Reflections on the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer: How business can play a key role in restoring trust

By Annabel Beales, Writer, Business Fights Poverty

Earlier this month, the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reported that the pandemic has caused a crisis of public trust in our institutions. Its findings suggest a new mandate for business, which is now the most trusted institution, to play a key role in restoring trust and responding to social challenges.  

After the extraordinary events of 2020 business has emerged as the most trusted institution, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which was released earlier this month.

The annual survey of more than 33,000 people across 28 countries asked respondents how much it trusted various institutions to do what is right. Business was the most trusted at 61%, ahead of  NGOs (57%), government (53%) and the media (51%). Business was the only institution included in the survey that was considered to be both ethical and competent.

The collapse in trust in public sources of information is having real-world consequences. We see this, for example, in the high numbers of people who are hesitant to receive vaccination against COVID-19, and in the political turmoil that followed the US Presidential election.

The survey also reveals a clear public expectation that business will not sit idle or focus only on its own interests at a time of global uncertainty. The public are looking to business, and in particular their employers, to take an active role in restoring trust and tackling the social issues which will define our future.

Here we suggest five ways that businesses can respond to this urgent call for action:

  • Take action to tackle disinformation 

A majority of respondents to the Trust Barometer (53%) believed that business should take an active role in providing accurate information, and 61% cited their employer as their most trusted source of information, above government (58%), traditional media (57%) and social media (39%).

All businesses have a role to play in tackling disinformation. In a recent Spotlight podcast, we heard how Business Partners to CONVINCE is bringing the private sector together to counter disinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine and increase uptake amongst their employees and the wider community.

“Sometimes vaccine hesitancy reflects genuine concerns – sometimes by addressing those concerns it’s a trust builder. And if we dismiss the questions and the hesitancy as being wrong or incorrect, then it’s a trust breaker.” 

Heidi Larson, Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Business is also well-placed to develop initiatives that teach media and information literacy skills. According to the report, only a quarter of people practice good ‘information hygiene’ – practices which allow them to evaluate information, avoid echo chambers and share only information which they know is reliable. What is more, 55% of respondents said that increasing their media and information literacy was more important to them now than last year.


  • CEOs can be leaders for transformational change

The results of the Trust Barometer reveal that CEOs are under a weight of expectation to drive social change. 86% of respondents expect CEOs to publicly speak out on societal challenges such as the impact of the pandemic, societal issues, job automation, and problems facing local communities. Over two-thirds also ‘expect CEOs to step in when the government does not fix societal problems’.

However, none of the societal leaders that the Trust Barometer tracks – CEOs, government leaders, journalists and even religious leaders – are currently trusted to do what’s right, with drops in trust scores for all. In particular, CEO credibility is at all-time low in several countries, and 56% of respondents said that they believed that business leaders were purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false. Therefore, while CEOs are expected to drive change, the mistrust in what they are saying is so acute that honest and authentic communication will be key.

People feel more empowered to demand change: 50% of the employees questioned said that they are more likely now than a year ago to voice their objections to management or engage in workplace protests, and around two-thirds believe in the power of consumers and employees to force corporations to change.

Many CEOs may feel unequipped to take on an expanded role on social issues. A recent report by Forum for the Future suggests a way forward: by adopting and modelling a transformative mindset, CEOs can be catalysts for the changes that are needed.

“Why do we need to be transformative? Because of the urgency and depth of the change we need. Quite radical change is needed, most obviously on climate but on poverty and inequality too. Incremental change won’t get us there.”

Caroline Ashley, Global Programmes Director, Forum for the Future

Understanding the critical role of mindsets in driving a just and regenerative future:  a Business Fights Poverty webinar co-hosted with Forum for the Future

  • Embrace authentic purpose

Following the devastating health and economic impacts of the pandemic, the Trust Barometer found a heightened awareness on key social issues such as access to healthcare and education, climate change and poverty.

Now, more than ever, people are looking to business to embed a sense of social purpose at the very heart of their organisations.

Our work last year on the Business and COVID-19 response centre emphasised how business can leverage their core operations, philanthropic initiatives and policy engagement to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable people and communities.

Of these, embedding purpose into core business activities is perhaps the most complex, but also the most transformative. In July last year, we released a discussion paper on how companies and investors can collaborate to embed purpose authentically into business, including a five-point practical framework for aligning core business with a clear sense of purpose.


[In 2021] We will see company commitments to ESG take new form, with sustainability truly becoming embedded into the fabric of how a company operates. Siloed sustainability strategies will become unacceptable as the stakeholders continue to grow.”

Danielle Foster, Global Vice President and Head of Public Affairs and Sustainability of Bayer’s Consumer Health Division.

  • Build partnerships for change

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some of the most inspiring examples of effective and purpose-driven partnerships. The urgency and scale of the challenges that we now face will require creative collaborations that bring together both traditional and less conventional partners to drive system-level change. In building partnerships, the local knowledge and entrepreneurial insights of community members and grassroots organisations can be key in designing scalable solutions that fit the local context.

Successful collaborations are designed and nurtured with care, and there are a number of tools available to help partnerships succeed. For example, the Business Fights Poverty discussion paper Building Transformational Partnerships offers insights and lessons for anyone looking to build an effective and long- term partnership. For urgent action, find out how to drive rapid innovation through partnerships in our Action Toolkit, released during the pandemic’s first wave.  The Partnering Initiative also offers a wealth of insights, including guidance on how to make sure your own organisation is fit for partnering.


“This is all about partnering. [Building trust in the vaccine] is not an individual piece and government can’t do it alone. Business can’t do it alone. We need communities, civil society, schools, and to link with public health leaders.”

Scott Ratzan, Distinguished Lecturer, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy

Understanding the Health Pathways out of the Pandemic:  a Business Fights Poverty webinar co-hosted with Amref Health Africa and Business Partners to CONVINCE


  • Think local and develop on existing relationships

Trust in societal leaders such as politicians, journalists, and religious leaders has continued to fall. In fact, the survey shows that there is no room for complacency, even in the business sector:  trust is declining across all business sectors, and trust in CEOs as a group has also declined by 3% over the last year.

However, people are more likely to place their trust in their local community and business leaders to whom they feel personally connected. In particular, people view their employers as trustworthy:  76% trusted their employer, and 63% trusted their employer’s CEO.

These results provide a reminder that, as businesses, we hold a privileged and important role in the lives of our employees and other stakeholders. Building trust is ultimately about the quality of our relationships with the people who sustain, and are impacted by, our business.

Share this story

Leave a Reply



Next Event

Business Fights Poverty Global Goals Summit 2024