PRWeek.com Q&A: Richard Edelman

PRWeek.com talked to Edelman CEO Richard Edelman about the agency's sixth annual trust barometer survey while Edelman was on his way to the World Economic Forum at Davos, where business and cultural elites such as Bono, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dell were meeting to discuss the future of civilization, business, and technology.

PRWeek.com talked to Edelman CEO Richard Edelman about the agency's sixth annual trust barometer survey while Edelman was on his way to the World Economic Forum at Davos, where business and cultural elites such as Bono, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dell were meeting to discuss the future of civilization, business, and technology.

Edelman discussed how the survey further validated the importance of PR, what the responses said about the emerging technologies, and the continuing "trust discount" between the US and Europe. Q: Are you excited to be going to Davos? A: It's my sixth year. It's the greatest three or four days of my year. You get such an incredible infusion of new thinking, get to meet people, and I'm very excited about it. It's like going back to college. Q: With the trust barometer tackling so many different issues, why did you decide to highlight, via the survey's release, that trust was shifting from traditional authorities to peers? A: For years, we've seen that the traditional pyramid of influence, where you talk to opinion formers at the gentleman's club, is disintegrating because you have the democratization of media and trust issues with major institutions. This has now come to pass. It means that parts of PR - like employee communications - have become as important as investor relations or talking to The Wall Street Journal. Because if you don't talk to employees, they'll talk about their own story. Q: The survey also found that experts that didn't have a vested interest in the company were becoming more trusted as a source about that company. How do PR people use that to their advantage? A: We've used doctors and professors for spokespeople for years. This study also shows very clearly that public relations is ten times as important as advertising when it comes to building corporate reputation. It's much more credible. Q: Ninety percent of respondents trust information they receive from news stories more than information they receive from advertising, but the media had the lowest rating of organizations surveyed. Isn't there some disconnect there? A: It's a good point. They're critical of the media, but they rely on the media. The media is an imperfect institution, but they need it. Q: How would you advise your fellow PR professionals out there to build upon that theme of PR versus advertising? A: It's the sort of thing all of us should be aggressively trumpeting. We've got a better mousetrap, and it's time [for companies] to stop the obsession with spending 98% of your [marketing] money on advertising and start realizing that we offer a uniquely credible vehicle for reaching multiple stakeholders. All advertising can do is reach a single stakeholder: the consumer. But in the spheres of cross-influence, all of these stakeholder groups influence each other. If an employee says that a company's product is crap, then consumers aren't going to buy it. You have to talk to everyone, and we're a very effective vehicle for doing it. Q: NGOs were the most trusted type of organization. Do you think that PR professionals have done enough historically to reach these organizations? A: The smart companies' PR reps have done so. Unilever with the World Wildlife Fund; Kraft with the Rainforest Alliance; and Starbucks on sustainable coffee; all have done a great job. It's the job of the PR person to look more broadly now and realize that NGOs are the fifth estate. They are a serious force, along with the press. There are a few that are irreconcilably against business, but not every one of them is radical. Many of them are willing to be a so-called "loyal opposition." Q: There seems to be a continuance of the "trust discount" between the US and Europe where consumers of one don't like to buy products from the other. Is that something that is very real or overly politicized? A: It's real. At the base of it may be politics, but there's also a cultural difference. But both sides have a major incentive to make this work. The companies seem to have a better understanding of each other than the governments do. Maybe businesses should bridge that gap, and PR can play an important role in that. Q: There's a lot of talk that PR is becoming more of a global industry. Should PR professionals the look at what really unites countries that have differing opinions and focus on how to broach that relationship? A: That's a really important role for our business. We have to look for corporate social responsibility opportunities and philanthropy to bridge that gap. At the same time, you have to look at the data in the survey that indicates that the best PR is local. The media that people [consume the most] is local media, not global media. There are also really big differences in what works where. Philanthropy really works in the US and Brazil, but it's like the last thing [consumers demand] in Europe. You have to take a customized approach per market. You can't just say this approach works everywhere. Q: In four global issues - obesity, drug prices, outsourcing of jobs, and environmental pollution - business ranked as being the most responsible for all of those problems. Does that signify to you a greater need for companies to be open with their actions and engage in more CSR initiatives? A: It's important to look at the differences in the answers on those four issues. On obesity, only 50% of people found business very responsible [for the pandemic], when 93% felt [businesses were very responsible for] pollution. With obesity - and this was confirmed by another survey we did - most look at the individual [as responsible]. On pollution and outsourcing, a lot of [the blame] goes to companies. Q: The poll finds that the internet is gaining popularity as a trusted news source. Combined with the role of peers as trusted sources, does this confirm the blogging revolution? A: There's no question about it. The dialogue gives you the credibility and the recipient the sense that someone was listening. Blogging is a very big deal. Q: Three of the top four media outlets that were found to be the most credible were the cable networks. A lot of people have already cast aspersions on network news. Are more people going to tune into the outlets they feel best represent their views? And is that dangerous? A: We're living in a world of self-selection. If you talk to someone who watches Fox, they'll tell you that it is the only objective news source. But it's interesting to look at the international data: CBC and BBC are the most trusted source [in Canada and the UK, respectively]. It's interesting that CBS, NBC, and ABC didn't make the [final] list [in the US]. Q: What do you hope people take away from the results? A: I want them to understand the opportunities here for the PR business. The most credible sources are third-party sites. The need for localization is evident. It's a clear mandate for our business. That's the best news. It reinforces everything we've been saying about [marketing]. This democratization of information plays to the PR business. It proves the dialogue and relationship part of what we do matters.

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