India Has High Trust In Govt, Business & NGOs: Edelman's Matthew Harrington

In this week's The Weekend Edition: The Core Report, Harrington spoke about the 2024 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer and its findings.

23 March 2024 12:00 PM GMT

In the 2024 edition of Edelman Trust Barometer, released in January, India ranked second after China in trust in business-government partnerships over technology-led businesses. It topped the charts in terms of trust in businesses and non-governmental organisations, but was fourth in terms of trust in media and fifth for the government.

?(In India) there's high trust extended to government, to business, to NGOs, and then to media as well, although it's in that descending order,? Matthew Harrington, head of global operations at US public relations and marketing company Edelman, told The Core.

According to Harrington, the Indian consumer checks multiple sources to ensure that the facts are accurate and that kind of homework wasn?t seen elsewhere.

The survey found a growing disconnect between innovation and society, emerging as a significant factor contributing to further polarisation. The majority of the respondents believed that innovation was being inadequately managed. 

?There's (a) large swath of folks who are quite anxious about innovation, concerned about job displacement, and a variety of negative impacts as a byproduct of innovation?Innovation in itself isn't accepted at face value as a good thing,? Harrington said.


In the 2024 edition of Edelman Trust Barometer, released in January, India ranked second after China in trust in business-government partnerships over technology-led businesses. It topped the charts in terms of trust in businesses and non-governmental organisations, but was fourth in terms of trust in media and fifth for the government.

“(In India) there's high trust extended to government, to business, to NGOs, and then to media as well, although it's in that descending order,” Matthew Harrington, head of global operations at US public relations and marketing company Edelman, told The Core.

According to Harrington, the Indian consumer checks multiple sources to ensure that the facts are accurate and that kind of homework wasn’t seen elsewhere.

The survey found a growing disconnect between innovation and society, emerging as a significant factor contributing to further polarisation. The majority of the respondents believed that innovation was being inadequately managed. 

“There's (a) large swath of folks who are quite anxious about innovation, concerned about job displacement, and a variety of negative impacts as a byproduct of innovation…Innovation in itself isn't accepted at face value as a good thing,” Harrington said.

It also found that innovations have become politicised, particularly in Western democracies, where individuals leaning towards the right are substantially more likely to reject them compared to those on the left. 

The 24th annual survey had over 32,000 participants across 28 nations. It revealed that developing countries were ahead of developed ones in terms of the overall trust perception among their populations. The survey also revealed a widespread belief that science is losing its independence to government influence, funding sources, and the political process.

In this week’s The Weekend Edition: The Core Report, financial journalist Govindraj Ethiraj speaks with Harrington to understand the changing nature of trust in establishments across the globe. 

Edited excerpts:

Can you take us through broadly what the report told us or told us? 

We just launched, as you pointed out, the 24th annual edition of the Trust Barometer. The findings this year were particularly interesting. When we talk about trust, it's the degree to which an individual believes an institution — whether it be business, government, media, or NGOs — will do the right thing. This year we wanted to understand what was the sentiment towards innovation as a piece of trust. 

When we look at trust, we believe it drives action and it drives growth. And when you think about growth, you think about innovation. And there's a lot of innovation happening in the world at the moment, and how are individuals thinking about it? How are they internalising the amount of innovation? 

I think on a global basis, what we found is it's a tale of two cities. There's some optimism about the volume of innovation that's occurring, and then there's another large swath of folks who are quite anxious about innovation, concerned about job displacement, and a variety of negative impacts as a byproduct of innovation. I can unpack all of that. But I think the big headline was that innovation in and of itself isn't accepted at face value as a good thing. And that's where I think trust comes into the equation pretty significantly.

And in some ways, would you have chosen this because you knew that this was the finding that you would have? 

No, I think it's a logical evolution. Over the 24 years, we've been examining trust in institutions, the four institutions that I mentioned, and we've been watching trends and society, whether it's the introduction of social media, the age of disinformation, or just major swings in trust. And I think when you go back to November 2022, the introduction of Chat GPT represented a significant technological transformation that has preoccupied all of us since. And so when we got to developing the instrument for this year's trust barometer, the premise of innovation in science was a logical place to go. Also as a byproduct of really coming out of the Covid era.

Can you tell us about India, and where we stand? Some things have gone up, and some things have gone down between the government, media.

