Mumbai: You know a man is passionate about his beliefs when he refuses work for tobacco companies and makes an open offer to all his employees in 53 cities: “Quit smoking and I will give you $2,000.” Richard Edelman, president and chief executive of the world’s largest independent public relations firm, Edelman, says it’s his way of encouraging them. On one of his trips to India, he talks about the findings of the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer, the trust and credibility study covering business, government, media and NGOs. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What are the Trust Barometer findings for India?
One of the most important findings for India is the real gap in trust in business—quite high, and trust in government —quite low. That’s actually significant. This is very different from, say, Brazil and China. In China, the trust in government is higher than it is in business. It points to a potential real risk for this country because in most of the rest of the world there is a real correlation between trust in business and trust in government. The ratings for trust in business and trust in government have remained fairly static over the last four years—one is high in the 70s and the other quite low in the 40s.
Confidence erosion: Edelman expects a decline of trust in business and a further drop of trust in government. Photo : Abhijeet Bhatlekar/Mint
The big change is the rise in trust in non-governmental organizations, a direct outcome of a lack of confidence in government. What is also very significant is the high level of trust in chief executives as the most credible spokesperson. Again, this is one of the few countries where you have the CEO on top. In most countries you have a technical expert or an academic. In the US, for example, CEOs are quite near the bottom in terms of credibility.
Did the media coverage of corruption charges on some businesses and government leaders have an impact on the trust ratings?
Important to say we did this research late October last year. So we’re almost six months from when we filed. But in the next study we fully expect to see a decline in trust on business and a further decline of trust in government. And I think it’s a problem.
Unlike their counterparts in other markets, Indian NGOs have always had trouble asserting their credibility.
I think that NGOs globally have become superbrands. They, in effect, have the same weight that a major consumer product would. A smart NGO will be more transparent about funding and accountability.
Also, I think NGOs have to progress from throwing rocks at the companies to actually forging solutions. So a good example would be the Rainforest Alliance—an NGO focused on conservation of biodiversity and sustainability partnering Chiquita Brands International Inc.—a producer and distributor of bananas and other produce, to grow bananas in a more sustainable way. That’s a win-win.
Who are the new influencers in the trust pyramid today?
I think the interesting trend is really towards those who have credentials, those with guaranteed expertise in a certain way. A professor at a major university or a financial analyst, that’s one set. The other is peer trust—people to people, fellow employee, someone who’s a Facebook friend.
So you learn things differently. You don’t necessarily go to the newspaper first in the morning; you go to your Facebook page, check your wall, who’s made a comment, who’s referred a story.
In India, there is still no clear distinction between charity and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Is that changing?
There is a fundamental change in business. For example, putting sustainability into actual running of the business. It is no longer something we do for fun or charity.
We do it cause it’s smart business. The idea that green equals green (money), that we can make more money by being eco. That we can save on use of water or the use of electricity, all of this is going to make your product price competitive.
It’s now beyond CSR and into really the idea of business as a positive environmental and social actor.
Any change in the media equation?
You clearly see a dispersion of authority. The average informed person is reading, seeing eight forms of media and is also interacting with it. You also see much more opinion in the editorial product as opposed to just the editorial page. So, particularly on television, you have a much more slanted, less objective point of view. In a way, the Fox approach to television seems to be spreading.
People are self referential; so they like to watch what they agree with. Also, there is this bridging between news and entertainment. I call it news-tainment. It’s a definite trend.
What trend are you excited about?
I am most interested in seeing how mainstream utilizes the new technologies available. For instance, the slate or iPad. To me, this is a great opportunity for mainstream media—to replicate the experience one has in holding a print newspaper. The statistics are clear. The average person spends 30 minutes reading the print paper but only 5-10 minutes on their (newspaper’s) site on the internet. But the so-called early users of the iPad and slate are spending 30 minutes with each of the media they’re on, cause they like the richness of the photos, among other things. They are back to grazing as opposed to picking just two or three stories that are relevant to them. That is a huge opportunity.
Where is the future of public relations (PR)?
We’ve had to evolve our business tremendously. If we were simply relying on mainstream media and our classic pitching stories hoping that you (media) would use them, that’s fine but it misses the opportunity. We have to speak to a whole new set of media, specifically bloggers, among others. We also have to change the material we are presenting to you, it has to be more visual.
Beyond that, we believe strongly that each of our clients ought to have an embassy on Facebook or Twitter. We ought to play where the traffic is and make it easy for people to become “friends” of a brand. That is where they are having their conversations. Some of these people are spending hour plus a day on these sites and we want to be part of that hour.
If PR agencies are partnering companies to come up with content, where does it leave advertising?
We are now looking at our business as public engagement. Our role is to have informed conversations with stakeholders. Advertising is a brilliant mechanism for getting to consumers, but that’s just one stakeholder group. And advertising is a one-way approach. You show a fabulous 30-second commercial of a celebrity driving that car and consumers want to buy that car. That’s great. But we’re in a more much nuanced world now where consumers want to know what other consumers of the product think about it—does it drive well? What is the service experience? If your product has a problem, and you’ve heard from ten people on twitter, change it. Learn and move on. That’s what is expected.