Global opinion leaders say their most credible source of information about a company is now “a person like me.” Peers are now trusted more than doctors and academic experts for the first time, according to the seventh annual Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of almost 2,000 opinion leaders in 11 countries. In the U.S., trust in “a person like me” increased from 20 percent in 2003 to 68 percent today.

Opinion leaders also consider rank-and-file employees more credible spokespersons than corporate CEOs (42 percent vs. 28 percent in the U.S.).

“We have reached an important juncture, where the lack of trust in established institutions and figures of authority has motivated people to trust their peers as the best sources of information about a company,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO. “Companies need to move away from sole reliance on top-down messages delivered to elites toward fostering peer-to-peer dialogue among consumers and employees, activating a company’s most credible advocates.”

Television is the big loser in media trustworthiness with the rise of the Internet. When asked where they turn first for trustworthy information, 29 percent of respondents in the U.S. still cite TV first, down from 39 percent three years ago.  The Internet is now cited by 19 percent, up from 10 percent in 2003.  The same trend is evident in the U.K., where television has declined from 42 percent to 33 percent as respondents’ first choice, while the Internet has risen from 5 percent to 15 percent. 

Newspapers, which are often thought to be the most serious casualty of the Internet wave, show rankings essentially unchanged in most markets at approximately 20 percent. Newspapers remain the first trusted medium of choice for respondents in France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Korea, and Italy.

“Articles in business magazines” are the most credible source of information about a company (US 66 percent; Canada 53 percent; Brazil 75 percent; Europe 60 percent), followed closely by “friends and family,” which has grown very strongly in the U.S. (35 percent to 58 percent since 2003); Brazil (66 percent to 73 percent) and Canada (43 percent to 58 percent).

Trust in companies has important bottom-line consequences. In most markets, more than 80 percent say they would refuse to buy goods or services from a company they do not trust, and more than 70 percent will “criticize them to people they know,” with one-third sharing their opinions and experiences of a distrusted company on the Web.

Microsoft Corporation was named the most trusted global company, followed by iconic companies in their home markets, including Toyota in Japan, Haier in China, Samsung in South Korea, and Petrobras in Brazil. 

This year’s survey also assesses the impact on trust of a company’s national origin, industry sector, behaviors and communications policies. It found that opinion leaders in Europe apply a significant “trust discount” for major U.S. brands, such as Coca-Cola (65 percent in the U.S. compared to 41 percent in Europe); McDonalds (51 percent vs. 30 percent); P&G (70 percent vs. 44 percent); and UPS (84 percent vs. 53 percent). There is no equivalent “trust discount” for non-American global brands operating in the U.S. or any other market, with the exception of Japanese brands in China. 

Western based companies continue to make big strides in winning trust in the Chinese market. Big gainers this year included Citigroup, Procter & Gamble, Shell, Unilever and UPS, all now rated trustworthy by more than 75 percent of Chinese respondents, and up from under 50 percent two years ago.

Companies in the technology and retail sectors are the most trusted, while energy and media-entertainment are the least-trusted industries.  Pharmaceutical concerns face considerable skepticism in the U.S. and Germany, while financial firms fare much better in the U.S. and Asia than in Europe.

Trust in institutions overall is lowest in Germany and France, and highest in China, Brazil and the U.S. Business was trusted by only 33 percent of respondents in Germany, and only 28 percent in France, compared to 45 percent in Spain, 51 percent in Italy and 53 percent in the U.K.

Government is the least-trusted institution in Brazil, Spain, Germany, and South Korea, and remains low in the U.S. (38 percent), U.K. (33 percent), France (32 percent), and Canada (36 percent). It has increased in China (83 percent, up from 63 percent last year) and Japan (66 percent, up from 43 percent). Trust in media is low across all countries except for China (73 percent) and South Korea (49 percent).

Trust in non-governmental organizations, which have consistently been the most-trusted institutions in Europe during the six years that the survey has been conducted, has steadily increased in the U.S. (up from 36 percent in 2001 to 54 percent); and increased significantly in the last 12 months in Canada (45 percent last year to 57 percent) and Japan (43 percent last year to 66 percent).

NGOs are now the most-trusted institution in every market except Japan and Brazil. The widespread rise in trust of NGOs has now extended to Asia, especially in China, where ratings went from 36 percent to 60 percent in last 12 months.

“Trust is the key objective for global companies today because it underpins corporate reputation and gives them license to operate,” said Michael Deaver, vice chairman of Edelman. “To build trust, companies need to localize communications, be transparent, and engage multiple stakeholders continuously as advocates across a broad array of communications channels.