India is interesting. It's a country of optimism where I think the majority are on the same page in terms of there's high trust extended to government, to business, to NGOs, and then to media as well, although it's in that descending order. Everyone's in the trusting space, but business and government are 82% trust business and government. It's 76% for the media. There's a little bit of a tick downward. 

I think what's interesting, when you unpack the media piece, India is unique in, having a strong, still strong traditional media ecosystem and there's high trust extended to that universe. But all media over the last year, and two years, whether socially owned or traditional, have had a bump in trust. And I think that there's a sense of going to multiple sources to ensure that the facts are accurate, that the Indian consumer is doing that kind of homework that we don't see elsewhere. On a global basis, trust in those four institutions is about ten to twelve points lower than in India

Compared to 2022.

Compared to 2022. 

And India has gone up in the same period.

Yes. And I think that what's also of note is on an index basis, when we do an index of those four institutions, India is the second most trusted country of the 23 in the world that we study, and China is number one. And India was number four last year. And it's gone back to second position, which it's held before, but it's now back at number two, most trusting country.

But in the case of China, as an illustration, is the survey done with people in China or from the outside looking in?

When we talk about the countries, it's about the country's population and citizenry. So the China numbers are a byproduct of surveying Chinese citizens.

And you said between media, government, and NGOs, for example, what is moving it more precisely in the context of India or other countries?

I think it's a degree to which people have to believe what they're hearing from either government leaders or from the media that they can. 

My question is what's moving it, or rather what moved it between 22 and 23 or in recent years?

I think it's a belief in what they're reading and what they're hearing. 

So the belief is increasing is what you're saying? 

Yes. The trust in those institutions is increasing. And we've seen that over the last ten years in India in particular, a real boom in trust. The Covid period was interesting in as much as we saw a rise of trust in the government, as the government rose to the occasion with getting vaccines quickly to people, and then it was a trust fall, and that's now come back. And I do think it's a function of economics, and health tends to be tied to trust. And when you look at the economy in India and the general advancement of society, you see sort of all boats that rise.

When people sort of tick and say that, okay, my trust in the government is increased, do those reasons vary from country to country, or are they broadly the same? 

This year was 28 countries. We have longitudinal data on 23. The majority of countries had a decline in trust in government. So again, India is not alone, but it's unique amongst a set of countries, mostly developing, like the UAE, like other developing markets, there's higher trust in government, in the advancement of the economy, advancement of society. The Western countries' decline in trust continues in government and most of the institutions.

When we talk about media, are we mostly talking about mainstream media or organised media, or is it all media?

We break out traditional media, which would be your traditional print and broadcast, and then we have social media as a separate category. Traditional media in India is more trusted than social and the owned is right behind that. 

But social media does have a weightage in your trust ranking. 


And what is that weightage?

I can't recall the exact number right now for India, but it's in the trusting space, where on a global basis, it's not trusted.

And that would, I'm assuming, be similar in other parts of the world as well.

The correlation continues between developing and developed, where there's less trust in social media in the developed markets. And I think a greater concern about misinformation.

What about the role of business, and how is that changing, particularly in recent years, both in countries like India and elsewhere?

Business is the most trusted institution globally, and it has been for the last several years. I think there's an expectation that business will drive innovation, that business is going to drive the economy, business is driving employment, creating jobs. And so there's a great deal of trust extended to business. And the highest trust extended by an individual is to ‘my employer’. So it even gets, when you get local, there's enormous trust extended to ‘my employer’, which has a host of opportunities, I think, for business to realise.

And what could those be?

I think CEOs in particular, are highly trusted by their workforce. And when they think about advancing innovation in their company, they've got an installed fan base that will help them move the business forward. As long as they understand and are aligned to strategy, that can/can’t help but a company to realise its ambitions and execute a strategy. And I think that then, in turn, plays externally.

One of the trends we've seen over the last couple of years is businesses recognising the power of the workforce, not just to get the job done, but also to be an advocate in the marketplace. And unleashing your workforce to be that advocate in the marketplace can also foster trust. And for very large employers, I think they understand now that their first audience in many respects is their employees. And that probably also was heightened over the last several years because of the Covid experience.

How do companies do? I mean, in some ways it seems logical that my employees are my best stakeholders, or employees come first, and so on. So what's changed? And how are companies tapping into this force, so to speak?

