Outsiders sometimes perceive public relations professionals as used car salesmen willing to hype any cause or product.
Folks in the business know that the truth works better than spin, especially in an age of cynicism about business and government.
So, how about making PR the driving force in shaping organizations for the good?
“In advising on the what to do, we have to act as the corporate conscience,” said Richard Edelman, chairman of the board of DJE Holdings and president and chief executive of Edelman
, told an audience of communicators.
Speaking at the International Association of Business Communicators
world conference in New York this week, Edelman urged PR professionals to make it their job to advise organizations not just about communications, but about how to behave ethically and transparently.
Edelman heads the world’s largest public relations firm, with 67 offices and 4,800 employees worldwide.
The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer
, a survey of 31,000 respondents in 26 countries, shows a dramatic decline in trust since 2008, Edelman says.
Eighty percent of people believe government is inept or corrupt, and 50 percent believe businesses are unethical. “This is a pretty staggering state of affairs,” he said. Only 20 percent of people believe that a business leader will tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue.
Chatter about how great your organization is doesn’t cut it anymore. He cited one PR executive who said public perception of an organization is influenced 90 percent by what it does, and only 10 percent by what it says.
“Too often we have accepted the role of the 10 percent,” he said. “We’ve only influenced how we communicate. It’s not good enough anymore, ladies and gentlemen.”
Edelman echoed the conclusions of the survey: Only 18 percent of people trust business leaders and only 13 percent trust government leaders to tell the truth, it concluded.
“Ultimately, the 13th annual Edelman Trust Barometer shows a crisis of leadership,” the company states in a video summary
[RELATED: Hear how top companies adapted to the digital PR industry changes at this August event.]
The company calls for a new model: Business leaders still communicate from the top down, but employees, consumers, and social activists speak out and change the conversation, with news from the few to the many.
“I believe that we have to expand from public relations to public engagement,” Edelman told his IABC audience. “It is now about advising on a company’s behavior, strengthening relationships across the entire stakeholder universe, and making sure that we build trust.”
Each of you, he said to the attendees, can change the supply chain or boost sustainability. Meeting the minimum legal standards isn’t what the public wants nowadays. They want companies to operate at a higher level.
“That means that you serve not only the interests of your shareholders, but the interests of society,” Edelman said. “We have to help companies operate on the basis of principles, not just by obeying laws. Compliance is no longer enough.”
Engagement that builds trust
He cited the software company Adobe. When it launches a product, it beta-tests it with its Facebook community, giving people a link to software and involving the public in development.
“They get early feedback from passionate consumers who then publically blog about it and say, ‘I like this feature,’ or, ‘I hate this feature,’” Edelman said. “When the product is introduced, it’s already been road-tested.”
He also cited GE’s participation in conversation with employees and employees. Its Ideas Lab
brings in respected outside contributors, as well as employees involved in areas ranging from turbines to intellectual property.
Edelman predicts a shift to radical corporate transparency, so that a shopper buying a fish could scan the code with a smartphone and find out where the fish was caught, whether it was raised sustainably, and even who the fisherman was. (This is already happening in Germany, he said.)
Edelman’s remarks rang true with several members of his audience.
Joanne John, director general of communications and marketing for Natural Resources Canada
, a federal agency, said her organization deals with matters such as the Alberta oil sands. These fields would be the source for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed project that would pump crude oil 1,179 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb.
Communicators must present such issues transparently to the public and to their own employees, she said.
“We have to be able to explain what we do in order to reassure Canadians that we’re not doing anything that’s not in their best interest, that we’re trying to do it in a sustainable way for the environment,” Johns said.
Anna Wingard, a senior graphic designer at CDM Smith, sees a generational difference in employees’ demands for greater trust and transparency. For millennials and others entering the workforce, the goal of becoming the conscience of an organization doesn’t sound unrealistic or beyond reach.
“They want to make a difference,” Wingard said. “They don’t just want to pop in and pop out. They want to work somewhere where they know they’re really making a positive change.”
Russell Working is a staff writer at Ragan Communications.