Episode 103

Polarization and Public Trust

with Richard Edelman

March 9, 2023

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Richard Edelman
CEO, Edelman

Richard Edelman is the CEO of Edelman, a global communications firm, and Chairman of Daniel J. Edelman Holdings, the firm’s holding company. Now in his 26th year as CEO, Richard is one of the longest tenured agency leaders in the marketing services industry.


Episode Highlights


Key Insights:

Richard Edelman oversees international polling on personal and institutional trust.

  • Where does Political Dialog Occur? The most believable place to have a quality conversation on politics is at work. It’s not in your neighborhood anymore. It’s in the workplace, because people now have transferred so much of their psychic energy to work.
  • How to Address Misinformation? There is a continued need to supplement information on social. I think companies have to participate in social put good facts in there. If they have quality information, sharing through newsletters, I just don’t think media can do it alone
  • How to be Trustworthy? It used to be that 75% of trust score was related to ability. Now that’s taken for granted almost the other 75 has to do with who you are. Do you have a mission?

This episode was made possible by our partnership with Edwards Lifesciences.

Relevant Links:

We now are sliding into polarization where views are quite fixed, and the idea of ideology becoming identity is now in people's heads.



Gary Bisbee, Ph.D.: Good afternoon, Richard, and welcome.

Richard Edelman: Good to be on your show, Gary.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve followed the Edelman Trust barometer for multiple years, and as the name suggests, have found it to be a terrific barometer of the time. So we’re very much honored to have you with us

Richard Edelman: Thank.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Could we start off with you’re quickly describing Edelman for us, Richard?

Richard Edelman: So we’re a global communications firm. We operate in 66 cities around the world. We work in health and tech food beverage, also in financial services, energy, et cetera. We do both brand marketing and corporate reputation.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Okay, this is the 23rd Edelman Trust Barometer consecutive years. Just quite a magnificent publication, but what was the impetus to. Begin the report and why? The focus on trust, Richard.

Richard Edelman: We wanted to understand the power of NGOs, non-governmental organizations in the wake of the battle in Seattle in 1999 when they were protesting globalization, and we found out that they were more trusted than the business. Government or media sectors. And that continued for 19 years until government became most trusted in 2020 at the height of the pandemic when we were all locked down. And then during the next three years it’s been business and business because it’s the most competent and now actually the most ethical. So the reality of business, it’s the only institution, both competent and ethical.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Could you quickly describe the 23 study and that’ll help us frame your comments.

Richard Edelman: We did this in 28 countries, 35,000 people. The study was done in November. We released it in Davos in January. And the most important finding was that we now are sliding into polarization where views are quite fixed. And the idea of ideology becoming identity is now in people’s.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: So why polarization? How did we get there? What are the causes of that,

Richard Edelman: So they’re really four Gary. The first is economic performance or expectation and not a single democracy. In the developed world has over 35% belief that their family will be better off in five years, some as low as 10 like in France and Germany. The second is the mass class divide. When you have a major difference between the bottom 25 and top 25% of incomes. In terms of attitudes towards institutions and where the attitudes are sour, among the bottom quartile, you have low trust and polarization. Then third is, do you have substantial differences in trust? Among the institutions and in democracies we tend to have very low trust, both in media and government relative to business and NGOs. So it’s like a table with an unstable set of legs, one too high and too low. So the plate slide off. And the last is, do you have a belief in information? And in countries where the media sector is challenged and people can’t find the truth, then they feel. And the net consequences that two thirds of the people who in our responses said they don’t think the social fabric’s good enough to even have conversations. And only 20% said, I’m prepared to work next to somebody who I disagree with massively politically. So that’s pretty dysfunctional in a polarized country.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Have you seen this coming? Looking back at past years?

Richard Edelman: What I saw, Gary, was that. The two sides were at odds divided. But the pandemic has really made this a lot worse because there were quite different outcomes depending on income levels. There was a basic loss of trust in government because we couldn’t find the right information or we couldn’t be sure that the clinicals were done. I keep telling business people, you think that you’ve done enough on societal issues, you haven’t. You need to continue to step into the void left by government because you’re the most trusted institution.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: business is the most trusted of the four institutions for the last three years. But looking back in 2007, business at that point was the most trusted and it seems like. It’s progressed pretty much since then. Would you say, would you look at it that way, Richard?

Richard Edelman: I do think in the Western democracies business is going to have the next three to five years continuing to bear a disproportionate weight of the societal expectation because government is seen as unable. Now, if the inflation reduction act, for example, turns America towards a green, , that’s a significant achievement for government. That’s done in partnership with business. Good business should want government to do better.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: There are four recommendations in this study. First one being business must continue to lead. How would, how do you think about that, Richard?