I think they're changing the game on communications and they're raising the bar in terms of how often and in what ways they engage with their employee workforce. I think there's more dialogue and more opportunity for employees to weigh in on the direction of travel of the business and innovation. I think that there's a greater voice being given to employees. 

There's a rising labour movement in the US that we haven't seen probably in 50 years. Some employers are leaning into their workforce and making it a partnership before it's something that they have to contend with because a union is demanding that.

And is this more in traditional industries like automotive and so on, or are you seeing it elsewhere too?

No, we're seeing it very much elsewhere. And I think Silicon Valley is navigating a changed environment for themselves relative to their workforce. You saw action at Google and walkouts at various companies. I think that the employee is finding their voice differently and there are different expectations. Some of that is generational, but some of it is a reality of the employee understanding their role in a company and the value that they have in a company. 

You're saying if companies spend time, and work more closely with their employees on this aspect, there is a dividend to be reaped, but if you don't, it can have the opposite effect as it seems?

Yeah, I think if your employee workforce is a microcosm of any community, you want to foster trust and build trust. And so if you want to build resilient trust, you want to build a relationship. And that, I think it's best begun right in your backyard with your workforce. And that relates to the execution of business strategy, but it also comes to how you show up in the community, and employees are also members of the community. And so there's this dynamic now that I think has been built between how a company behaves in its community and the expectation the employee has of how a community shows up. 

I think Walmart's a perfect example of a company of scale that has been able to also operate at a very community, local level, and they're one of the US's largest employers and they activate their employees in a very, I think, strong manner, and they have a trusted relationship between the company and the workforce.

Tell us about what more you found as you try to go deeper into how people are receiving innovation and whether they even trust innovation. And thanks to, obviously, innovations like  ChatGPT and so on.

I think I was operating on the impression that innovation is generally for good, but that's changed over the last generation. I think in particular because of the pace of change, the pace of innovation, and the volume of advanced innovation. When you think about gene-based therapies in the pharma world, there are great scientific elements of that, but it's also very complex for the average consumer to understand what that's about. But I do think that the pharmaceutical and the medical device community has done a good job of talking about end benefits. There's more trust being extended to that technology and that innovation, because I think it's being communicated well to end user benefit.

Take GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Now, it was introduced a generation earlier, and you quickly migrated to a place where there was discussion of great concern about what was represented and what was happening in the food cycle and what was happening to what I'm ingesting. And it became instantly sort of rejected by the large swath of individuals and the EU put a regulation in place that makes the advancement of that technology difficult. There are lessons to be learned from both of those examples.

I think that what's interesting to note is green technology, is highly trusted and innovation is trusted as something necessary to navigate climate change. And there's, I think, optimism about what green tech may represent in terms of addressing that particular problem. And the one who's sitting in the middle right now that I think is really at a juncture, you know it can go either way, is AI (artificial intelligence). 

The India data was interesting from a demographic basis, whether it's age or gender, there was uniformity of acceptance/ concern of innovation around those four areas. But the one place where there was a difference was around income. And low-income and high-income income in India are more comfortable with the premise of innovation than middle income. And this particularly comes, I think, more acute around areas like AI, where low-income has government support and protection, high-income has the economic, and power dynamic at work, and middle-income is concerned about job loss and displacement. And I think that's where AI at this juncture hasn't answered the question in India or globally, is it for good or for ill? Even within the science and engineering community, there's division, as we saw at OpenAI with their board battle, there's tension there as to what this technology is unleashing on the world.

Is misinformation also linked to this, including on innovation? I mean, why do people think a certain way about AI? Or why do people think a certain way about Covid vaccines? How is that distorting either the findings or the perceptions of the people who are responding to these studies?

Well, I think it's definitely a factor. I think when you look at the vaccine instance, it became enormously polarised, particularly probably in the West, in the US, where you had scientists on both sides of the issue decrying either its benefit or its folly. And that, I think, was an instance where science wasn't trusted and it wasn't communicated well. I think AI also has a fair bit of misinformation. And you get into the place where I know the prime minister here in December talked about concerns around deep fakes and the deep fake videos relative to the upcoming election. We have this concern in the US as well. I do think it's a concern. 

No one has a silver bullet solution, but scientists themselves have an opportunity to make what they're developing more understandable. And that's where the communication piece comes in. It is interesting to note that in the Trust Barometer, scientists were the most trusted sources of information about innovation and technology. That trust they must meet with actually providing information that people can.

