The truth about trust…maybe

Every year during my 13 years at Edelman, the third week of January and Davos marked the beginning of ‘trust season’ as the firm launched its famous barometer.  The fourth week and most of February meant trust roadshows and one of my tasks was to tour from city to city presenting nationally customised decks in Europe and then Asia and occasionally the US.  As one of my colleagues drily remarked, “it’s like a rock and roll tour, but without the sex and drugs”. 

Over 20 years years of data, presented thousands of times, resulting in an annual global avalanche of coverage and it is little wonder that the Trust Barometer remains the only piece of PR intellectual property that anyone outside the industry has heard of.

Whilst Richard’s brainchild started as a small simple survey, last year the main study polled 33,000 people in 27 markets (each with two separate sample groups).  It is an enormous undertaking by anyone’s measure and it has staked out for the firm a hugely valuable brand asset and consulting tool and according to some, marked the coming of age of the PR consultancy industry.  

So little wonder perhaps that the huge and valuable subject has drawn the attention of others wishing to sell their services on the back of trust data and consulting.  Yesterday’s launch of The Truth About Trust, by Ipsos/MORI is an attack in all but name on Edelman’s ownership of the topic and takes aim by suggesting that ‘prevailing narratives’ that trust is in ‘terminal decline’; that ‘deference has died’, ‘populism is on the rise’ (all Edelman headlines over the years) are merely Davos ‘hand-wringing’ and not the ‘truth’ because Ipsos/MORI now has the ‘truth’ about trust in its sole possession.

Sometimes you can tell when an organisation is trying not to obsess by how hard it attempts not to mention by name, the thing that it is obsessing about. So despite Edelman being so closely associated with the topic and owning the vast bulk of the data on it, the list of 92 references and studies in the Ipsos/MORI report has only one mention of the Trust Barometer.  That said, attacking the brand leader is not a bad strategy for a challenger.

Having now waded through the Ipsos/MORI study there is a huge amount of valuable data and commentary in there, some of it new, and it is a terrific resource for planners, communicators, marketers and media.  The reasonable conclusion seems to be that trust is not in decline, it is just complicated. Not dissimilar to what Edelman has been saying for years below the headlines.  And of course, it is not a zero-sum game, in that both studies add to our understanding and if these two organisations keep at it, then I suspect we can all only learn more.   

As the Co-Founder of a research company myself now, I would offer one health warning on both studies.  Both methodologies are online studies of panels of respondents.  That means that every one of the thousands of respondents is a paid and regular answerer of market research questions.  Ask yourself how representative that sounds? Not the fact that they are online (that’s an increasingly small distortion these days), but that these people answer multiple surveys for money, often many in a day and in some cases as a significant part of their income. If you use quantitative research as part of your work; if you base important decisions on studies like these, then I suggest you become part of an online panel yourself and experience the world of the online survey respondent.  It’s sad, boring and frustrating and is not conducive to telling truth or even giving due consideration. If only there was another way of recruiting people fresh for every survey and providing them with an interface that was engaging and even fun so they are in a better frame of mind to really tell you what they think? Trust me…..there is!