For the past few years, America has steadily become a country saturated in distrust. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer marks the biggest annual decline in trust among Americans since the study began in 2001. Year-over-year, trust in institutions, including government, has dramatically declined. At the same time, media is now the least trusted institution in the world. The decline can be attributed to a rise in fake news, America’s desire for credentialed experts, a lack of agreement on shared facts and more neutral venues for rational discourse.

At SXSW, WP Engine CEO Heather Brunner, journalist Dan Rather and U.S Head of Digital at Edelman, Jessica Clifton took part in a panel moderated by Edelman CEO, Richard Edelman. Their aim was to discuss an expansion of the global Trust Barometer, specific to the SXSW community.

What We Can Learn From The Global Data

2018 marks a dramatic reversal in the state of trust globally. When comparing 2018 to previous years, the four most notable observations on trust inverted:

  • Pre 2018: NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) are the most trusted institutions in the world.

2018For the first time, businesses are trusted more than NGOs.

  • Pre 2018: Dispersion of authority away from heads of state, CEOs, and classic authority figures towards people who you knew: friends, family, and colleagues.

2018A return to experts and vertical trust.

  • Pre 2018: A noticeable disparity of opinion between the mass and the class.

2018The mass-class divide, in regards to trust, has disappeared in the United States.

  • Pre 2018: Trust is linked to economic growth and events.

2018The US has become the least trusting country in the world, independent of economic growth.

This unprecedented crisis of trust occurs at a time when, according to the barometer, media has become the least-trusted global institution for the first time, with trust scores of over 50 percent in only six nations, five of which are in the developing world. Fake news is a real concern with it being shared via social at 10X the rate of truthful reporting. Meanwhile, half of all respondents indicate they no longer have anything to do with mainstream media. These individuals feel that mainstream media makes them less able to form an opinion on whether or not an elected official is doing an acceptable job. This has led to thought bubbles and especially echo chambers enabled and encouraged by social platform algorithms in which people are simply reinforcing their own opinions.

Business has a responsibility to build a trust-bridge. This stems from the fact that according to Edelman’s results, the most trusted institution today is now your employer. Businesses no longer have the luxury of being silent and paying lip service to the idea of “purpose” won’t work either. Employers have an obligation to speak up and then authentically live their purpose. This responsibility begins with a company’s responsibility towards their people and staff loyalty is a powerful asset.

SXSW & Trust

The SXSW community showed 20 point trust declines in business, government, and technology compared to the global data. This community expects business to speak up more on issues like the gender pay gap and immigration.

There was also a lower than average trust in technology among the SXSW community. As a community of innovators and tech-savvy people, SXSW’s familiarity with technology means they aren’t caught up in a hype cycle around technology but are very well aware of the work, training, and understanding that need to go into tech sectors like automation, AI and blockchain.

The SXSW community showed a higher than average trust in media. Unlike most Americans, they are optimistic about the potential of media. They understand the distinctions between the social platforms and traditional media. They are well informed and they seek out alternate sources for information. However, the community is deeply skeptical. They are frustrated and fed up with fake news and have a deep yearning for the truth. The good news? This population reports being optimistic they they can make a change towards a more factual discourse.

Trust, Responsibility, and Business

Among the panelists, Heather Brunner represented business within SXSW community. Based on her success as CEO at WP Engine, she offered insight on how to implement and maintain trust among employees, customers, and partners. Transparency, she said, was the key to establishing trusting relationships across an institution. Transparency earns trust and trusting employees become advocates for your brand. Advocates become better employees, in turn, helping the business thrive.

“There’s a pathway to trust. You first have to be credible and believable. Then, you establish respect by exchanging values. Over time, by remaining authentic, that respect breeds trust. That trust builds advocates from within. Transparency with employees is relayed back down to the customer. When customers feel that authenticity, they are more likely to trust and invest in a brand.” -Heather Brunner, Chairwoman and CEO of WP Engine

For any successful enterprise, trust starts from the bottom-up. You can’t be one thing with employees and another with clients and customers. Authenticity, transparency, humility, and a sense of humor are essential.” -Dan Rather, President and CEO of News and Guts

The Fake News Crisis: Trust & The Media

Renowned journalist Dan Rather gave a fresh perspective on America’s weakened trust in the media. Skepticism, he said, is healthy for any democracy. The danger point is when it slides into cynicism. A skeptic needs strong reasons to believe something is true while a cynic believes the worst of something or someone. Skepticism is an approach that subjects all knowledge claims to scrutiny with the goal of sorting out true from false while cynicism is an outlook on life, an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives. As Americans, we have generally avoided the pitfalls of cynicism.  

Rather offered several opinions for fending off cynicism and uncovering the truth. First, we have to start teaching civics in school. Second, journalists need to constantly be in search of facts and use the facts to find the truth. Lastly, for successful enterprises, trust starts with employees.

“When we educate kids on how laws get passed and how legislation is made, we give them a better idea of democracy and the press. Integrity-filled journalism isn’t just good for journalists and news sources, a truly independent press is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy.” -Dan Rather

#MeToo and Equality in Tech

Effects of the MeToo movement are felt across a plethora of institutions: politics, the media, and business. Rather noted, “By all indications, we have reached a change in the tide. From this moment on, things are not going to be the same. We can have no illusions, we have to sustain what we have started this year. If we don’t maintain the momentum that’s been built by MeToo, we have lost the opportunity for necessary change. If we can sustain the momentum, the movement will reach larger, more pressing populations like the lower socioeconomic class.”

Change comes from a variety of places but we can start with equality in the workplace. Brunner offered her insight into creating more opportunities for women in technology, “We need to open the doors wider. Often times women will not take the chance for a position unless they meet 90% of the qualifications for the role. WP Engine does not require a college degree for any type of role; this opens up candidacy for a more diverse applicant pool. Another thing that has helped us avoid pay inequality is that we don’t ask for salary history; this helps establish the precedent of equal pay for equal work. Additionally, we support women in their pursuit of motherhood by offering both maternity and paternity leave. Finally, women need have role models in the workplace; WP Engine is proud to have women make up nearly 60% of their executive team and 30% of management roles are women.”

Brands, Values and Taking A Stand

The panelists were in agreement that brands have an obligation to take a stand on issues relevant to them. While brands typically would stay silent on issues like women’s rights, marriage equality, and gun laws, silence is no longer an option.

“We buy brands nowadays based on values…by taking a stand, brands will build a community and a long-tail customer base. As a business for profit, brands have a social obligation to stand up for the right thing.”  Jess Clifton, U.S. Head of Digital at Edelman

Brunner offered insights on creating a work environment conducive to diverse opinions, “we have had to facilitate an environment where we can agree to disagree. Whether that’s with each other or our customers. That way we can be in a place where a variety of opinions and individuals can coexist.”

Find Out More

For more information about the state of trust, check out the Edelman Trust Barometer 2018. Also, be sure to check out the SXSW trust trends. To learn more about working at WP Engine, check out our jobs page.