The world is on edge. Nobody quite knows what is happening, or what happens next. Advice on how to counter the spread of COVID19 is being offered, and then debunked. Rumours are spreading like wildfire, with fake news a substantial problem.

And for UK audiences, policies in other countries seem to run counter to the guidance from Number 10. Leaks and briefings have taken the place of calm, controlled crisis communications.

Who do people trust, in these unprecedented times? How should businesses talk to their employees? What about customers and suppliers?

The Edelman Trust Barometer team went back into field between March 6 and March 10 in different countries, each with varying degrees of problems, to test attitudes to the crisis, and its response.

We polled people in Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, the UK and the US.

The findings confirmed a lot of what we have heard before – principally, that people trust business more than most voices in these uncertain times.

The findings offer some clear pointers on what people want to hear. It confirms the role business must play as a source of reliable and timely information, and provides guidance about communicating with employees, during the evolving COVID-19 situation. 

Below are some of the key findings from the study:

  1. The Most Credible Source Is Employer Communications —The annual Edelman Trust Barometer that was launched in January showed that “my employer” was the most trusted institution – finishing 18 points ahead of business and NGOs, and sitting 27 points higher than government and media. Building on this further, the Trust and the Coronavirus special report has found that employer communications is the most credible source of information about the coronavirus. Sixty-three percent said that they would believe information from their employer after one or two exposures, versus 58 percent for a government website and 51 percent for traditional media. Over one-third of people said they would never believe social media if it were the only place they had seen the information.
  2. The Most Relied-on Source of Information Is Mainstream News Organisations — The major news outlets are relied upon nearly twice as much as global health organisations (WHO) or national health organisations (CDC). Friends and family and social media lag badly, with the exception of developing markets like South Africa. Young people rely evenly on social media (54 percent) and mainstream media (56 percent) while older people 55+ rate mainstream media as nearly three times more reliable than social. There is also a definite concern about fake news and false information being spread about the virus (74 percent).   
  3. The Most Trusted Spokespeople — Scientists and “My Doctor” are the most trusted spokespeople about the virus, with 83 percent and 82 percent respectively. There is also a reliance on “a person like yourself” (63 percent). Government officials and journalists are at the bottom of the rank, at under 50 percent trust. The CEO of “my employer” is at 54 percent, squarely in the middle of the table. Eighty-five percent of respondents said that they want to hear more from scientists and less from politicians. Nearly 60 percent of respondents also worry that the crisis is being exaggerated for political gain. 
  4. The Need for Frequency — Seven in 10 respondents are following coronavirus news in media at least once a day, with 33 percent saying they are checking several times a day. Frequency rises substantially in markets such as Italy, South Korea and Japan, which have had major outbreaks. Employers are also expected to provide regular updates on COVID-19, with 63 percent of employees asking for daily updates, and 20 percent wanting communications several times a day. There’s also a demand for health authorities to provide regular information on prevention of spread of the virus (78 percent), and where tests are available (70 percent). 
  5. My Employer Better Prepared Than My Country — In eight of the 10 countries surveyed, “my employer” is seen as better prepared for the virus than “my country”. This finding is validated by the high trust in “my employer” to respond effectively and responsibly (62 percent) to the virus.   
  6. Government and Business Expected to Team Up — Neither business nor government is trusted to go it alone. There is twice as much trust in a combined business/government effort than in government combatting the virus alone (45 percent versus 20 percent).
  7. High Expectations of Business to Act — Seventy-eight percent of respondents expect business to act to protect employees and the local community. Seventy-nine percent expect business to adapt its operations, including remote working, cancelling non-essential events and business travel bans. Business is counted upon (73 percent) to adapt its HR policies, to give paid sick leave or prevent at-risk employees from coming to work, among other things. 
  8. Employers Must Share Information — Employees want clarity on everything from how many colleagues have contracted the virus (57 percent), to how the virus is affecting the organisation’s ability to operate (53 percent). Employees want to be informed beyond the effect on the company, including advice on travel and what can be done to stop the spread of the virus. They want to get the information via email or newsletter (48 percent), posts on the company website (33 percent) and phone/video conferences (23 percent).

This is a considerable new responsibility for the corporate sector and given the present state of low trust, the public are calling on business to fill the void around credible information. It is urgent that business enables fact-based decisions and allows employees to feel part of a broad societal movement to fight the challenges that lay ahead.

For communicators, it is time to initiate regular briefings for employees, to provide trustworthy content that can be shared with employee families or community, to reach out to government to cooperate in work-at-home initiatives, and to ensure that the company’s social channels are contributing to knowledge and not panic.

If you’d like further information about the study, or would like discuss how the findings apply to your business – please click below: