Even as access to information about business and government increases, the public's trust in those institutions continues to spiral downward.
A recent survey by Hill & Knowlton showed only 30 percent of Americans trust their government and 35 percent trust corporations. Both numbers are down substantially from the previous survey two years ago, which pegged trust of government at 53 percent and business at 45 percent. Why such big drops? A whopping 43 percent fewer trust government and 22 percent less trust business in only two years.
Part of the reason might be the ever-growing access to information we now enjoy thanks to the web, 24-hour cable news, and C-SPAN. Whistleblowers have always been around, but they now have unprecedented access to giant audiences via blogs, Facebook and other online platforms. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed feel they have much more access to information than they did ten years ago.
And it seems like the more we see, the less we like what we see.
The survey also showed that in-person meetings and appearances by government and business leaders are the most meaningful way to communicate with the public. Having employees participate as volunteers at community and charity events also creates goodwill and good attitudes toward government and companies. Social media communications were also seen as good ways to communicate, although they ranked far lower than personal appearances and involvement.
As disheartening as it may be to see the level of public trust so low, it shouldn't be a surprise. Just think about how so many government officials have behaved at all levels, as mayors and city council people get sent to jail and even state and national officials have done illegal or stupid things that have brought major media attention on them. Think Elliot Spitzer, Marion Barry, Anthony Weiner ... the list goes on and on.
Corporate America hasn't behaved much better, although some of their bad moves have been fueled by pure greed and selfishness. Look at the economic meltdown and government bailouts of some of the biggest banking and finance companies, which brought to light the wildly out-of-synch salaries and bonuses they got... and still get even after the public has saved their financial hides. I'd also put in that category of bad behavior the CEOs (and the approving Boards) of companies like Verizon, The New York Times Company and Gannett who are laying off or cutting salaries of thousands of employees even as those CEOs, already getting huge salaries and giant bonuses, take obscene raises.
So as business and government gets more transparent and the media gives them more attention, we the public are having our worst fears about them confirmed. Is it really any wonder, then, that our trust has sunk so low?
This is much more than a communications or public relations problem. It's an issue of ethics, and leaders in government and business must abide by some or a distrustful and outraged public will eventually force them to do so.
In the meanwhile, who do or who can we trust?