Energy companies must improve transparency and reassure that they are safe guardians of customer data if they are to win public confidence at turbulent time for the industry.

That’s a central finding of the 2016 Edelman Energy Trust BarometerTM released today which polled more than 33,000 people from 28 countries around the world on their attitudes to the energy industry.

The survey shows that individual sectors—oil, natural gas and cleantech—suffered a fall in trust compared to the previous year.

Oil’s trust level among the general population fell below the 50 percent threshold to 47 percent despite a dramatic drop in international oil prices which helped reduce energy costs around the globe.

Natural gas trust levels also fell to 56 percent, as people consider perceptions of it as a clean fuel against new sources such as shale gas.

And even cleantech—which has historically polled well above oil and gas—witnessed a decline, perhaps signaling that debates over the level of subsidy needed are dimming its ‘halo effect’. 

Actions to build trust

Trust Building

Yet there are some positive signs for the industry from a two-point trust increase in the overall energy business since last year, bringing the total gain in the past five years to 5 percentage points, second only to a rebounding financial services sector.

Edelman believes the rise in global trust for energy shows a growing awareness of its power to drive prosperity and enhance quality of life. The survey was carried out in the run-up to December’s COP21 deal in Paris which set an aspirational tone for the industry’s future.

The findings suggest that companies need to do a better job at showing how their individual actions help deliver the benefits energy provides.

Crucial trust-building behaviors where energy is falling short included transparency in reporting performance against social responsibility—which some companies can treat as a box-checking exercise for investors—and their ability to safeguard consumer data, a critical area for utilities.

Energy companies were also viewed as underperforming both against public expectations and against other industries in quality control, safety, sustainability and cause-oriented work.

Companies must work to close these gaps—and to make their efforts visible. Tech companies, for example, enjoy credit for mobile devices connecting us to friends and family. Yet energy companies get little credit for keeping the lights on or enabling transportation.

They need to connect their core business to issues broader than those touched by their everyday operations—showing how they help people realize their aspirations for themselves and their families.

Leadership values

The answer lies partly in more effective communication by the industry’s leaders. The survey showed that in 23 of the 28 countries, the general population do not trust energy CEOs to do what is right.

European CEOs—notably Russia, Sweden and Germany—fared particularly poorly, reflecting that region’s low trust levels for energy across the survey (below 50 percent for all sectors except cleantech).

In developed economies in particular energy CEOs seem to have stayed too far behind the scenes, perhaps deterred by the cycle of a legacy of mistrust between the energy industry and the public.

As many as eight out of 10 people want to hear what CEOs have to say about societal issues; to see them take a stand on issues such as income inequality and public policy. And they want to know about the personal values and history of those in authority. How did they earn the opportunity to lead? What were the obstacles they overcame, their personal success story and how did it shape them? 

Solving problems when government can’t

This supports evidence throughout the survey of a major opportunity for energy companies to show themselves as providing solutions to problems that are troubling governments around the globe.

In 24 of the 28 countries surveyed there is greater trust in energy than government. There were falls in trust in government, for example in Brazil, in part driven by the devastating economic impact of falling energy prices on major exporters.

It creates an opportunity for energy companies—so often closely entwined with government run industries—to take the lead in terms of engagement and to show themselves as drivers of prosperity, pioneers of innovation and creators of jobs.

If energy companies can communicate this through their actions, their leadership values and their employees’ advocacy, then they will go a long way to secure increased trust with their uniquely wide and complex range of audiences.