PR & thought leadership

In an era of ‘information bankruptcy,’ stakes are rising for brand communications

Carolyn McMaster | March 9, 2021

We are living in an era of information bankruptcy, with a global “infodemic” in which people “don’t know where or who to turn to for reliable information.”

That’s what the PR firm Edelman concluded in analyzing its 21st annual Trust Barometer survey. Most of the 33,000 respondents believe government (57%) and journalists (56%) are purposely trying to mislead people with falsehoods; trust in news sources is at record lows, with 35% of respondents trusting social media and 53% trusting traditional media.

On the other hand, business (61%) emerged as the most trusted institution in the Edelman survey, replacing government (53%). Researchers found that “business is the only institution deemed ethical and competent.” Taken together, these results depict an extremely troubling situation, even as it opens the door wider for purpose-driven brands to effect change.

Trust Barometer results are supported by the “Politics, Polarization and Purpose 2021” research conducted by Muck Rack and the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Most of the 1,500 journalists and PR pros surveyed believe fake news and misinformation will continue apace or increase. More than ever, people are looking to companies for leadership, and expect them to behave ethically.

Business trust is provisional—people want action, not just words

“There’s a level of intense scrutiny about what’s happening in the world and how businesses are responding,” said Fred Cook, director of USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations in a webinar about the research with Muck Rack. “People are going to be looking for CEOs and businesses to play a bigger role in society than ever before. That puts communications front and center on a lot of the issues that society is dealing with, and businesses are going to have to play a role in that.”

In assessing perspectives on media consumption and trust following last November’s election, researchers found that 23% of the general public will increase their support for brands that share their values; for 71% it will stay the same.

Most PR pros (63%) see an increase in consumer expectations of business’s role in society. They also see increases in CEOs taking a public stand on issues (59%), a public focus on CEOs’ character (60%), purchase decisions based on values (60%) and activist demands (72%).

“Everyone’s going to expect more from business than they ever have before,” said Cook. “Whether they want to or not, CEOs are going to have to take a stand on more and more issues outside of their comfort zone.”

What’s riskier—speaking out or staying silent?

While 55% of PR pros expect more purpose-driven campaigns and about half (49%) see rises in communicating about company values and with greater transparency, only 36% said they expect more companies to take a public stand on social issues. Overall, there seems to be the expectation that most brands will pursue convenient or vague “values” campaigns while failing to take a stand on specific values or issues.

When companies do take an activist stand, it’s most likely to be about racial equality (59%), gender equality (38%) or LGBTQ rights (30%). Only 26% cite climate change and education as activist issues. Issues such as homelessness, immigration, crime and the minimum wage are barely on the radar. And 21% of PR pros said companies don’t want to say anything at all.

This means brands that do take a stand (which we have long encouraged sustainable businesses to do) will stand out, as long as they communicate about it.

There’s no time to waste.

Some companies aren’t going to lose face (or business) by saying nothing, but “most companies, regardless of size, are going to be forced to deal with these issues,” said Cook. He notes that communications teams have a big role to play in determining what a company should act on and speak up about. He held up Ben and Jerry’s as a brand built on values from the outset: “We’re going to see a lot more of that.”

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