Why is trust in business at an all time low?

February 10, 2009

The annual Edelman Trust Barometer is out and, like the economic news overall, this year the bad news just keeps getting worse. 77% of respondents in the US trust business less than year, internationally trust was down with 62% of the respondents.

Well, sure, it has to do with the economy. And that in itself is an important lesson. Are US corporations to blame for the mess we are in? No, but certainly there are individuals and selected companies and even some industries who have played an important role in our current situation. But when things go bad, blame gets spread broadly. When people are feeling negative, fearful, uncertain–it is more likely that they will think negative thoughts about just about anyone and everything. So some of this can be attributed to the general negative attitude in our world today and some to people painting all business with a very broad brush.

But I think there is something else, more serious and more insidious. I am preparing some comments for my presentation at the Ragan Communications and PRSA conference next month in Las Vegas. It’s about social media and crisis communication but I am finding myself focusing on what I am calling “toxic talk.” It’s the hair trigger outrage that is so obvious in so many blogs and comments. It’s the bitchiness and anger feeding on each other on sites like Digg and Newsvine. It’s the trashing and name calling of anyone and everyone with whom the commenter disagrees. It’s the eagerness to turn the bitterness into a viral attack. I used to say that social media was like the Cheers bar–a gathering of friends to discuss things of mutual interest. But it’s not, not overall. It’s seems more like a saloon from the cowboy movies where surly men in black hats peek out from under the broad brims and the camera focuses on the proximity of their itchy fingers to the six-shooter in their worn holster. There a sense of tension and danger and instant tragedy hidden only slightly by the tinkling of the honky tonk piano.

Now I’m getting negative about social media. Certainly there is more to it that this. But the toxic talk is pervasive and provides an overall mood and atmosphere that I find disturbing. It’s not just the uncensored language and raw emotion–as unacceptable as I personally find that. It’s the bitterness to almost anyone or anything that is seen to have too much power. While the demographics of social media are quickly changing, it is the young who have dominated it so far and the young who have set this tone. Why are so many young people so ticked off at so many–particularly at business?

Is there a connection between the rapid growth and widespread use of social media–the incredible expansion of the online conversation–and the sharp decline in trust in business?

What do you think?

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7 Responses to “Why is trust in business at an all time low?”

  1. Bill Salvin Says:

    I think that Social Media gives people power to voice their thoughts in an environment where they feel powerless. We don’t understand why John Thain thinks he deserves a $10M bonus when the company he led lost $15B in three months.

    To us it seems like he is a dumb as a bag of hammers for “not getting it.”

    Also, there is a lack of accountability in Social Media and Blog postings. As a reporter, I had several layers of editors that would serve as a moderating force in my copy. When I post to my blog (or yours), I can just blast people and no one will tell me no. Most people do not have the ability to self-censor in a way that fills the role editors served in the newsroom.

  2. Doug Says:

    I have to wonder if it’s simply people not being held accountable for what they say online, or if it’s more of the concept of misery loves company.

  3. Lach Says:

    Sure, social media CAN (again, you have only focused on the negative here) be a place for this “toxic talk” as you call it, also called “trolling.”

    It’s also the only way right now for the common person to weigh in on anything.

    The corporate-owned media whitewashes and ignores the declining middle class, the growing disparity between rich and poor, and partisan talking heads on corporate owned outlets ignore political and economic signs so obvious to the rest of us. We feel lied to and swindled.

    We are collectively feeling like the guy on Network, ready to scream out “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

    So in this climate, when you open your company up to commentary, what should you expect? Roses and rainbows? I know you know this Gerald, hell I learned this from you, but it’s one thing to do the right thing and tell people you’re doing it; it’s another thing altogether to do the wrong things and tell people you’re doing the right thing.

    Before a PR firm or company in today’s climate complains about the negativity on social media, maybe they should actually DO something positive themselves? Social media will nice when you do good, the problem is that it happens so rarely these days…

  4. John Says:

    I agree with Lach: Maybe it’s because, for the first time ever, people finally have a voice that can be heard. When Jeff Jarvis rants against Dell on his blog and gets a problem resolved, think about what would have happened pre-blogs — nothing.

    Finally, people have a say and they have a little power. Their venting the frustration of decades of having little to no voice. What were your choices pre-blogs or pre-Internet? Hope your letter to the editor gets through the censors. Carry a picket sign in front of a store. But more than likely, just complaining at the office.

    Now, the people have a voice and that voice will carry some bitterness for awhile.

  5. Kami Huyse Says:

    To be honest, I think there are just as many middle age adults as kids that are participating in this “toxic talk.” And I agree with many of the comments here that it is largely because the average person now has a voice for the first time.

    Some would argue they shouldn’t, but the truth is that they do and business needs to buck up and learn new ways to deal with it.

    By the same token, with power comes responsibility, and people need to be accountable for what they say. My concern is that there is no one to enforce that accountability at present.

    Still, you can’t say that social media is inherently bad. It is only a tool, one which more and more people are learning to use to their advantage. But luckily for business, all voices online are not equal. A snarky remark from one person may not have the same viral effect as say, one from Michael Arrington, etc.

    We will have to come up with ways to deal with this since I hardly think that it will go away anytime soon.


  6. The ‘toxic tone’ is dreadful, and even when it’s dressed up as sarcasm or ‘snark’ or whatever, I don’t care for it. And when it comes from practitioners in the PR space, that person goes down several pegs in my book. There’s just no reason to be mean, and people seem to be doing it to set themselves apart from the crowd, or be controversial. To me, it just makes them look dumb, like bullies on a playground.

    I’m not sure about the connection to the economic situation, I think it’s more that people feel helpless. If it keeps them from hitting the wall, the dog, or god forbid another person, then I guess it’s serving a purpose–let them vent. Maybe that’s the next online social network, serving the chronically angry? VC money for me pls? 😉

    I have actually wondered about a different aspect of this, as it relates to companies engaging online (I’ve long held that companies are not required to engage, and this toxic stuff is one reason). There’s another angle to it, however, that might be coming into play. Most major companies are to protect their employees from what could be considered a “hostile work environment.” Typically, this covers sexual harassment, workplace bullying, etc. But would exposing an employee to harsh treatment in the blogosphere be covered? While situations like Kathy Sierra’s are rare, I think it needs to be considered. If a company tasks someone with this work, what is the exposure?

    I know I’m veering dangerously off-topic, but I seriously would love to attend a “The Law Online” type of seminar that explores these things. I think a lot of Social media advocates are pushing companies into a very gray area, and we need to respect the fact that many might never be comfortable with it.

    Very interesting perspective.


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