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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Canada’s trust landscape during the pandemic

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Lisa Kimmel

How would you describe the trust landscape in Canada right now?

Every fall, we survey people around the world to measure their trust in four institutions: government, business, NGOs and media. Last fall we found that Canadians were quite distrusting of all these institutions — and government was at the bottom of the list. At that time, only 50 per cent of respondents trusted government, 53 per cent trusted both business and media and 55 per cent trusted NGOs.

Fast forward a few months and we re-surveyed Canadians in the midst of the global pandemic, and found record highs in reported trust across all four institutions. This included a 20-point jump in trust in government, which actually moved from fourth position into first. This significant increase can be explained by the fact that the federal government built confidence by embracing partnership and collaboration. Where there were once tensions between political parties, we have seen a decline in hyper-partisan rhetoric, as leaders at all levels of government presented a consciously united front to contain the pandemic and provide economic support.

This was very interesting to us, because over the 20-year history of the Edelman Trust Barometer, one trend we have noted is that when a federal election is looming, we typically see a rise in trust across all institutions — and in particular, government. For the first time last fall, we didn’t see that in Canada. But then COVID-19 came along and the picture changed.

You found that Canadians are quite divided—almost 50/50—about the possible increase in data collection that may be looming to deal with pandemic tracing. What does this tell you?

While Canadians were comfortable with government restricting our physical movement to contain the virus and manage the healthcare system, we are very divided when it comes to the tracking of our personal data. This suggests that much more debate and discussion will have to occur to figure out the most effective ways of containing this virus. As you indicate, only half the population is comfortable with resorting to the tracking of personal data in order to contain the virus. If tracking is the most important thing that needs to happen in the absence of a vaccine, Public Health officials and government officials are going to need make a very strong case as to why Canadians should be comfortable giving up their privacy in order to do this.

Many people feel like the system is not equipped to help them move forward.

Describe the ongoing state of trust inequality.

We categorize our survey participants into two groups: the informed public and the mass population. We define the informed public as those who are university or college educated, who are in the top quartile of income earners in the country and who are higher consumers of media; and the mass population is everyone else. One question we ask in our annual survey is, Do you believe your family will be better off five years from now? In recent years, very few people from the mass population have agreed with that — and the number was less than 25 per cent this year. What this says is that these people don’t feel like the system — an amalgamation of the four institutions we cover — is equipped to help them move forward.

The trust gap between the informed public and the mass population is directly tied to the outlook that people have around their futures. One of the key issues driving that is fear of job loss, which is tied to a host of factors. People are fearful that they’re going to lose their jobs through automation. They worry about not having the necessary skills required for the jobs of tomorrow; and then, of course, there are evolving global economic and trade dynamics. When you layer on the pandemic, 49 per cent of respondents are concerned about losing their job. There is a significant amount of fear and anxiety out there.

Can you talk a bit about the trust bump that you found for certain industries in recent months?

We’ve actually seen a trust bump phenomenon across all of the industries we measure on an annual basis, with the most notable being in telecom, consumer packaged goods and healthcare. I think the fact that those sectors have seen the most significant bump is a result of the initiatives they have put in place to either fight the public health crisis, the economic crisis or both.

Describe the differential in trust between the traditional media and social media.

We’ve seen that widen over the last few years. When we do our annual survey, traditional media in Canada is always the most trusted — and it’s higher than the global average for the markets we survey. Social media is at the bottom of the list, usually teetering around 25 to 30 per cent of people saying they trust it, and we’ve seen that gradually decline in recent years due to questions around the dissemination of fake news. Social media is not viewed as a credible source of general news and information.

At the same time, we have seen an increase in trust in traditional media to a record high during the pandemic. People are looking for trustworthy, reliable, credible sources of information, and Canadians have concluded that traditional media is the most trusted source.

How has the pandemic changed people’s expectations of business leaders in general?

What has been made clear is that the expectation of Canadians for all institutions — but predominantly government and business — is that they need to contribute in a meaningful way to helping solve the problem. While a majority of Canadians believe that government needs to take the lead in addressing a whole host of issues and challenges associated with containing the virus, businesses also need to contribute in a meaningful way. That could mean producing essential products, protecting frontline workers or figuring out how we get to our next normal. Only 28 per cent of Canadian respondents felt that CEOs were doing an outstanding job handling the demands posed by the pandemic. So clearly, business leaders are not delivering on people’s expectations.

We see a growing expectation that businesses will help to address societal challenges.

One of your suggestions is for businesses to focus more on solutions than selling. Please explain.

This isn’t the time to be actively promoting the benefits of your products or services. Instead, businesses should focus on what is most needed by citizens and what is most critical to solving both the public health and economic challenges that we all face. Whether it’s shifting your manufacturing facilities to create essential products like masks and hand sanitizer or working closely with your competitors on solutions to the issues at hand. A wonderful example is the collaboration that is happening in the pharma sector, where companies are working together in partnership to come up with a vaccine.

We’re still in the midst of all this, but to date, who have been the most credible expert voices?

People tell us it’s doctors, scientists and public health authorities. In Canada, it’s clear that prime minister Trudeau has really deferred to chief medical officer Theresa Tam. And so have the premiers, to their provincial chief medical officers. In my view they have all been very effective in communicating the seriousness of the situation. They’ve been very transparent, even in sharing difficult information, while at the same time reassuring Canadians that the government is doing whatever it can to manage the country through the crisis.

What surprised you most about your findings?

Just how significant the trust bubble is — because that’s what I believe it is. Despite the confidence that people have in government to solve and address all of the challenges associated with this pandemic, the reality is that the government is not going to be able to deliver on all of those expectations. To me, this is actually an opportunity for businesses and their leaders to step up and help in addressing some of the key issues — whether it be in partnership with government, in collaboration with others in their industry, or as an individual organization.

Based on your findings, what steps should leaders be taking to navigate the next normal that awaits us?

The first and most pressing issue is around the return to work. That’s really going to be the next test of trust, both for government and for businesses. Our survey results indicate that Canadians feel like it’s up to the government and public health authorities to provide guidance in terms of what is appropriate for the return to work. Business leaders can use those guidelines as a framework for their own companies, but they also need to be somewhat flexible and accommodating to their particular employee base. It can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach, because some individuals will be at greater risk than others by having to physically be in an office or on a worksite. Ultimately, leaders must prioritize the health and safety of their stakeholders. That needs to be their number one priority — or else they risk eroding whatever trust bump they may have seen in recent months.

The other thing is that leaders have done a much better job throughout this pandemic of communicating frequently with their employees and other stakeholders. My hope is that they won’t fall back into previous habits or behaviours and not be as engaged with their employees moving forward. They should continue to prioritize open, honest and frequent communication.

The last thing I would say is around the notion of purpose. Over the last few years we have seen a growing expectation that businesses help to address societal challenges. Leading with purpose and making sure that purpose is core to the DNA of your organization is going to be increasingly important to build and maintain trust going forward.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Rotman Management magazine.

Lisa Kimmel is chair and CEO, Canada and Latin America, at Edelman.