Australians have grown more distrusting of our major institutions – and less tolerant of each other – in the past year, with sentiment propelled by factors like economic instability, global conflict, heightened personal fears and a weakening social fabric.
Edelman – BBS Communications Group’s global partner – released the local edition of its 2023 Trust Barometer this month, highlighting the rapid erosion of trust and impending polarisation of Australian society.
According to the report, 45 per cent of Australians believe society is more divided today than in the past, and 61 per cent agreed the lack of civility and mutual respect today is the worst they have ever seen. Most Aussies are fearful of job loss (83 per cent), inflation (69 per cent), climate change (61 per cent) and food shortage (54 per cent), and less than a third believe they will be better off in five years.
Such dissonance and fear has coincided with further declining trust levels in our four major institutions, with government falling 7 points, media down 5 points (the least trusted overall), NGOs down 5 points and business down 4 points.
“This year’s Barometer reveals that Australia is heading down an alarmingly divisive path, but there is still opportunity to correct course before we end up in severely polarised territory like some of our Western counterparts”, said Tom Robinson, CEO Australia, Edelman.
“Distrust in government and media, combined with a lack of shared identity and fears around what the future might hold have led us to this place. As a direct result, business is under heightened pressure to lead the way back to unity and trust.”
Media scepticism grows
In 2023, only 36 per cent of Trust Barometer respondents said they trusted journalists, down 2 per cent from last year. 48 per cent believed media were a source of false or misleading information, versus the 37 per cent who said they were a reliable source of trustworthy information.
Across the media spectrum, search engines were the most trusted in 2023 (52 per cent) with social media the least (25 per cent), and traditional media ranking slightly higher this year (up 2 per cent to 50 per cent).
The role of business
Despite a drop year-on-year, Australian business remains the most trusted (at 54 per cent) of the four institutions according to the 2023 Trust Barometer, and the only one to be considered both competent and ethical. 75 per cent of Australians trust their employer specifically, although just 56 per cent trust their CEO and even less (39 per cent) trust CEOs generally.
From a sector perspective, the most trusted business sectors this year were healthcare, education and food & beverage, although each recorded a slight drop on 2022 levels. Social media, energy and financial services were the least trusted, with professional services and fashion also recording significant drops.
Taking a stand
Amidst the broader landscape of distrust and societal polarisation, there is potential for the business community to play a major role in rebuilding trust levels. However, they must work harder than ever to instil the foundations of integrity so they filter through to the customer, client and employee experience.
With the Trust Barometer revealing the majority of Australians expect CEOs to take a public stand on important societal issues like climate change (78 per cent), discrimination (75 per cent) and the wealth gap (74 per cent), corporate leaders must be clear about what they believe in and what actions they are taking.
Integrity-driven values, initiatives and actions must be core to business strategy and reflected through marketing, corporate communications, media relations and stakeholder engagement activity.