about #comms as @meaningbusiness.

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