Heads of financial institutions did particularly poorly, mainly in richer countries that have suffered financial crises and fined banks for, among other things, manipulating markets and facilitating money-laundering.
The 2013 edition of the annual Edelman Trust Barometer found "a very significant crisis of leadership," said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Chicago-based public relations firm Edelman. "Leaders are just not seen as leading."
A big problem is that people think their leaders "just can't get around to telling them the truth," he said.
As a result, people are increasingly looking to other sources of information for the straight story about what's going on, such as academic experts or even their peers through social media and the Internet.
Edelman said one of the glaring results of the annual survey, released ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was that while 50 percent respondents trusted business in general to do what is right, only 18 percent trusted business leaders to tell the truth -- a 32-percentage point gap between the institution itself and the people in charge. Government didn't look much better, with 41 percent trusting government to do what's right but only 13 percent believing what
The overall share of people expressing trust in basic institutions rose in the survey from the 2012 edition, to 57 percent from 51 percent, as trust bounced back from the hit it took from the European debt crisis and disputes between President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress over the U.S. debt limit, which caused the U.S. to losing its top credit rating. Yet while institutions were recovering some lost trust, the view of the leaders of those institutions remained sour.
Edelman suggested that the result may have been influenced by prominent corporate political and financial scandals -- the investigation into alleged rigging by big banks of the London Interbank Offered Rate, an important interest rate benchmark, insider trading cases in the United States and Britain, and the scandal surrounding Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who faces trial on corruption charges.
Leaders' truthfulness score in the survey was "pretty pathetic," Edelman told the Associated Press in an interview.
The survey measured rising levels of trust for non-government organizations. "The trust is now being placed in an expert, such as an academic, or in a peer -- someone, your friends on Facebook, or whoever," he said. "The crisis of leadership is leading to people having a very different view of who they may listen to."
The online survey queried 31,000 people in 26 countries, and broke down results between the general population and a smaller sample of university-educated, higher income people dubbed members of the "informed public." It was conducted Nov. 10-15, so it preceded the many December news stories about whether Obama and Congress would agree on a budget deal to avoid the so-called 'fiscal cliff' of automatic tax increases and spending cuts on New Year's day. As it turned out, the two sides agreed on some issues and postponed others for two months.
Among the informed public group, 69 percent viewed an academic or expert as a credible spokesperson, while 61 percent looked to "a person like yourself." CEOs lagged at 43 percent among this group.
The most trusted business sector was technology, with a 77 percent credibility rate, while banks and financial services trailed with 50 percent -- just behind the news media, which polled 53 percent.
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