This originally appeared on El Mundo.
The American historian and writer Daniel J. Boorstin wrote that “some are born great; others achieve greatness and some hire public relations officers”. In that time of the middle of the last century when everything seemed to be invented, Richard Edelman’s father (Chicago, 1952) founded a pioneering public relations agency named after his last name. His son has made this company the world’s leader in terms of turnover.
In his company, they say of Edelman, of Richard, his son, that he is a “visionary” and he, even if he attributes part of this affirmation to public relations, states that he was one of the first to notice that the communications reality had changed and that advertising, public relations, media and the online world were no longer separate standalone areas. He realized both companies and brands needed new approaches that took the message directly to the customer, ideas with content and purpose. Hence, he defends companies and brands positioning themselves towards social issues, and this way, breaking their usual neutrality and silence.
Furthermore, Edelman is focused in the concept of trust. 20 years ago, they started working on an annual barometer worldwide to measure what do we trust in and how we do so. Unlike the traditional idea of reputation, how a company, a brand, a government or whatever you want to mention in this sentence, is seen, they introduce to the equation the quantity of trust that these generate, what it is expected of them.
El Mundo: How would you summarize the evolution of trust since you started the Edelman Trust Barometer?
Richard Edelman: There are several great conclusions. The first one is the fall of confidence in government. The second one, the dissatisfaction of the lower classes. The third one is related to people’s fears to issues such as robotization and job loss. In fact, four out of every five people think that their situation will be worse in the next five years.
There has also been a change in the authority paradigm. Before, it was up-down—imagine Moses with his Tables of the Law. Now we give authority in a horizontal way, to other people like us, someone in our family or group of friends, and trust is local. And above all, people place trust in companies and brands.
El Mundo: Isn’t it impressive that we trust more in our company than in other institutions?
RE: The employer has become the last option. Media has fallen because of fake news and government trust has dropped. So, who should we trust? We need to trust in our employer. One of the points that interests me most, is that companies hit rock bottom in trust in 2008, since then, they have gone up and today, they generate higher trust that NGOs.
El Mundo: Looking at the results, women trust less that men in all sectors, from governments to companies, media or NGOs. Why?
RE: This is driven in part by the #metoo movement, the low number of women managing companies… Women are also tougher and more pessimistic with economic foresights and are more worried than men for the future.
El Mundo: According to the Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust?, more than the 50 percent of the people think that brands have better ideas to solve social issues than governments. You even talk about brand democracy. But does this present the risk of brand dictatorship?
RE: I understand your skepticism, but I am very optimistic towards brands. I see that they are facing very important challenges like e-commerce and disruptor brands. They are realizing that purpose and having something distinctive is more powerful. Our data shows that two-thirds of consumers will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue.
El Mundo: How can we trust in brands when we do not really know what their interests and motivations ARE apart from the obvious, which is selling?
RE: Brands must be very transparent with shareholders about their purpose… And take the risk to be criticized for taking a stand and defending it. And your position may not make everyone happy.
El Mundo: Where is the limit for this positioning?
RE: Brands need to think about which area they can contribute to and make change in. Sustainability is a given and it is a necessary area to focus on. What are you campaigning for? For education, for better nutrition, etc., In a normal world, governments would be the ones acting on these matters, but the reality is that the government is disabled, both here in your country and in the U.S.
El Mundo: In the case of your specific company, how do you do this positioning?
RE: We don’t work with gun manufactures, tobacco or coal companies and we do pro bono work to encourage a greater control of firearms or in some sustainability projects.
El Mundo: You have mentioned the weapon control issue. You are now supporting a campaign in which you have already managed to involve 200 presidents from different companies, nevertheless, in no time have you questioned the Second Amendment to the Constitution that gives the right to carry weapons. Why is this a red line that you do not cross?
RE: We conducted a study that showed that the general public in the United States was in favor of keeping weapons securely at home, as well as, of having a bigger control of the background checks of the buyers. That is what we think we can achieve. So, we have to take the first step forward before anything.
El Mundo: But, why do you defend the Second Amendment that is 250 years old and that could be highly questioned?
RE: The truth is that it is very hard to make that kind of radical change. We have to go step by step. First, safe storage and then background checks. Just the fact that the supermarket chain Walmart has stopped selling ammunition for automatic weapons represents a huge change.
El Mundo: What do you think of Spain, from the distance, and as a communications and image expert?
RE: Right now, the country has a great opportunity with the UN’s Climate Action Summit happening in December to tell a new story that is not related to Cataluña.
Cataluña has caught media’s whole attention, and this must change. A partnership with Madrid in this summit could be great. Second, we should talk more about Spanish companies, sustainable energies and sustainability. And third, I see Spain as a connection country between the developed world and the developing one, thanks to its relations with Latin America. This makes the country a great platform to fight against climate change. I think this is a great opportunity for Spain to tell a different story that follows this line.
El Mundo: You talk about the impact of fake news a lot. Do you think people are aware of its impact and is that why the trust in traditional media has gone up?
RE: The fall in trust in social media is huge among developed countries. And this is the result of fake news. It has become hard for people to be sure of anything. And this is tragic. But this situation benefits journalists and media. As long as newspapers keep adapting to how and when the public wants to consume the news, they will do well.
El Mundo: It is almost paradoxical that people have raised their confidence in media and have found in these a safe area to escape from fake news, while there are people, such as President Trump, saying that news in these kind of outlets is fake news…
RE: In the United States the institution that generates more confidence among the democrats, is the media with 70 percent. On the other hand, only 30 percent of Republicans trust the media. This issue is absolutely politicized.
El Mundo: And in this same scenario, Trump’s popularity remains steady. Whatever he does or whatever happens, he always has a 40 percent approval rating. What is your interpretation of this?
RE: He has his base. And that base watches Fox News and reads his tweets. He has 65 million followers on Twitter. That’s bigger than any communications company. He is the biggest communication outlet. And he is tweeting about his agreement with China or why is he taking soldiers out from Syria… This is the news for a lot of people, as they do not read anything else. Trump dictates the media’s agenda. It is not you, journalists, who do it. And I think that this is an interesting phenomenon. He is the one deciding what topics are talked about. If The New York Times writes an article about his finances, he attacks them saying that it’s fake news.
El Mundo: Spain, just like other countries, is going through a difficult political situation. What should politicians do to regain trust?
RE: They must work to eliminate inequalities and fears, as well as, collaborate with the private sector, because the idea of the government managing it all by itself is ridiculous. Above all, there needs to be optimism, which there is not. I was a little kid when Kennedy got elected, but I remember his optimism showed that we could even go to the moon. I think that it is necessary to have that optimism and vision, instead of fighting over small things.
El Mundo: Who did a better job of PR: God, who showed himself and created an agency with twelve account directors; or the demon, who is feared by everyone without having done anything?
RE: The demon is really attractive, as he represents all our fantasies about what we would like to do. But the final objective should be to do things that have a good finality and that are effort worthy. That is what we should believe that the good ones will win.
El Mundo: Are the good ones winning nowadays?
RE: I would say yes. Look at Greta Thunberg, travelling to New York to talk to the UN… and the next day, there were 55,000 kids protesting for the climate change in the city. I think that things change and that companies are more and more conscious of this and are more involved.