Rethinking public affairs amid 'the lack of trust in government' - Edelman president

Edelman president Matthew Harrington on the depletion of public trust and the shifting power dynamic between organisations and stakeholders.

Organisations have had to undergo a shift in employee and stakeholder relationships especially at a time where scrutiny on social and political issues is rife.

Matthew Harrington, global president and COO at Edelman (pictured below), tells PRWeek Asia that businesses and governments need to come together to work on these issues.

"The lack of trust in government is difficult when we think about how to advance issues around social or economic inequality. Businesses can't solve all of that on their own. Government does need to actually be engaged in constructive engagement with business. Together, they can address some of those issues like the rescaling of the workplace and the advancing of pay equity – things of that nature," he says.

"We have to help clients understand the dynamic nature of trust and the degree to which they need to build trust with all of their stakeholders in a kind of a virtuous circle perspective – and that's the big shift these days."

Despite a general decrease of public trust in government, Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer showed that not all markets reflected this. Singapore and China, for instance, showed an increase in trust.

"As we've studied, it's been two years running that China has had the greatest trust amongst its population," says Harrington.

"And I do believe that it [shows the] understanding of the importance of a central government to advancing society. [China] is migrating from being agrarian to a middle-class consumer society, and the economic power of the last generation is in large measure because of the concentration of a central government."

Change is also in the air when it comes to employer-employee relationships. Harrington says that "employees have enormous trust in their employer, but they expect their employer to help them navigate the changing marketplace". This is especially true in the age of purpose, where people expect brands to clearly define their values.

"They want rescaling, and they want training and development that makes them future-proof. They want agency or empowerment. They want to engage and commit and give back to the community. And then they want the company itself to have a set of values and a sense of purpose that also is reflected back into the community," he says.

Harrington points out that 10 or 15 years ago, companies were expected to track their CSR initiatives such as carbon footprint, or a better handling of labour. While the initiatives were more distinctive before, organisations must now integrate their values in a more seamless way.

"We're moving into a place where businesses recognise they have to be integrated, and be a genuine virtuous circle, as opposed to having stark lines between the stakeholders and the way in which the company operates," he says.

"Unilever is one of the companies that was early on the journey and is now the model of the way forward. The degree to which they expect every brand to have purpose ladders up to the company and how they show up in the world. It is all part of one approach – highly integrated."

This paradigm shift in public affairs has also led to a change in dynamic between organisations and stakeholders.

"I don’t know that it’s shifted permanently in a direction one way or the other – but the power dynamic is more fluid. Our Trust Barometer has definitely called out the ‘reversal’ of the pyramid of authority. So it’s no longer as simple as having a top tier of influences and authority," says Harrington.

"In a lot of instances, people now have a stronger voice. You see more street action in the last couple of years, with protests in France and Hong Kong. There’s a moment now where citizens want to have a voice and are taking that voice to the street."

Matthew Harrington

Harrington cites Microsoft as a model organisation where this shifting power dynamic and the changing definitions of authority have been cleverly navigated.

"It starts at the top with the CEO, and Satya Nadella models the pillars of what we think is necessary. One is leading on change; he is listening carefully to his employee population and helping them be future-proof to work through talent development and training. He's absolutely operating with a community and local mindset. It's not all global; it's also been local," he says.

"And I think it's the leadership that he sets himself and the tone he takes – highly engaged, authentic, and being quite open about how he leads as he talks about being an empathetic leader. And I think it's caused connectivity with the employee population, as well as with the customer community, and you can't argue with the share performance of Microsoft because it's done extraordinarily well since he took over as CEO."

On what he predicts to be a challenge for public affairs in the future, Harrington says that there will be ongoing concerns relative to tariffs and economic policies against a backdrop of rising nationalism.

He says: "It’s making life complicated for those who are running multinational businesses. The environment that we've experienced over the last year or two… there's no reason to believe that pendulum is going to swing back terribly quickly."

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