Richard Edelman, the head of the world’s largest independent PR firm, set forth his vision for how corporations and governments can rebuild public trust this week during a talk at the Washington DC-based National Press Club.
Entitled “The Battleground Is Trust,” Edelman detailed a number of steps. The first, “collaborative journalism”, would involve companies opening up to civil society and other stakeholders on issues they have detailed knowledge of (Edelman gave examples of Walmart on China supply chain or GE on wind power, according to the Holmes Report), as well as cutting down on corporate speak. He also spoke about the need for companies to “create a platform for employees and customers to talk openly about your company or brand. Provide the ability to rate and review the business. Allow users to voice the good and the bad, permit self-criticism, and encourage open dialogue. Listen to what they say so you can improve your products.”
While it’s good to hear an industry leader talk about the need for transparency to rebuild trust, corporates have been slow to respond to customer engagement on social media platforms and review websites such as Glassdoor. There’s already enough appraisal data out there for organizations to filter. The question is whether they’re listening or not.
The bigger issue for me is the disparity in cultures and in organizational ownership. Take for example the Middle East region, or China. In contrast to the United States or Europe and the separation between government and business ownership, many of the largest companies in the Middle East and China are government-owned. Would they willing to engage in “collaborative journalism”, and opening up their internal workings to the public? Would governments in emerging markets be willing to listen to views on how their businesses are run, views which may be contrary to their own. And who would the collaborators be? Government-controlled media? Would this engender public trust?
The first step to building trust is to understand that context matters. While I appreciate that Edelman was addressing a US audience, the PR industry must do more to better grasp cultural nuances, and adapt its thinking appropriately to serve different geographies, governance models and civil societies.
The other big headline which came out of Edelman’s speech was the idea for a “PR Compact” and mandatory ethics training. These include four tenets:
1. Insist on accuracy. Check the facts. Don’t just accept what a client tells you as the truth. Get third-party validation and cite sources. Correct errors quickly.
2. Demand transparency. Press clients to disclose their financial interests in advocacy programs and to reveal their role in coalitions. Advocate for laws that require more transparency in communications. Report on non-financial metrics in supply chains and hiring practices.
3. Engage in the free and open exchange of ideas. Create platforms that encourage and empower informed public discourse. Tell both sides of the story, and allow for dissenting views. This benefits business, shareholders, and society.
4. Require everyone to take universal online ethics training. Everyone must learn the same best practices—what is right and what is not. Tie advancement and promotion to successful completion of the course. This training should be free and accessible to all.
As a member of a number of different industry associations, I adhere to the ethical codes which these associations espouse. However, context is also key. It’s no surprise that Bell Pottinger was undone by work undertaken not in London, but in South Africa, for an entity which has close ties to the South African government. Bell Pottinger was undone by the excellent work of the South African press. In other emerging markets there is no freedom of speech (and definitely no dissenting views). And there’s no way to advocate for laws that promote transparency.
For me, there’s an urgent need to promote ethics not just in London or Washington DC, but in the up-and-coming PR hubs in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It needs a coalition of associations who have members from every level of the industry, who are international in their nature, and who can oversee ethical guidelines that are both universal and contextually-appropriate. It’s no surprise to me why this hasn’t yet happened. But I do hope someone will have the courage to push for a global ethical conversation soon.