Richard Edelman was headed to Davos, Switzerland, on Monday, to do a panel on "trust" for many of the world's government leaders and chief executives.
The PR magnate was equipped with a 32-slide presentation with numbers, bar charts and fever lines. But the main conclusion from his data is this: People don't trust government leaders or CEOs anymore.
You've probably already heard this, but it sounds more scientific coming from the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, rather than some shivering, weathered dude swinging an "Occupy" sign.
The Edelman Trust Barometer has become a handy gauge of our growing skepticism. It's an annual survey of more than 30,000 people in 25 countries. And it now shows that our collective global trust in business leaders has fallen sharply to 53% and our trust in government leaders has fallen to 29%.
In the 12 years since Edelman's firm has been doing this survey, he's never seen such a steep decline. Almost everywhere he looks, he sees trust falling like a Triple-A sovereign-debt rating from Standard & Poor's.
"Maybe it's the Jon Corzine effect," he said in a telephone interview.
Last year, Corzine faced off with Fukushima for the title "meltdown of the year." His $41 billion investment firm went radioactive after bad bets on the European debt crisis. Before that, he was chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), governor of New Jersey and a U.S. Senator--positions that are now more likely to inspire rage than trust.
"It's really significant that the two least-trusted groups are CEOs and government officials," Edelman reiterated.
(Here's another interesting finding from his survey: Most people need to hear something three to five times to believe it. Most people need to hear something three to five times to believe it. Most people need to hear something three to five times to believe it....)
What I find most significant about Edelman's survey is that he actually found people left in the world who still trust government officials and CEOs. I did not know there were any, apart from, say, newborns.
It's been year after year of scandal and crisis for governments and major banks and corporations.
In the U.S., there's a central bank that didn't foresee the dangers of a subprime mortgage crisis and has since been launching unprecedented initiatives that sound like cruise ships--QE1, QE2...maybe QE3--to float us.
In Europe, officials say don't worry, we've got this debt crisis resolved, and the next week we find out they don't.
It's probably a good sign that people are finally losing their trust given all the folly between Enron and Bernie Madoff. It's a sign that maybe we won't be fooled again. But Edelman says our waning trust also means more burdensome regulations.
"If you really have a low-trust society, it makes it harder to get stuff done," he said. "If you have to have three people to check your work...it's not a good thing....It's just slower. You put up a lot of barriers to efficiency."
Edelman ought to be a big hit in Davos, showing some of the most-powerful people in the world how untrustworthy they are deemed outside their gated communities. But in the end, Edelman is just another CEO, too, running one of the largest public-relations firms in the world, with 4,000 employees and offices in 60 cities.
He does reputation management and marketing for companies as diverse as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) and Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. (SMG). So the more he points out our eroding trust, the more his clients are aware of the need for his services.
Can we really trust a survey by a PR firm? I trust this one because I've heard about eroding trust way more than just three to five times.
In 2006, Edelman responded to an article that upset him in Der Spiegel, a leading German magazine. It began something like this: "PR is a growing billion dollar industry, primarily manipulating our perception of the world. The professionals from the industry are even assisting in staging wars."
"The best public relations is done in the open, with real debate on the issues," Edelman countered. "Our job is to provide full information to facilitate better decision making."
He sure helped me make my decision. Trust no one.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)