✅ Edelman and the trust business
The public relations industry has an uneasy relationship with the Edelman Trust Barometer.
A lack of faith in societal institutions triggered by economic anxiety, disinformation, mass-class divide, and a failure of leadership has brought us to where we are today - deeply and dangerously polarised.
This is the headline from the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer. The consultancy suggests that business is the only institution seen as competent and ethical. Its advice to management is to help lift economic optimism and hold divisive forces accountable.
The public relations industry has an uneasy relationship with the Edelman Trust Barometer, launched in 2000. We use data and insights from the research as third-party evidence to demonstrate the need for public relations while at the same time criticising the consultancy behind the longitudinal research project.
Data collection and insight is a critical part of modern public relations practice and yet Edelman stands out for its investment in a research programme that informs practice. It’s a marketing and thought leadership exercise for the consultancy, of course, but it also has an impact in raising the profile of public relations among the business community.
Edelman uses Davos as a platform to disseminate the Trust Barometer. It’s the world’s largest global meeting of business leaders and politicians and a forum for conversations about global issues such as climate and societal inequality. There is no bigger platform to elevate public relations in management and yet this attracts criticism on multiple fronts. The attendees, location, format, and travel are seemingly incongruent with the topics under discussion.
Edelman for its part has repeatedly faced criticism in the past 12 months for failing to take a clear stance on work related to the climate crisis. In her upcoming book Deep Public Relations: After the Masquerade, Johanna Fawkes argues that the negative impact of public relations on human wellbeing is most visible in climate change discourse.
In January last year Edelman published a series of pledges to address the climate crisis but remains silent on any action related to high-emitting clients within its own portfolio. Transparency in both these areas would help Edelman build trust with the public relations industry.
The uneasy relationship of the Edelman Trust Barometer is not limited to public relations practice. Academic researchers call out the lack of literature review, peer review, and raise ethical concerns at the same time as citing the study in books, research papers and teaching material.
It’s possible to both admire Edelman for its investment in the Trust Barometer and be critical of aspects of its work. Conversations, after all, are the basis of building mutual understanding and trust.
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The Trust Barometer reflects PR's schizophrenia. We simultaneously advise and publicize while living amidst real world realities. This tri-polar condition can lead to odd and discordant outcomes.