In case you missed it, the 22nd annual Trust Barometer report was published in January 2022. It comprised feedback from more than 36,000 survey respondents across 28 countries. Here, Cat Barnard, partner at Working The Future, reflects on the role of internal communication in the age of information bankruptcy.


18th February 2022

Since 2000, global PR consultancy Edelman has tracked the concept of ‘trust’ and what it means to people across the world. Triggered by World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 in response to escalating globalisation and inequality, Edelman wanted to better understand the influence of non-governmental organisations within society to motivate, mobilise and inform civic activism.

Throughout most of its 22 years of research, NGOs have consistently been perceived as the most trusted institutions in society.

It’s clear, however, that Covid-19 has reshaped the trust landscape.

So how should we define what constitutes “trust”? Notoriously subjective, we at Working The Future found a definition by Psychology Today, which we think sums things up pretty well:

“Trust — or the belief that someone or something can be relied on to do what they say they will — is a key element of social relationships and a foundation for cooperation.”

In 2020, when the pandemic was still in its early stages, Edelman found that government was regarded as the most trusted institution. It was hoped and expected that centralised efforts would provide a robust civic response to a novel virus outbreak.

Instead since then, time and again, across multiple countries and continents, a lacklustre pandemic response has combined with spiralling internet-fuelled “fake news” and conspiracy theories to drive what Edelman labels a “cycle of distrust”. We’re losing faith in our most trusted institutions to restore social and economic certainty and stability.

But rather than lose hope entirely, citizens are now placing their faith in business to step up and take the lead on societal and environmental issues. Or more specifically, they’re looking to their employers.

Against a backdrop of ongoing pandemic uncertainty, the escalating climate emergency and rising economic instability, business is now perceived as most able to deliver positive change and address our most pressing societal challenges.

Leaders taking a stand on societal issues

Edelman’s research data shows that citizens are looking to their own CEOs for truth, certainty and hope.

In 2022, 60 per cent of jobseekers expect CEOs to speak out on societal and environmental issues and 81 per cent of survey respondents expect business leaders to be personally visible and to take a stand when discussing public policy with external stakeholders. They expect to be able to see their organisation proactively working to showcase what it’s doing to benefit society.

Job security, climate change, cyber-terrorism, citizens’ rights and racial inequality are primary concerns among survey respondents. As governments and other institutions fail to address these issues, it falls on organisations to demonstrate ethics and responsibility that is restorative rather than destructive.

The rising expectation for business leaders to take societal and environmental responsibility in 2022 is both a challenge and an opportunity. While on the one hand, taking an active role may be perceived as a distraction from focus on bottom-line outcomes, it’s increasingly clear that increasingly activist employees will inhibit performance, unless steps are taken to positively address wider societal issues. A recent MIT Sloan Management Review article explored this shift.

Taking steps to address societal and environmental challenges is now perceived as a core priority for business leaders. Those willing to demonstrate authentic responsiveness to these challenges will win loyalty both internally within their organisations, and externally with customers and investors alike.

This presents a fantastic opportunity for the internal communication community.

At a point when employers and colleagues are perceived as the most trusted source of information, the quality and integrity of information shared internally within organisations has never mattered more. It’s time to share these Edelman findings with the C-suite and to reposition internal communication as integral to longer-term organisational survival.

Adding value through internal communication

There are several other key areas where internal communication practitioners can add value.

The first is to help business leaders understand those social and environmental issues that are most concerning to colleagues. By learning about what matters most and then formulating a response strategy, leaders can demonstrate their commitment to business as a greater force for good in the world.

Clear articulation and execution of this strategy internally will build loyalty, engagement, commitment and trust.

Finally, many leaders still need help and support to communicate authentically and consistently both online and in face-to-face scenarios. A 2021 research paper by critical issues firm Brunswick identified that stakeholders across the board now expect leaders to be visible, accessible, transparent and connected.

Internal communicators can help leaders learn the communication skills to effectively engage with and inspire their audiences both on and offline.

As Edelman’s 2022 research findings show, the organisations we work for are the last bastions of trust – so it’s incumbent on our profession to demonstrate the importance of clear, consistent and authentic communication.


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