Richard Edelman: I think business has to lead, of course, in innovation and in providing jobs, but most, in terms of making people optimistic about the economy. Making people feel as if there is a sense of that, that there is opportunity, that there is fairness, that they can get ahead and make their families better off. In five years in our study, we found only 50% of people actually believe in capitalism, in, in the developed democracies. This is really a matter of self-preservation for.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: what advice do you give CEOs when you meet with them about this particular point? What can they do?

Richard Edelman: I think they have to be involved. Reskilling because we know from a recent McKinsey report between 15 and 20% of the jobs in financial services, in real estate, in of the in in, in retailing are gonna go away because they’re gonna be automated. And so we better retrain those people. We also have to pay attention to E S G. It’s a very important marker. On environmental performance, diversity and inclusion, also on how the company is governed. And there should be one measure, not 180 different ones, which it is today.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Yep. So how do the CEOs, the more established CEOs, how do they take this advice when you work that through with them?

Richard Edelman: I think that the smart ones recognize. that it’s not about just doing good in society, but it’s good business. And so whether it’s JP Morgan investing in Detroit or Discover card putting 2000 jobs for back office call center in, in inner city Chicago the reality of business making change, but also doing business better themselves is the.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: In your 22 study, there was a special health report and one of the things that it mentioned was that the employees expected the company to get along with or collaborate with government on health related issues. Is that generally, are CEOs generally aware of that sort of.

Richard Edelman: I think that the c e O. has to recognize that employees are fundamentally different than a decade ago. We have activist employees who walk out about Me Too and are demanding about anything from sustainability to diversity and inclusion, and they expect their c e O to speak up on their behalf in society, and that’s. Major responsibility. If you believe that trust is built inside out, you better talk to your people first. Learn from them, listen to them. But then the idea of what do people believe in the wake of the pandemic, this is a key point from the, from our trust reports, we have two separate audiences. Now, in the US we have people who buy into the basic theory of experts and C, D, c and, classic way of communicating information from top down. And then we have a whole other group that wants its information from the pharmacist or the pastor or their own doctor because they think that trust is local. And so in fact, this is a major change in the trust infrastructure.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: So what would you advise the director of the c d c which got caught in a number of issues relative to data about the pandemic that people basically didn’t believe, but they’re trying to gather trust back, gain, trust back. What would advice would you give her?

Richard Edelman: Look, I, it’s maybe the hardest job in America, but the reality of. We’ve looked at our performance during covid. Here are three things that we could have done better, and I understand the desire to fill in information void, but the necessity of holdback until you have more firm data is urgent. And I would actually recommend also In a way, a bridge building with the local health authorities. So she should go to Chicago and meet Drer Awadi who is the Chicago City Health Commissioner and be seen together with local, because the local folks ha had actually a really good pandemic. And in a way you can borrow trust from being more local.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Yep, that’s well said. The third recommendation then is to restore economic optimism. What could a business do to help restore economic optimism?

Richard Edelman: I think that a CEO and rest of team need to be doing tenure plans that envisage, insourcing it, envisages training, and upskilling it envisages a much more diverse workforce. , it envisages a system that works in the home, in the headquarters city. And the business needs to see its responsibility as sustainability and as being measured on on e ESG criteria. And it’s more than an economic engine. It’s also an engine for people’s. Gary it’s a fascinating finding and trust that the most believable place to have a quality conversation on politics is at work. It’s not in your neighborhood anymore. It’s in the workplace because people now have transferred so much of their psychic energy to work.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: The fourth recommendation is advocate for the truth, which is I think really a high bar for society these days, or people, instant leaders in the society these days. But how do you go about talking about that, Richard?

Richard Edelman: Advocating for the truth is partly using your power as a brand to support platforms that. Getting to quality information, getting quality information to their users. I give great credit to platforms such as meta that have invested in improving the quality of the information. And there’s a continued need to supplement information on social. I think companies have to participate in social, put good facts in. If they have quality information shared through newsletters I just don’t think media can do it alone. Media has to be supplemented by government business and by NGOs. And by the way, Gary, I think NGOs have really underperformed the last three years. You’ll note that they move from being competent and ethical to being simply ethical. And this is at a time when you have race issues and sustainability. These and human rights, and these are all things that are in ngo sweet spot, and they’ve been frankly too quiet.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: This. Of holding people accountable for false information. I think that’s one where NGOs could really step up here, but they clearly haven’t. As opposed to business too, how does business hold false information point out false inf information and hold people accountable for false inform.

