The world’s biggest PR firm claims to be an expert on trust – but is it? | Davos

AhAt the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, public relations maestro Edelman launched an annual survey aimed at measuring whether people around the world trust businesses, governments, NGOs and the media. We are pleased to announce the latest version of our Trust Barometer. .

There is just one problem. Critics say the company appears reluctant to follow its own advice, even as Edelman promotes its brand and pursues clients with stern warnings about the importance of trust. blaming. The company’s clients range from ExxonMobil to the Saudi government to members of the Sackler family, former owners of opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma.

“Trust is my legacy to the PR industry,” wrote company CEO Richard Edelman in a 2021 blog post, questioning his success in associating his company with the concept. No room.

Edelman has published the Trust Barometer annually since 2000. At an elite gathering in Davos last year, one speaker described the survey as “the world’s leading indicator of trust in institutions.” It is constantly cited by companies and their executives, and has certainly earned Edelman prominent mentions in influential media, from The Financial Times to The Economist to The New York Times.

Edelman has “successfully established itself as a pioneer of trust,” said Christine Arena, a PR expert who left Edelman in 2014 because of a job with a fossil fuel company. Testified before a US House subcommittee hearing about how PR firms have thwarted climate change. Legislation. “This is an attractive proposition for many clients looking to build trust.”

In an emailed statement to The Guardian, an Edelman spokesperson said the study was “recognized as one of the leading studies on trust.” “Our goal has always been to enable businesses and other institutions to navigate complex environments and communicate effectively with all stakeholders.”

When Edelman unveils the new edition of its trust barometer in Davos next week, it will likely highlight the research the company has been pushing for years. In other words, companies are the most trusted institutions in society. At the World Economic Forum, Richard Edelman wrote earlier this month, “I will again have a bully’s pulpit to tell business that it must continue to lead on social issues.”

Edelman’s website calls trust “the ultimate currency.” For Edelman, trust has certainly proven valuable. Last February, Richard Edelman attributed part of the company’s recent financial success to the publication of his 10 Trust Barometer report and “trust-based media buying.” In an interview in June, he predicted that “trust tools could potentially be very big business for us.”

Edelman’s steady stream of trust publications and events, and branded initiatives like The Trust Institute, a think tank that publishes corporate research, complement the company’s aura of expertise on the topic. “We know when and how to use it and how to create strategic opportunities to maximize trust,” said one of the “core solutions” the company sells to clients. Read the promises on the Edelman Trust Management landing page (see Edelman Net Trust Score and Edelman Trust Management Studies).

“The only thing they can show potential clients is, ‘We helped these companies transition to a better place in a more trusted society. We will do the same for you.’ “They are … trust specialists because trust is the finish line of any PR campaign.”

Richard Edelman in June 2018. Photo: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Melissa Aronczyk, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University, has studied how successful PR firms don’t just advertise and advertise, they actually imbue their clients’ perspectives into public discourse. . “What happens in the end [is that] These companies not only manage trust, make Trust me,” Aronczyk said. “And if they themselves are the owners of that survey, barometer, or whatever it is, then of course they become owners of that kind of value.”

To demonstrate this value to customers, Edelman’s most effective case study may be the company itself. The company’s business model often seems to go against the company’s advice and the advice of its CEO, yet it has managed to build a reputation of trust. Last month, for example, The Guardian revealed that over the past four years, Edelman had signed contracts worth about $9.6 million with companies under the control of the Saudi government and regime, while also encouraging them to stand up for human rights. Did.

But climate change remains the issue where Edelman’s public stance differs most dramatically from how the company makes money. Edelman executives frequently plead with companies to lead the global response to climate change. Richard Edelman called climate change “the greatest crisis we face as a society” and declared that “we think very carefully about which businesses we work for”.

Over the years, these companies have included ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, the pro-coal National Mining Association, and the American Petroleum Institute (API), a lobbying group of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. Edelman’s work on his API has proven particularly lucrative, with the PR firm making about $440 million in profits since 2008. Energy Citizens, the artificial turf group Edelman helped launch his API, contributed to the defeat of the climate change initiative in Congress. According to one study, between 1989 and his 2020, Edelman conducted at least 60 “engagements” for oil, gas, coal, steel and rail clients. That’s more than any other PR firm.

In 2019, Edelman won the PR industry award for the “We Make Progress” campaign he developed for American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), a fossil fuel lobbying group that some oil giants, including Shell and BP, have canceled. was awarded. As reported by BuzzFeed News, Membership.The award rewards Edelman with “multimedia advertising to increase brand awareness, likeability and trust among his AFPM audience in his area of ​​the Washington DC Metro.” campaign,” he praised. The climate newsletter Heated, which first reported on the AFPM campaign, calculated that Edelman made at least $20 million from the group’s work.

At a recent event about the company’s “Special Report” on “Trust and Climate Change,” Richard Edelman lamented that “governments lack the will to pass tough laws that force change in business.” rice field. “It’s too hard to find reliable information,” Edelman said later in the event on climate change. “The business must be the central base of its information.”

The CEO didn’t mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of work his company has done for fossil fuel customers. “I believe in the energy industry, I think they are making the transition,” he told his Axios in November 2021. I am proud of our work. In a company statement to The Guardian, an Edelman spokesperson said, “We are committed to being the agency of choice for organizations dedicated to combating climate change.”

Last January, in response to employee and external criticism of the company’s commitment to the oil and gas industry, Edelman mandated that all employees undergo “climate change communications training” and introduced a “climate announced a series of initiatives, including the creation of an independent council on Expert. “It made no promises to stop work for the fossil fuel industry.

Since then, Edelman has “parted ways with clients, turned down certain new opportunities, and established ongoing follow-up and review of some assignments,” a company spokesperson said. We don’t talk about our clients or previous client assignments, but we have a process for evaluating engagement and are committed to continuing to drive change through communication.”

Alina, a former Edelman executive, said, “What you want to do if you’re under attack is to deflect blame and promote the wrong solution. Just like you’re solving a real driving problem.” “Edelman practices some of the tactics and strategies we know have helped clients perform.”

After examining the oil and gas contract, Edelman ultimately concluded that the downside was not the job itself, but how it was described. Richard Edelman told the Financial Times “We’ve never gotten the facts wrong,” he said. “But what we found was the lack of context.”

This distinction between how companies make money and how companies talk about how they make money lies at the heart of Edelman’s decades-long campaign of trust.

World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, who will host Richard Edelman and other corporate leaders at the Davos meeting next week, said in a 2014 op-ed that the public trust monetization of the elite was the most unpopular. I could have summed it up with transparency. Schwab applauded the fact that “companies are acting more and more socially responsible”, but the real message was in the article’s headline, “Trust Profitability.”

Allison Taylor, Professor of Corporate Responsibility and Ethics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said: “What is called ‘trust’ here is not ‘trust’ in any kind of academic understanding. This is reputation. “

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