Trust and the PR Profession

Edelman PR is the world’s largest independent public relations firm, with over 2000 employees. Headed by Richard Edelman (whose father started the firm), they produce the Edelman Trust Barometer.

In May 2005, Edelman spoke about trust in the PR industry itself:

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, PR people rank far down the list of credible spokespeople. In fact, just above athletes and entertainers and just below lawyers.

His advice to his own industry in that interview was to offer more truth-telling:

PR should be seen as a spur to true interaction, not a barrier. We need to eschew the Clintonesque spin machine in favor of a more modern approach of truth will out.

Trust is complex in PR. It is one of several businesses which must manage two sets of client relationships—basically brokering one to the other. The same is true in real estate, executive search, re-insurance brokerage, and speaker bureaus.

A few days ago, Edelman’s personal blog touched on the role of PR and one of its constituents—the press.

I asked McCarthy [managing editor of CNN International] about the proper role of a PR firm. He said, “A PR firm is a vital part of the newsgathering process. You provide background information and make connections to the company. Our job is to scrutinize and interpret the facts provided by a PR person.
…I will paraphrase a quote from Alex Jones, dean of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, who said that PR should be about credible advocacy, while journalism continues to be an independent voice offering accountability reporting of important events.
                              [italics mine]

“Credible advocates,” whose facts will be “scrutinized and interpreted.”  Hmmm.

This strikes me as a pretty low hurdle for a professional services industry seeking to become more trusted.

First, why the adjective “credible?” Does anyone really want a non-credible advocate? (Reminds me of Nixon’s “I am not a crook”).

Secondly, the only profession I can think of that embraces advocacy is the law.  Lawyers score low on trust because we don’t want them to be trusted—we want them to be advocates.  Low trust is the price we pay, and we’re fine with it.

But do journalists really want their agency to be an advocate for its clients?  To have to scrutinize and interpret what the agency brings to the journalist?  Let’s look at parallel professions.

What about sales—another area of persuasion?  Buyers of complex B2B products and services won’t put up with having to “scrutinize and interpret” what salespeople tell them.  A salesperson who described himself to a customer as a “credible advocate” for his company would be shown the door in many buying organizations, with words like, "I don’t need hustlers for your issues, I need someone intersted in solving my problems."

What about other dual-client industries? If you’re the client of an executive search firm, do you want to “scrutinize and interpret” its evaluation of candidates for you to hire?  No—you want them to talk straight to you—no interpretation required.  Do you want them to advocate for one candidate vs. another?  Not unless it’s motivated by the client’s needs. 

Clients don’t want advocates, credible or not; they want advisors they can trust.  If you’re pursuing your agenda and not mine, I won’t trust you.
Having two constituencies makes it more important, not less, to be trusted by both parties.  A PR firm does no one a favor—least of all itself—by behaving in ways that are less than fully trustworthy to each partner.

A journalist will trust a PR person who only brings high quality material, is honest and forthright, and can be relied on to focus on the needs of the journalist.

A client will come to trust a PR firm that is not afraid to speak the truth, to call out low quality or the need for fundamental change, that will not hype the sizzle without insisting on steak to back it up.

If journalists and clients both come to trust the PR firm, all three win. The best PR people gain the trust of their clientele on both sides: being credible is the least of the matter. It has to do with keeping the client’s interest at heart for the long term, and being honest and transparent at all times.

If the trustworthiness of the PR profession is to climb above that of lawyers, it should not emulate law firms; its reach needs to extend beyond being a “credible advocate” who must be “scrutinized and interpreted."