What's a good illustration of that in your mind, where someone has communicated well versus maybe where someone has not, in the context of science or scientists?

I'll go back to gene therapy and the developments of a variety of therapeutics that are addressing cancer care to a host of other disease states where the ability to develop drugs and advanced sort of understanding about the impact of gene therapy or mRNA (messenger RNA) is just being understood. Because I think doctors are getting behind. They're creating amplification, an echo chamber that's validating and that's working to advantage. 

I think that's the example that I would point to the best, where individuals who have concerns about their health are like, okay, that's a solution that I'm going to accept because it's going to help me live longer.

And what would be the converse? 

I guess I'll go back to the GMO world. And it's a disappointing fact that we didn't nail that one. Well, because food scarcity is an enormous problem in this world. The fact that we aren't there yet in terms of understanding the ability to create sustainable food through modification is a challenge for us going forward. I do think that meat products of the world, et cetera may represent an opportunity there because they are beginning to create some nutritional alternatives in the food space that are nontraditional. And that hopefully will solve some of that problem. 

And you say that business is trusted to lead innovation. All of what we've spoken about is led by business or mostly by business. What's the dichotomy there then?

I do think it's the deployment of voice, that CEOs are expected to be the ultimate champions of their businesses and their companies. But are they the expert on all things? I think they need to create a range of voices that they deploy in support of their businesses. Satya Nadella at Microsoft, I think he's very deft at introducing the experts on his bench who understand the technology to a deep level. He's an engineer, he understands it, but he deploys others that create that amplification and echo chamber that's important. 

It's (about) involving multiple voices, it's leaning on where the expertise is. And I think that's something the businesses need to do more of. I think one of our early trust barometers relayed that somebody needs to hear something four or five times before they believe it. Therefore you must have multiple voices in the marketplace. And scientists, engineers, they have that installed trust, put them to work.

What's your sense of which parts of media are more trusted and which parts are not?

In India, the traditional media is more trusted. West, the rest of the world. I think the lack of trust is the story and that's most concerning. Where is trust found? It's search engines. It's the work that the individual does to find news and where they view they have trusted news sources. It's because they also have gone to multiple sources and seen a story numerous times. And that validates their reading and their understanding. 

Owned channels. A company's website, its blog, and its various posts are rising in trust around the world, which I think is also an opportunity for businesses to take advantage of. But the game has changed in most of the world where social channels, the majority of, I think it's 18 to 30-year-olds in the US, get their news from TikTok. That's an extraordinary data point and it's a challenge for news organisations. 

I think many of the best are figuring out how to navigate news and introducing reporting in short-form video format. It's different, it's not long-form in any shape.

Do you feel the format itself will address some of these market gaps?

I'm not certain that it's going to address the information gap. I do worry that people don't take the time to get into a story as fully as they probably could or should. I think societies benefit from informed citizenry. And in the US we are increasingly concerned about news deserts, whole swaths of a state, if not an entire state, where they have no news. No one's covering school board meetings, no one's covering city council, and the citizens don't attend those meetings. They used to be dependent upon reporters reporting that out. Nobody's watching those institutions. And that's not a good thing for a community, I don't think. And so it's rather bleak in many countries at the moment relative to the news industry. I hope that maybe there'll be a bounce back and there'll be some balancing out of this.

I'm heartened to be in India and see newsstands with print media now. I'm a little old school in that respect, but it's gratifying to see that there's a healthy media ecosystem. Conversations that you lead in this format, but also long-form conversations in newspapers. I think that's all incredibly important. 

In countries like the United States and elsewhere too, there is now polarisation between people, political parties, ideologies, and so on. How is that reflecting or playing out on the trust parameter, if you look at, let's say, a ten-year framework?

Just as it relates to this year's findings in the US, Republicans are least trusting of innovation. Very low score of trust, and innovation, whether it be from business or government or otherwise, where Democrats tend to be more trusting of innovation from any institution. And that polarisation plays right through on the media front. I think it's in the teens or the low 20s in terms of Republicans trust in the media and it's in the 60s in terms of Democrats. You have this massive chasm in the society of where people trust as information sources or who they trust as information sources. And that includes authoritative spokespeople like scientists, where that polarisation plays right through, right on through to news media. And that's become only more acute in the last ten years.

Does that distort the findings in any way?

