Trust in the age of COVID-19: The role of governments, businesses and UNICEF

A conversation with Edelman’s Global data and analytics lead, Mr. Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis

The Global Insight team
07 April 2021

Expert Q&A  |  9 minute read

How has the pandemic impacted the public’s trust on institutions such as the government, media, businesses and the UN? And how does trust relate to the current misinformation epidemic? Can UNICEF help overcome these challenges?

The Global Insight team invited Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis, Global Chief Data & Analytics Officer at Edelman, to share the findings of the latest Edelman Trust Barometer and discuss some of the implications of declining trust in key institutions on UNICEF’s work. In the Q&A below, our partnership lead, Yoonie Choi, and policy specialist, Camila Teixeira, followed up with Yannis on some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion. The transcript has been edited for length and brevity.

Please tell us about the work you do.

Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis: I oversee Edelman Data and Intelligence (DXI), which is Edelman’s arm focusing on research, analytics and data consultancy. What we have seen lately is it is not enough to gather data and primary research only. It needs to be complemented by other sources of information, such as secondary, third-party or contextual data. In order to be able to process, analyze and understand this whole ecosystem of data, Edelman’s data and analytics practice also includes an element of “predictive intelligence”, which means data science, data engineering and behavior science. But even after you have all that information, it needs to be actionable. A third element then is “performance intelligence”, which allows the information to be used for communication and to be distributed for impact and continuous improvement. We work with NGOs, private sector companies and universities in several projects (see details here) and we have done work with the UN as well. One of the pieces I find very interesting is a global research project on the 75 years of the UN. Edelman helped carry out a survey with 35,000 people in 26 countries to understand what the global public wants for the world and to determine what the UN's focus should be for the next 75 years.

Could you please tells us more about the latest Edelman Trust Barometer1 and some of its findings regarding main concerns in the midst of the pandemic?

YK: At Edelman, we have studied trust for 20 years and believe that it is the ultimate currency in the relationship that all institutions—companies and brands, governments, NGOs and media—build with their stakeholders. Prior to the pandemic, we were not living a worry-free existence and what our latest report has found is that, as disruptive as the COVID-19 crisis has been, people are less concerned about getting sick than they are about climate change, their economic livelihoods and personal freedoms. One of the most interesting findings of the Barometer is that, as the pandemic impacts our societies very differently depending on income or demographics, there are two “pandemic realities”, disproportionately different from one another. The report shows that the escalation of fears has created a dramatic increase in the urgency to find answers and solutions for this inequality. When people were asked about certain societal problems, and whether these problems became more or less important than in the year before, topics such as improving healthcare systems, addressing poverty, improving education systems, tackling climate change, combatting fake news, have come at the top of the list. All these are issues on which UNICEF is actively working and people expect urgent answers to these challenges.

An adolescent uses a mobile phone
UNICEF/UN017636/Ueslei Marcelino

What about levels of trust and which institutions are most trusted; has the pandemic altered the public’s perceptions?

YK: The way governments have handled the virus has had an important impact on trust. First, the pandemic is dampening economic optimism in key donor countries. In 14 out of 28 key donor markets, people are pessimistic that they or their families will be better off in five years’ time. In countries like France and the US, people show less support for their government’s involvement in global politics and multilateralism than for efforts to solve internal issues. Second, business is now the most trusted institution across all 27 markets. In fact, at 61%, it is the only institution that is fully trusted, and it saw a two-point increase from 2020. Third, the UN comes after business in trust (trusted in 15 countries), but this trust has declined in 20 out of the 27 surveyed countries. As the UN works with and through governments, this is an interesting dynamic. Some national governments are less trusted than the UN (for instance, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico or Colombia) and association with these governments could lead to your reputation being diminished or your programmes losing credibility. We call this paradigm the “senior trust partner challenge”. At the same time, the UN’s association with governments which have higher levels of trust (such as Malaysia) could leverage further public recognition of your work.

It is extremely interesting that people trust businesses more than other institutions. What exactly are they trusting? Is there any classification of the type of businesses that people trust? Does this vary between countries?

YK: The main reason that people chose business in the midst of the current crisis is that businesses are perceived to be institutions that could be agents of positive change and that can actually act. They are seen as both ethical and competent. Our previous barometer, which collected information at the beginning of the pandemic, saw an increase in trust in governments as people believed that governments would be able to respond effectively to the crisis. However, this has not materialized and people are now looking for competent doers, which they perceive to be businesses. There are some variations across countries, but in 18 out of 27 countries, businesses are more trusted than government and across all 27 countries business is most trusted overall. There are also variations across sectors, with social media companies among the least trusted, compared, for instance, with the health care industry.

