How COVID-19 is impacting public trust


The third edition of Kekst CNC’s COVID-19 Opinion Tracker research is out. It mirrors the daily polling conducted by governments around the world to inform company decision making. Canvassing the views of 6,000 people across the UK, USA, Germany, France, Sweden, and Japan.

This edition marks the third month of tracking public opinion globally. The aim is to understand the current state of public opinion. Uncovering clues about the ‘new normal’ that may ensue society with altered habits and views. Change is rarely comfortable and COVID-19 has been a catalyst for it.

The research has been led by former No.10 Downing Street Head of Research, James Johnson, and CCHQ Head of Polling, Tom Lubbock. The research carries enough scientific basis to have gained mainstream media coverage. 

COVID-19 isn’t just the biggest societal and economic test we’ve faced in a generation, it’s the hunger games of reputation management. Clear winners and losers have emerged from the worldwide crisis and misjudging public sentiment forms a pattern.

The role of PR has never been more important. Helping to ensure clear communication with publics take place whilst evoking the need for change in the world’s best-known brands. Investing in people and research capabilities that helps us better understand audiences is vital. 

In my view, this research is crucial for anyone actively managing the reputation of a brand. Do check it out directly to find every insight. Below I’ve identified what the research means for global public trust. Primarily to understand the practical impact on communications programmes. 

#1 Transformational shifts in public trust are taking place

Since the financial crisis of 2008 it’s been said that trust in governments and businesses are at an all-time low. It has led to the growth of purpose-led communications programmes to showcase organisational attributes of competence and ethical behaviour. But it’s been important for businesses to not ‘purpose wash’; to ensure real change is being affected behind purpose tag-lines. 

COVID-19 has shown huge growth in the trust people have for businesses. Particularly in the UK, many businesses began acting to keep their staff safe beyond official government guidelines. During the crisis businesses have worked hard to keep serving customers; especially supermarkets.

In comparison trust in governments is low. In the UK the approval rating of Boris Johnson sits at -7%. Perhaps the result of the Dominic Cummings situation and the uncomfortable switch to the ‘Stay Alert’ messaging. For governments the next couple of years will not be an easy ride as there will be little opportunity to rebuild social capital. It makes me wonder how a 2020/21 recession will compare, in terms of trust, compared to 2008.

#2 Public opinion is volatile

We cannot underestimate the volatility of public trust. Edition 3 of the opinion tracker shows that for the first time in three months, political allegiances are beginning to sway interview responses. Despite this, political allegiance in the UK is a complicated view in my mind. Brexit split all parties to a binary ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. COVID-19 seems to split opinion between ‘health’ or ‘economy’; with confusion in the UK with how to balance them. 

Whilst this goes beyond the research, there are far fewer ties to brands. Trust is inherently about practicing behaviours that warrant positive change for the Environment, Society, or Governance (ESG). Whilst trust in business is up, we’re only one crisis away from that cumulative figure to drop. 

The result is long-term impact about trust is difficult to measure with such volatility taking place in public opinion. 

#3 The UK is in a trust storm

The research identifies that the UK could head towards a,

“… perfect storm for public trust, where the Government is punished for both a high death toll and a damaged economy”

In the UK, particularly in cities, supporting the economy evokes pictures of standing on packed commuter trains risking personal health. Businesses are aware of the tight rope they are walking between ensuring business-as-usual and the health of employees. COVID-19 has been a hard reset for many organisations who are now seeing new agile ways of working.

The characteristics of storms are that they’re intense. You will be buffeted in multiple directions by the wind. It will be uncomfortable. Sometimes you will come out on top. Other times you may find yourself drowning. It’s a metaphor for the current state of trust.

We’ve always known the solutions. Stand by your purpose principles and act accordingly. Deal transparently at all times. Frequent internal communications have never been more important. Often listening and taking a considered approach is better than rushing to be seen as a leader of the pack. 

About the author

Michael White

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