The traditional approach to corporate communications envisages a controlled process of scripted messages delivered by the chief executive, first to investors, then to other opinion-formers, and only later to the mass audiences of employees and consumers. In the past five years, this pyramid-of influence model has been gradually supplanted by a peer-to-peer, horizontal discussion among multiple stakeholders. The employee is the new credible source for information about a company, giving insight from the front lines. The consumer has become a co-creator, demanding transparency on decisions from sourcing to new-product positioning.
The interesting thing is how he explains the rising problems with the traditional model - it has to do with the ongoing loss of faith by the public in elites (whether they be political, business, or otherwise). That's a process that really got started in the West in the aftermath of WWI, but the history isn't relevant here - merely the fact that it's been going on, and is accelerating:
The most profound finding of the 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer is that in six of the 11 countries surveyed, the "person like yourself or your peer" is seen as the most credible spokesperson about a company and among the top three spokespeople in every country surveyed. This has advanced steadily over the past three years.
In the US, for example, the "person like yourself or your peer" was only trusted by 22% of respondents as recently as 2003, while in this year's study, 68% of respondents said they trusted a peer. Contrast that to the CEO, who ranks in the bottom half of credible sources in all countries, at 28% trust in the US, near the level of lawyers and legislators. In China, the "person like yourself or your peer" is trusted by 54% of respondents, compared to the next highest spokesperson, a doctor, at 43%.
The fact that it's a trans-national phenomenon means that you can't isolate it to some specific political or business event - it's bigger than that. For the purposes of PR, you don't even need to worry about how or why though - you simply need to think about how to best get your message across. If only 28% of Americans consider a CEO to be a credible source, then PR that focuses on the CEO almost certainly isn't doing the job.
Consider MS, for instance. Bill Gates speaks frequently, but he's always done that. There's been an uptick of trust in MS over the last few years amongst developers, and I think I'd have to point at their bloggers for that. Those people - Scoble in particular - added an authentic voice to the company from someone who isn't living the rarified life that Gates does. It's made the company a lot more transparent and - IMHO - trustworthy. Which is what Edelman is after here:
How can companies embrace this future of empowered stakeholders? Speak from the inside out, telling your employees and customers what is happening so they can spread the word for you. Be transparent, revealing what you know when you know it while committing to updating as you learn more. Be willing to yield control of the message in favor of a rich dialogue, in which you learn by listening. Recognize the importance of repetition of the story in multiple venues, because nobody believes something he or she hears or sees for the first time. Embrace new technologies, from employee blogs to podcasts, because audiences are becoming ever more segmented. Co-create a brand by taking on an issue that makes sense for your business, such as GE's Ecomagination campaign where green is truly green.
If you want to get the message out, pushing it from the top down simply isn't the most effective way to do it anymore. Maybe with the President of a major PR firm saying it, more marketing departments will pay heed.