In addition, 76% of people trust their employer to do what’s right, showing how the employer-employee relationship is a special one. After all, it is a personal relationship, consistently present in one’s daily life and employees see themselves as having leverage over their employers. Employers have money, connections and power, and it is unlikely that an employee will have any other relationship in their lives with such resources. People also believe that their purchasing power, their ability to “vote with a dollar” is a testimony to business’ increased accountability. This puts employers in a unique position to give trustworthy information, reassure employees about the future and enact positive changes. Pressure is now on businesses to perform and deliver on promises and commitments of a “multi-stakeholder economy”. At the same time, for organizations such as UNICEF, there is an even greater opportunity to partner with businesses to improve trust and to help solve the most critical societal problems we discussed earlier. 

Group of children run wearing UNICEF backpacks.
Children received new UNICEF school backpacks in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

The Trust Barometer also reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of all sorts of media. Could you elaborate on that?

YK: We are in the midst of an “info-demic”. It has become so extreme that we believe the world is in information bankruptcy. Our information ecosystem is structurally unsound, built on a flawed business model which monetizes attention. It is unable to meet its basic obligation of allowing a free exchange of information, dialogue and facts that other institutions can check. This notion that the information ecosystem has been compromised by bad actors, however, is not new. We have been asking people for several years if they are worried about fake news being used as a weapon and this has been a continuing concern of approximately 7 out of 10 people. But, until recently, the assumption was that those “weaponizers” of fake news were largely outside actors, in some distant country, creating viruses, deploying bots. What we have seen now is that misinformation is largely a home-grown phenomenon. As a result of this, people are worried that their government leaders are purposely misleading them. And one of the most dire consequences of this info-demic is the severe polarization in many countries in the world, creating a divergence of realities that seems almost impossible to reconcile. People are not only believing in wrong facts but a whole alternative reality is being created, with facts not supported by mainstream science or by mainstream media, and not subjected to checks by authorities and experts. Not surprisingly, trust across all information media is at a record low. This is a very big challenge for organizations such as ours and for our communication experts.

Compounding this situation is the fact that the vast majority of people don’t know how to manage what we call their “information lives”. With the Barometer, we measured the degree to which the respondents practice good information hygiene, which we define as 1) engaging with news sources in order to keep oneself informed 2) avoiding information echo chambers 3) verifying if the information they are consuming is accurate 4) vetting the information and content before sharing it. Only 26% of all respondents practice good information hygiene, which we define as scoring well in any 3 of the 4 dimensions. This is not a very high standard to begin with. The most problematic finding is that, among the 57% of people who are actually reporting that they regularly share information and forward news, otherwise known as “amplifiers”, only 1 in 3 practices good information hygiene. This means that a significant amount of unverified and unvetted information has been pushed out there by people we know, without being verified, and being consumed at mass. We call these amplifiers, who fail to vet information they share, “super-spreaders” of the info-demic. Given the state of information hygiene globally, UNICEF has an important role to play, especially when you think about children and the need to help them become critical thinkers, and to be able to access and digest information.

What do you think are the key messages we as UNICEF should retain from these findings?

YK: I think there are four main implications of these findings on which UNICEF should focus. First, trust is local. Acknowledge that the dynamics of trust in institutions are nuanced and build strategies that consider the unique local state of trust. Second, your messenger matters. As the info-demic persists, it’s more critical than ever to reach key audiences via trusted stakeholders, channels and messages. Third, create data to build a trusted dialogue. Beyond meeting your audience with the right message at the right time, establish engaging feedback loops, that create data you can respond to and leverage to build deeper relationships. Data is an opportunity for us to create empathy, which in turn is relevant to people and help them have more relevant conversations. Empathy builds trust, trust builds more data, data builds more empathy, creating a virtuous cycle. And finally, all eyes are on businesses. Businesses are being called to meet an expanded mandate, so you should be proactive in engaging in private sector partnerships, also because employees are key gateways to trust.  This is an opportunity for organizations such as UNICEF to bring together government, businesses and NGOs to amplify your messages and expand the impact of your work.

> Read Edelman Trust Barometer


Yanni Kotziagkiaouridis

Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis is the Global Chief Data & Analytics Officer at Edelman. He has based his 20-year career on the fundamental principle that data can help brands build stronger relationships with people. Prior to joining Edelman, Yannis was the Global Chief Analytics Officer at Wunderman Thompson. @EdelmanDxI

1. The 2021 Barometer collected data online in 28 countries, with more than 33,000 respondents aged 25 to 64 years old, between October and November 2020.