Trust in major institutions, media, business, CEOs, government and social (to name a few) has sunk to an all-time low since Edelman started publishing its annual Trust Barometer in 2012.

CEO credibility dropped 12 points globally to an all-time low of 37% (2017 Edelman Trust Barometer)

People now see media as the elite and find others, like you and me, as credible about a company as company representatives and even more credible than the CEO. Has the dawn for an even stronger wave of influencer marketing and thought leadership efforts arrived?

Not so fast. Distrust sits deep and in today’s systematic usage of influencer marketing and thought leadership there are major challenges. It’s big business, it’s more about the personal brand and ego than about people and in many cases it has become a goal as such. Moreover, employees are all too often – again – left out of the equation.

Thought leadership and influence used to be something you earned, based upon a mix of authenticity, transparency, true listening/understanding, relevance, utility, sound and honest advice and trustworthiness in word, promise and deed.

The obsession with influence and thought leadership has gone too far – people and credibility first

Distrust has ruled for several years, with slight improvements over the past years in some areas. In the mean time we saw the obsession over thought leadership and social influence grow beyond belief.

Trust in traditional media fell 5 points to 57% the steepest decline among platforms since 2012, followed by social media (41%), which dropped three points.

Thought leadership and social influence, along with all the tools that “measure” it, using old-fashioned parameters such as social activity around a topic, have become a big industry.

While we have nothing against genuine thought leadership and the aim to become an influencer in this influence-obsessed world as such, we have major problems with how networks of influence work and how thought leadership and influence have become goals rather than means to serve and help customers and people.

Social influence and thought leadership is big business because it’s easy for companies to buy it and to use the ‘socially influential’ as a replacement of their good old mass communication ‘WeWe’ traditions and channels.

Reputation for sale

Yes, you read that right: influence and thought leadership have become the merchandise of PR ‘experts’ and marketers, while influencers have become the new push marketing, even if their methods now revolve around other approaches.

Respondents favor search engines (59%) over human editors (41%) (2017 Edelman Trust Barometer)

We’ll cover the difference between genuine thought leadership and the current influence craze – once more – soon with some eye-opening facts about some ways influencer marketing is done and how networks of influencers are built.

How buying links on and many others is now a big business. How we are de facto far too often back to PR 1.0. How we trust our credibility more to external influencers, putting reputation for sale, instead of even listening to our own employees. And more.

People feel it’s not about them anymore

Why this harsh and, admittedly somewhat black and white judgment? First of all because we speak facts. Secondly, because people are not stupid. They start seeing mechanisms, self-serving nonsense and the madness of influencer marketing and thought leadership in 2017.

No action is more integral to building trust than treating employees well, and employees are also the most credible spokespeople on every aspect of a company’s business (Kathryn Beiser, Edelman)

It is not about them anymore. It is not about genuine value and trustworthiness but about the right amount of cash and the right networks and click-bait influencer platforms.

Again, as such: all fine. One deserves to monetize whatever one has built. And you can’t really blame those marketers that massively use the ego and visibility of others to blast their messages. Yet, you also can’t blame people who care about trust and transparency.

In 2016 we wrote about how trust is further eroding in a dramatic year on many levels and how we were looking forward to see the impact of it all in the next edition for the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Well, the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer is here and essentially it says that trust in all four key institutions (business, government, NGOs and media) has broadly declined. It’s the first time ever Edelman sees this happening since its first Trust Barometer in 2012. In one word: Mayday!

Businesses can restore trust but need to rethink the ‘how’

The task of any business and marketer should not be to build influence and thought leadership. It should be to reconsider how it is doing that today and focus on – once again – restoring trust.

They do have an opportunity for doing so. As Edelman’s Kathryn Beiser puts it: “Business is the last retaining wall for trust. Its leaders must step up on the issues that matter for society.

However, that doesn’t mean that all is good for business. As said, CEO credibility is at the lowest level ever. And, no that won’t change with the current ways of influence. Moreover, bad news for that social influence dimension: trust in social media strongly declined (and in media overall even more).

To quote from the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer landing page: “To rebuild trust and restore faith in the system, institutions must step outside of their traditional roles and work toward a new, more integrated operating model that puts people — and the addressing of their fears — at the center of everything they do.”

It’s up to you to decide what the best ways to achieve this are. With ‘WeWe’ messages and keep going for thought leadership and influencer marketing as it has become today? Or focus on real credibility in an age where people have more trust in their networks of peers than in any institution or role? And betting on the most credible people in your organization: your employees?

The 2017 Trust Barometer reflects a public that is eager for increased regulation on business, whose fears about the future are fueled by business’ very actions.

The presentation with the results of the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer below says ‘the system is broken’. We add: when it boils down to how we leverage influence as the new propaganda the system is rigged. You won’t feel it too much in 2017. But you will feel it soon enough.

Guess what a fundamental step is. Listening and engaging employees as the most credible spokespeople.

Wasn’t that what thought leadership was all about to begin with? Not hiring external thought leaders but bringing out the best in your employees so they become trusted advisors, which is probably the slowest but strongest path towards thought leadership and influence at the human scale of genuinely interacting?

Guess what a second key step is (watch the video below). Institutions from governments to enterprises, speaking the truth about anything from automation to globalization and the fears people have instead of your traditional hype. And that takes people who KNOW that truth inside-out and aren’t scared to share and debate it. True, it’s a rare species nowadays, it used to be the media and it certainly aren’t paid influencers who go for the ratings (what else is social influence?) instead of being the watchdogs.

Trust and credibility also put people and their fears and concerns at the center. All the rest is throwing money away. So, review your current media, influencer marketing and comms approaches, each times asking ‘how does this put the people I want to engage with on a credible level at the center’.

You’ll be surprised by the results. If trust is in such a bad shape, disruption is ahead, also in how you communicate and leverage influencers. Trust us.

More about the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer (and sources of quotes):

Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: Lane V. Erickson – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.