Do we trust our businesses, our institutions? Do we trust the media, our NGOs and government?

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer, launched at Davos 2016, has found that trust levels among the informed public, who make up some 15% of the people surveyed, are at their highest in 16 years.

However, there is an increasing divide between the informed public and everyone else. While trust of institutions is at its highest level in 16 years among the informed public, it's below 50% among the rest of the population. This holds true for over 60% of the countries surveyed.

The report notes a global trend of rising “trust inequality”, which, it argues, brings with it a shift of influence into the hands of the mass population.

The role of business

However, there is one area that has gained increased trust across the divide. In 2016, the business sector recorded a larger gain in trust among the whole population than any other institution. The report points out that this puts companies in a unique position to help close the trust gap.

But this isn't happening through business as usual. According to the report, 80% of people agree that it’s up to the private sector to take the lead in solving societal issues. This will involve a new model of leadership, one that takes into account balancing profits with tackling society’s problems.

How to bridge the gap

The report recommends four areas in which business leaders can play a key part in bridging the trust gap:

1. Action

Business leaders should focus less on short-term financial results and more on making a long-term impact. Decisions about increasing profits must take into account the community in which they operate. CEOs should ask themselves: “Will this improve social and economic conditions?”

Of course, the issues depend on the geography in which the business operates, but they include access to education and training, supporting human and civil rights, or adding to and improving infrastructure and healthcare.

2. Values

Business leaders must talk about themselves more and about what they believe in and what drives them. They need to be able to explain what their personal values are and how their business reflects them. Above all, they must be honest and ethical.

3. Employee advocacy

An employee is the most trusted spokesman for any business. Companies that get involved in tackling societal issues are more trusted by their employees, and thus more likely to have employees who act as company advocates.

4. Engagement

And finally, in a world in which search engines are among the most trusted sources of information, businesses have to explore every avenue of engaging with their customers, in ways that go beyond the traditional boundaries.

“Business can be a big part of the solution because it is apolitical, fast and tracks its progress," says a spokesperson for Edelman, Kathryn Beiser. “Now is the time (for businesses) to lead from the front with the support of their employees and passionate customers. No longer can business leaders focus on short-term goals.

“The new model CEOs are taking action by addressing the issues of our time, and taking a personal interest in the success of society.

“Stakeholders expect business to have a solid and steady focus on financial returns, but also on actions around key issues such as education, healthcare and the environment.”

The Annual Meeting took place in Davos from 20 to 23 January, under the theme Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.