Trust no one? Exploring the disconnect between behavior and belief
Having both worked on political campaigns around the world, we’ve seen first-hand the virulent mistrust of politics felt by many parts of the electorate, particularly in the UK and US, and the breakdown in trust between the elected and electors. In Britain, the expenses scandal involving Members of Parliament reinforced an existing trust deficit, and became a toxic issue for all mainstream parties. The UK General Election result reflected public ambivalence to politicians of all stripes. In the US, voters’ anxiety about the economy and frustration over partisan bickering on fiscal and healthcare reform have eroded their confidence that government can act effectively in times of crisis.
At the same time, this challenge has found an echo in the business world. The perceived failings of banks and financial institutions have led to a wider questioning and skepticism of elites and governance, with issues around bonuses and bailouts turning public frustration to outright anger. Wider economic malaise reinforces the sense of a divide between business leaders and the general public. Indeed, organizations need to be sensitive to a climate defined by mistrust and anxiety in both politics and business – a rare if unwelcome combination.
Yet, behind the headlines and topline story lie nuances and subtleties – ones we need to bear in mind as we explore public attitudes, and understand how best to communicate. In the UK, the perceived failure of business has led to a greater support for state intervention and regulation. There has been a shift from the 1990s mindset of "business knows best" and earlier reactions against government involvement. The changing context meant that even the avowedly pro-market "New Labour" was able to nationalize banks – an unexpected echo of earlier claims to take over the commanding heights of the economy.
The picture in the US is more complicated – the bailout of failed banks was initially seen as a necessary crisis response. However, the public’s skepticism over government over-reach has become a backlash that has seeded the ground for the Tea Party movement. For many, personal responsibility, rather than government intervention, is seen as the way out of the economic crisis.
Conversely, growing skepticism around the ability of the public sector to deliver value and service means business has more permission to talk about how it can bring know-how and efficiency to healthcare and education – the public is often more pragmatic than those it elects, and is driven by common sense rather than ideology. What matters is whether something works, rather than who runs or owns a service. Instead of talking about the power of "big," people want to hear about the impact of "small," – a sentiment shared by US and British voters. Bear this in mind as we see more debates across markets on whether to open up further the running of services to private sector providers, and the divides between opponents and supporters start to cut across party political lines.
Above all, we need always to bear in mind that the trust issue is complex and nuanced, and is dependent on context and how communications are framed. We also need to guard against the knee-jerk consumer attitude of "I trust no one" (often voiced in current affairs focus groups), and realize that everyday behavior shows trust – conscious or otherwise – towards public and private institutions.
If trust represents one current conundrum to deal with, understanding how consumers look at the downturn represents a major challenge for communicators. Separating out what is opinion versus behavior is absolutely critical, as is the need to identify what is a playback of media panic versus actual consumer change. Polling shows a complex picture – low and moderate income consumers across Europe and the US are cutting back – whether that’s everyday purchases and "treats" such as premium brand groceries and eating out, or delaying a big purchase such as a holiday or new car. While high income individuals in the US have also pulled back, their spending this year is on par with 2009 levels and "frugality fatigue" may be setting in. Decisions about discretionary spending hinge on job prospects, and with the unemployment rate hovering below 10 per cent, consumer behavior is "wait and see." But consumer attitudes seem resilient – many do not see these as permanent changes.