Richard Edelman: Two, two different ways. One is to withhold advertising from platforms that are continuing to put. Falsehoods. And then second is to insert quality into the bloodstream and use your own social channels. Point people to them with sponsored Twitter posts and say, look, here’s where you can find a different view.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Let’s turn to, I’ve got two or three questions about advice you would give to CEOs and one of them that came out I think out of the last year, 2022 report was for CEOs or companies to go direct to consumers and not try to go through media or filter their message through. , could you tell us more about that?

Richard Edelman: So I wanna be sure that I’m a hundred percent clear on this one because. . I definitely want companies to continue to go through media, talk to reporters, make sure that the earned media is part of your strategy. However, for those who don’t read Earned Media and there’s 30 to 40% of people who rely on social, you have to go direct. And so you have to have your own channels as a company or a brand to tell the story of what you’re doing in L G B T Q or other because there are just, frankly, fewer reporters, Gary and. Going direct is an urgent supplemental means

Dr. Gary Bisbee: So it seems like there’s a balance between going direct and going through earned media. What advice were you giving CEOs during the pandemic, Richard?

Richard Edelman: to overcommunicate because if people are isolated, locked down, not sharing in a horizontal kind of informal manner unless they’re hearing it, through the grapevine, you better. Set the course and that’s why we moved doing the trust barometer from once a year to a dozen times a year. And we do ’em on climate or race or other things because there was a desperate need for information. Do you as a brand speak up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd? Not an obvious action. Our data show clearly. Three and a half to one speak up, do something. We expect action. We don’t just want words. And that was hugely helpful, not just to Edelman, but we put this out to the entire communications industry. Said, please go see the clients. Tell ’em to do something.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: What advice do you give to. CEOs about speaking out and some of these more sensitive issues, let’s say, and is it really practical for them to put their own opinion on the table or even to put the opinion of their company on the table?

Richard Edelman: I think that there are three or four issues that are safe and logical for CEOs to speak up on regularly. Sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Wage levels, reskilling and then geopolitics as related to Russia, for instance, where a thousand companies have gotten out since the Ukraine invasion. And so the places where it’s more talked to your employees as opposed to talk to the general public abortion, gun control voting rights police in policing in, in. Those are for your people and you, for instance, after the DOD decision as an Edelman, I said to my female employees, look we have you, we have this, whatever medical care you need, we’ll take care of it. And that was important. But that was advocacy to my people. And then there are issues in which you should be a public.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Just to go the next step you’ve said before that Edelman is in the business of the public trust and I got to thinking about that. Isn’t that the business all of our CEOs ought to be in.

Richard Edelman: Look, I think that trust drives growth and action drives trust. So the truth is, Yes, every one of the CEOs should have trust on his or her lapel, and it should be a net trust score instead of a net promoter score, because ultimately it’s the one currency that applies across your entire stakeholder group. It’s not just for consumers, it’s for everybody. And when you think about it, Gary, the aspects of trust, ability, dependability, integrity, purpose. Those four. It used to be that 75% of trust score was related to ability. Now that’s taken for granted. Almost the other 75 has to do with who you are. Do you have a mission? Is it something that I as an employer or consumer can feel comfortable with? And it’s soft power as opposed to hard power? But man, it matters.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Well said, and this has been a terrific interview, Richard, by the way, as expected. I have one final question if I could. What advice do you give for up and coming leaders who would like to get to the C E O chair someday?

Richard Edelman: I think to start, make sure you join nonprofit boards early. Get a perspective of people beyond your own little world. Make relationships. I’ve, I have breakfasts or lunches every day with prospects or reporters or networking. So network and then third read, just be a sponge. You can learn so much from listening and watching. Going to theater and going to art shows and, life is an impressionist painting, , that’s what I would say.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: , are you optimistic about our future, Richard?

Richard Edelman: I’m deeply optimistic. I meet a young woman who’s just come to work with my wife’s ngo and she’s, Colombian and she’s, comes from a family that was dispossessed during the drug wars, and she’s made it and she’s got a good education, got scholarship, and, she’s absolutely magnetic in terms of her desire to, get ahead, do something for her Hispanics in America. And I love that. I love ambition and I love hustle. I love people with a smile on their face and a can-do.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Well said, Richard, this has been a terrific interview. We’re honored to have you. Thank you for your time.

Richard Edelman: course. Thank you, Gary.

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