I don't know that it distorts because it's reporting the data as it's delivered to us. 

For example, when you do the study, would you have to ensure that you have 50% representation from Democrats and 50% from Republicans, for instance?

This is a great question. I think from a sample size perspective, statistically, we end up there. We're not concerned about disproportionate weighting. We make certain that we're covering the geography so we're not tilting towards one geographic centre or another so that we're making certain that we're getting as balanced a polling group as possible. But within that, in the US, pretty much everywhere you go, you're going to get a 50-50 fallout.

Indian businesses going overseas, what is the kind of trust they enjoy? Are they doing enough to build on that trust?

More can be done. I think that there's not been as much done relative to what is sort of made-in-India or Make-in-India and the benefits to other countries and what the trade relationship looks like. That being said, where trade relationships have been longstanding or reinvigorated, whether it's Japan, China, or UAE, there's high trust in Indian countries. When you go to other markets, probably other developing markets, it's more of a muddled picture. I think what's interesting as well is to see Indians relative to Indian trust in businesses headquartered in other countries. It's a somewhat similar relationship. There's high trust in where there's partnership, but there's high trust in where there's long-standing relationships. 

In this context of Indian companies. But if I were to look at businesses in general, what's the correlation between high trust and high profitability?

Well, as I earlier said, trust drives action and action drives growth. There is a correlation, I believe, between trust, the health of the business, and therefore profitability.

And that's a clear line over the years.

Yeah. It's become clearer over the course of the longitudinal data that we have. It also correlates to economic GDP (gross domestic product) growth and market performance. And when you look at where trust is highest in the world, it's where you see economies rising, where you see economies where people are being lifted into new economic status. China has had a continued lift by its citizens in terms of trust. And it is because, over the last 30 years, the ability of China to advance its economic power and lift people out of, into middle-income life has just been dramatic and significant. And I think that's why they enjoy the trust they do.

Quality of life, or better quality of life automatically results in greater trust, even if other factors may or may not have changed.

Yes, and I think the West is representative of that dichotomy, where you see changing winds more rapidly over the course of the 24 years we've been doing this study, the impact of the 2008-09 financial crisis, the impact of 9/11, and sort of different moments in time, the swings in the west on where optimism lives, where economic health exists, has really played that out.

I think Ireland is an interesting subset where they've had the Celtic tiger was the strong economy in the early part of the century in Ireland. Then they went through a very challenging period, and trust within the Irish citizenry changed, sort of in reflection of that trip. 

In the last year or two, what's the one trust issue or challenge that a CEO, let's say, has come to you with, and what have you done? Any illustration of that?

I think the principal challenge has been one, and this is on a global basis of navigating an increasingly polarised world. And where and how do CEOs engage in issues and social issues in particular and social issues. Florida and Disney are perfect examples. There are black lives matter, there are gender issues, there are religious issues all over the world that have been, I think, called business to account, to have a voice. And I think that's been the biggest challenge for CEOs, is to figure out where and how to navigate and wade into those issues.

My perspective is that a CEO doesn't need to engage in every topic that is presented to them. They need to go back to their company's values, and the mission of the enterprise is, and think about their workforce first. And I think it's an instance of recognising your workforce is a mirror of society. And so the degree to which you assert, you're going to alienate some aspect of your workforce. And if you can engage in a way that speaks to respect for all and the vision and the value of the company, that should be your North Star. 

One thing our trust barometer told us on a global basis a couple of years ago is that the last place that anyone wants to see a CEO wading in is on political issues and politics. And that I think is given half the world is going to the polls this year with elections. That's a pretty good guidepost for CEOs. 

Last year was about innovation and how people are responding to it and the trust element within that. What is likely to be the theme for the next year as things stand today?

I think we're going to continue on the topic of innovation for a bit because of the volume of transformation that's being seen right now. I mentioned earlier that the world doesn't know yet the implications of AI. We are in the first mile of a marathon, but I think by this year we'll have gone probably maybe through 5 miles in a very short period of time. Going back to the marketplace and seeing where the business has permission to stretch, where they have the permission to engage with the innovation in a way that's going to move their business forward and society forward is something we want to be tracking. 

I think that trust is foundational to giving businesses the license to operate. That is the constant theme over the course of our years. I expect that to be a big part of the 25th edition.


Updated On: 23 March 2024 6:00 AM GMT
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