• Could COVID-19 Make Us Trust Our Institutions Again?

  • Long before COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan, China, there was in the United States a deep chasm between government and constituent, business and customer, and media and information consumer. This gulf is regularly gauged by the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual measure of how Americans look at the institutions charged with protecting us, profiting our economy to the benefit of our citizenry and keeping us informed.

    And while it’s easy to blame distrust in our institutions as a consequence of the present political environment, 20 years of Edelman surveys can attest that the seeds were planted long ago and the trust has eroded over successive administrations and Congresses, and across generations of CEOs and a multitude of nightly news anchors.

    This year’s Trust Barometer, published just as COVID-19 emerged in our country, concluded that our institutions needed to “embrace a new way of effectively building trust: balancing competence with ethical behavior.” As this global pandemic spreads across the world and runs its course, could a consistently competent and ethical response bring about a cessation to our lack of institutional trust? Maybe not fervent trust, but at least a tepid détente between us and them?

    Corporate business interests may have read the report because they are proactively moving to re-establish trust with their customers during this time. My inbox has been flooded with virus-related updates from Celebrity Cruises to Buffalo Wild Wings to DraftKings — all favorites of mine. Each brand is both sensitive to public perception and committed to showing leadership in the face of global uncertainty.

    In fact, many brands are making decisions that stand in opposition to their economic interest but that are squarely in the public’s health interest. This includes cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean offering a 125% cruise credit to passengers who cancel, airlines waiving change fees for those traveling to Europe and Asia, and pharmacy and food delivery services either canceling or deferring delivery fees and commissions. Short-term pain will hit their bottom lines, but the rapport built with customers could yield long-term loyalty.

    But what about government and the media? Government is expected to act in the interests of everyone, not only the few. And the media is expected to truthfully disseminate information while offering even-handed accountability. Are they keeping their end of the bargain?

    To do their part, The White House is holding near daily briefings with either the president or vice president alongside public health experts such as Hoosier Alex Azar, Hoosier Jerome Adams and Hoosier Seema Verma (I just like saying Hoosier over and over again). And national media outlets including CNN and Fox News are airing COVID-19 specials, with doctors and nurses explaining in full detail how to prevent contracting the virus and treat it if infected. So far, these two institutions are doing the jobs we expect them to do.

    Whether they ultimately succeed in reigniting trust in the relationship is still an open question, but we see how ripe this opportunity is for renewal by how quickly sports organizations, major events and every day Americans heeded the words and advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and suspended seasons, postponed conventions or implemented social distancing. Americans are craving guidance and are openly ready to respond to competence and ethical behavior.

    And that’s being reflected in polling, too. Already viewed more positively than the federal government, swift action by state and local governments produced high numbers of confidence in their ability to tackle this crisis in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

    According to the survey, “a combined 75% of all voters say they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in their state governments to deal with the outbreak.” Seventy-two percent have the same feelings for their local governments and 62% expressed confidence in the federal government. These numbers, at least nationally, may be filled more with hope than learned despair.

    To keep the momentum going, it’s time we listen to Rahm Emanuel and do our best to not let a serious crisis go to waste. This goes for government, business, media and the public. Competence requires coordination, therefore our institutions should join forces to form a competent and ethical army to fight the virus on multiple fronts.

    And as the NBA, MLB and NHL suspended their seasons, we the public should suspend our disbelief that business, government and the media is acting in our best interests. Nightmares of dogs and cats living together (mass hysteria!) aside, we still turn to the media for news and the media turns to government and business for answers.

    Presented here with COVID-19 is a once in a lifetime opportunity to mitigate loss through illness and prevent economic calamity, while also engendering the trust Americans should have in their institutions of public and private trust. When we look back on these trying weeks, we will either recall them as the time we reversed the damage of decades of neglect, or as the time we reinforced the damage and made it an irreparable reality.