Each year for the last two decades and change, the Edelman Trust Barometer has asked the British public how much they trust government, media, NGOs, and business to do what is right.

As misinformation has become endemic and the nation divided, societal trust in these institutions has been trending in the wrong direction. What has become apparent is that business has been presented with a unique opportunity to fill the expanding trust void; to set an example of leadership through tangible action.

Enter the void

People want more business leadership, not less. 49% of the 1,150 people surveyed across the UK trust business to do what is right, compared to 42% for government, and 35% for media. This number increases significantly when respondents are asked to think about their own employers – 60% trust their bosses to do the right thing, compared to 35% for government leaders, and 31% for journalists.

The results are unequivocal: the British public expect companies to go further and dig deeper. They need do more than simply transact with the world. They need to go beyond just selling products or services. They need to constantly demonstrate the mutual benefit they provide to the communities in which it operates.

For employees, this means showing value beyond just the payslip that is cashed at the end of each month.

At this critical juncture – this distinct moment of disunity and polarisation – we need business to help reunite the United Kingdom. Whilst respectively 42% and 61% of people consider government and media as divisive forces, only 37% say the same of business. While COVID has made it easier for us to self-isolate in echo chambers – choosing which journalists and politicians we hear from – business has been handed a golden ticket to lead and unite.

Indeed the pandemic bought this into sharp focus. By adapting working practices in line with evolving employee needs, increasing health and wellbeing provisions, and volunteering labour and machinery to resolve the collective challenges COVID presented, businesses extended their trust contracts and strengthened relationships with their interconnected audiences. When businesses stepped up to the plate, they reaped the rewards. But now that rubicon has been crossed, businesses must continue to meet the expectations that they will now be judged by.

Beyond the bottom line

The businesses that win will be the ones that speak up and engage on the big societal challenges. Our latest Trust Barometer findings show that consumers, employees, and investors will all respond positively to those who are bold and unafraid. Those who don’t just shout from the side-lines but step into the ring.

Trust will be earned through action, not words. Businesses need to demonstrate to all their stakeholders how they are additive to society rather than extractive.

The immediate benefits of doing so are comprehensive and countless. To take a few:

  • 52% buy or advocate for brands based on their values
  • 54% choose a place to work based on their values
  • 62% invest based on their values

Audiences now care just as much about what you’re made of as to how much you make. Shareholders aren’t the only stakeholders. Think of talent as an example: the war for quality hires will continue to be as fierce as it was in 2021. But by investing in purpose-led, employee-focused campaigning, organisations can recruit the best people and reduce attrition and churn.

Silence is not an option

The Barometer finds that a majority of the British public want to hear from business leaders on jobs (67%), wage inequality (67%), technology and automation (66%), global warming (64%), prejudice and discrimination (60%), and immigration (52%).

Taking a stance on these issues and improving societal trust means pitching a big tent rather than pandering to a couple of select audiences. We need to bring everyone with us. 61% of high-income earners are broadly trusting of the institutions mentioned here, however only 36% of low-income people feel the same way.

Broad storytelling rather than insincere and rushed gestures is therefore key to unlocking widespread improved sentiment. Campaigns planned with long-term, strategic objectives in mind which stand to benefit society rather than short-term tactical plays have the best chance of beginning to rebuild the recent erosion in trust.

Underpinning all this activity should be clear, consistent, fact-based information. Providing reliable information is critical to breaking the cycle of distrust. Expect audiences to be far more forensic in their examination of a business’ actions, as information becomes ever increasingly available and organisations more transparent.

And I say “we” because this includes us – communications professionals – as intermediaries in the conversations happening between business and the general population. Government and media may be seen as a large part of the problem in sowing distrust and division, but we can all be part of the solution.