For the first time in 20 years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has found that government is the most trusted of any public or private institution, owing to the COVID-19 crisis. Sixty-five percent of the 13,000 people Edelman surveyed across eleven countries expressed trust in government, reversing a decade of consistently lower scores. Even in this country, where the federal government’s response to the pandemic has left much to be desired, 48% of those questioned expressed trust in government, though the question did not specify whether respondents were focused on state, local, or federal leaders.
Among the factors contributing to this reversal in many of the countries surveyed are the speed of the lockdowns, the extraordinary responses of health care and other front-line workers, and the quick provision of emergency government funding to the unemployed and to smaller businesses. Richard Edelman, CEO of one of the world’s largest public relations firms, explained this reversal saying, “faced with one of the biggest health and financial crises in history, people are turning to government for leadership and hope.”
But as we now move into the second phase of this crisis, reckoning with the challenges of reopening and rebuilding the economy, people are likely to focus greater attention on the business community. While corporate leaders have generally fared well in the Edelman surveys over the years, Edelman and his team call this a “moment of reckoning” for business. Only a little more than one-third of individuals surveyed said that businesses are doing well or very well in putting people ahead of profits, in helping their smaller suppliers and business customers stay afloat by extending them credit, or in protecting the jobs of their employees.
These numbers should serve as a wake-up call to business leaders as they grapple with the massive economic upheaval that the pandemic has unleashed. As countries seek to rebuild their economies, corporate leaders will be in the hot seat, juggling their companies’ own fortunes, and their obligations to employees, business partners, customers, investors, and society at large. They will also face difficult daily choices about when and how they should open for business and how they should treat global supplier. In each instance they will have to balance their bottom line against health, safety, and other public priorities. As the Edelman report rightly points out, in industries ranging from technology to farming and manufacturing, “business is being called upon to demonstrate both its ability and integrity—the key building blocks of trust.”
Three key principles should guide the response of these business leaders in the weeks and months ahead. First, health and safety must remain our number one priority. Even at the cost of a slower economic recovery, saving lives is paramount and in our best economic interest in the longer term. Two-thirds of respondents in the Edelman survey prioritized saving lives over saving jobs. Business leaders need to reinforce this message and do so publicly.
Second, businesses and governments need to work together in fighting the pandemic, building on a range of exemplary collaborations that are already taking place. Businesses still have an indispensable role to play in producing protective equipment, and developing, manufacturing and delivering reliable tests, both to determine who has the virus and who has immunity. Drug companies need to fast track drugs, like remdesivir, that seem to mitigate the effects of the virus. Gilead’s commitment to donate the entirety of their supply of the drug, around 1.5 million vials, is an admirable model of business leadership. Ultimately a strong government-business collaboration will be essential in developing, testing, and mass-producing an effective vaccine. But forging these partnerships cannot wait until a vaccine is ready – businesses and governments must expand their collaboration now.
Third, business leaders more generally need to demonstrate public leadership, giving meaning to the still amorphous concept of stakeholder capitalism. This is a moment for them to reexamine their pre-coronavirus business models that all too often leave workers vulnerable by pursuing strategies like automation and outsourcing without necessary oversight and management of the downsides. Companies must reckon with what they can do to address these challenges now. If, as some are suggesting, this is the new normal, let it be a time when business leaders seize the moment to reinvent themselves and their companies in ways that benefit both their business interests and those of society.