The following story first appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

Edelman PR chief sees American cynicism on rise

Cheryl Hall – Dallas Morning News/Dallasnews.com

 8 November 2011

The United States has become a nation of cynics, and our communal distrust is deepening daily.

Those are the conclusions of the chief executive of the world’s largest independent public relations firm. Matt Harrington, 49, president of Edelman, is referring to his firm’s 2011 Trust Barometer, which indicates that six in 10 Americans doubt that the government will do the right thing.

 
“We’ve joined the countries of the most cynical, ranking down there with Russia,” says Harrington, who was in town for an ethics and trust conference at Southern Methodist University last week. “This is a clear indication of frustration being expressed in government and business — no job creation and impasses in Congress. And this data came in before the debt debacle.”

Harrington said he will be stunned if the 2012 Trust Barometer doesn’t show marked deterioration again. “It will be fascinating to see what we find when we go into field later this month.”

Edelman is about to conduct its 12th annual survey, and it does similar surveys in 20 countries.

The report gauges how “opinion elites” — affluent, college-educated, well-read Americans — view government, nonprofits, businesses and the media.

Americans are skeptics about all of the above, with the media least trusted of all. People have to hear something up to six times from various sources before they believe it.

Ironically, the much-maligned corps of CEOs regained some traction in the 2011 poll, although trust in business as a whole reversed from a dramatic uptick in 2010, when people thought the U.S. economy was recovering.

“2010 was a dead cat bounce,” Harrington says. “It wasn’t sustainable because of the lack of movement on jobs and the inability of government and business to work in concert to move the economy forward.”

Telling it like it is

Harrington thinks CEOs fared better in 2011 because they’ve gotten better at telling it as it is. “They were more upfront about the economic conditions and the storm they were trying to navigate and the tough actions they had to take,” he says. “That earned them some level of credibility. Every CEO hasn’t taken that route, but many have.”

Harrington thinks CEOs fared better in 2011 because they’ve gotten better at telling it as it is. “They were more upfront about the economic conditions and the storm they were trying to navigate and the tough actions they had to take,” he says. “That earned them some level of credibility. Every CEO hasn’t taken that route, but many have.”

This gain may be fleeting, he warns. Think ill-fated moves with customers.

“We’re in a cycle of Reed Hastings [at Netflix], Brian Moynihan [at Bank of America] and a variety of CEOs who’ve gotten high visibility of a nonconstructive basis,” he says. That’s been coupled with “a spate of CEOs losing their jobs and getting extraordinary payout packages, none of which engenders trust.”

Harrington works closely with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, whom he calls “a perfect example of someone who — whether it’s internally or externally — you know what the business is about, what his values are, what he’s driving for, and who you’re dealing with.”

Harrington was struck by the widespread negative reaction to the fiasco going on in Washington this summer. “People really, really focused on that and why this was not what we sent them to Washington for.”
Legislators, he said, “thought they were playing an inside-the-Beltway game and that no one was paying attention. Then all of a sudden, they began to realize: ‘No, no. This is not going over well.’”

Now another clock is ticking. The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has two weeks to find $1.5 trillion more to slice from the federal deficit in the next 10 years.

“It’s going to be like watching the 12 Angry Men — can we get to a jury decision? It’s going to be intense for them to figure out what can be cut,” Harrington says.

Trust is key

And trust is the critical issue facing presidential candidates, Harrington says. Without it, there is no political clout.

And trust is the critical issue facing presidential candidates, Harrington says. Without it, there is no political clout.

“A year from now, we need to be pulling a lever for a candidate who has demonstrated why he can be trusted,” says Harrington. “The question will be: ‘Did we do it?’”

So what can a candidate do to engender trust?

Try being honest and quit finger-pointing, he says, then outline a path out of this mess in concrete terms.

“It’s a sad state,” Harrington concludes. “I hope it’s not a situation where we get what we deserve. But in this environment, it’s hard to imagine someone who has their wits about them who’d want to run.

“There are very few people in the happy box. And if they are in the happy box, I want to know what they’re taking.”

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