How will public relations evolve in the first decade of the 21st century? Paul Holmes kicks off a series of discussions with industry leaders by talking with Richard Edelman about “the paradox of transparency” and a “third way” for public relations.

Richard Edelman was one of the first senior public relations executives to understand that the Internet gave PR professionals a new opportunity to communicate directly with their clients’ publics, circumventing the traditional gatekeepers. Five years ago, while many of his peers were still figuring out how to use e-mail, Edelman put together a conference for clients at which he and others on his staff discussed the potential for PR people to become “content providers,” using e-mail and other push technologies to deliver messages to opinion leaders and turning corporate websites into media channels.

The impact of the Internet on public relations practice in the five intervening years is undeniable, but it has not yet achieved the transformational effect Edelman predicted. The major reason, he believes, is that public relations materials still look like public relations materials and news still looks like news. If PR professionals are to become content providers in the same way journalists are content providers, he says, the industry has to eliminate that distinction, and PR people have to start to hold themselves to journalistic standards of accuracy—and perhaps even objectivity.

“The PR industry has the chance to become the communications tool of choice in the next decade but it must reinvent itself,” Edelman told the spring meeting of the Seattle Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America this week. “The real future is communications with public relations at the center. Our ability to customize messages by audience, our ability to create a dialogue and our links to third parties give the industry a key competitive advantage.”

Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, the firm his father started almost 50 years ago and now the sixth largest public relations agency in the world, points to several trends he believes are creating new opportunities for PR people. The most significant is a changing model of persuasion, away from the old pyramid—in which experts drove mass opinion—toward what he calls “the circle of cross influence,” in which the opinions of the experts, the media, consumers, employees, investors, regulators, and non-governmental organizations all exert an influence, on each other and on the public.

“The opportunity for PR stems from the absence of trust in institutions and the splintering of audiences among various forms of media which has led to the creation of individual webs of trust and triangulation among multiple sources of information,” says Edelman, who points to research conducted by his firm’s Strategy One subsidiary suggesting that NGOs are significantly more trusted than corporations, government, or the media on issues related to environmental and social policy.

With the media increasingly fragmented and people suffering from information overload, every individual has his or her own “web of trust,” which may include multiple sources ranging from respected experts to NGOs to friends and neighbors. Edelman sees no reason why corporations should not become part of the web of trust, if they can earn the requisite credibility.

To do so, he says, requires an understanding of “the paradox of transparency,” a phrase coined by Shell vice president of sustainable development Tom Delfgaauw. Says Edelman, “The classic business model keeps all plans under wraps until launch to avoid competitive response, either from other companies or from opponents in the activist community. The new business model requires openness throughout the process. It engages multiple stakeholders and builds support prior to launch.”

As an example, he points to the introduction of genetically modified foods in Europe. The biotech companies assumed they could use the traditional pyramid of influence, winning over experts and gaining the approval of regulators, and that public acceptance would naturally follow. It didn’t. Critics, angered at having biotech foods imposed upon them from above, reacted with unprecedented hostility. Edelman’s new model would have included potential critics much earlier in the process, working toward consensus—or at the very least, mutual respect.

“The traditional role for public relations people is as advocates and intermediaries between clients and the media,” he says. “At times, this has translated into spin. At the same time, journalists have played a role as objective commentators. The public relations industry needs to develop a ‘third way,’ between overzealous advocacy and complete objectivity for direct dealing with shareholders. We need to provide the client’s perspective in a way that is fact-based and that acknowledges other points of view. We call it ‘modified advocacy.’ It’s an approach that may draw more flack initially. But I believe it puts you in a much stronger position in the long term.”

It’s an approach that requires the public relations industry to adopt “publisher-level standards in sources, accuracy of data, immediacy of dissemination, cross-platform distribution and measurement. We have to remember that we are increasingly writing for the end-user—even the releases we put out on BusinessWire are being read by end-users as well as by reporters. We are no longer just intermediaries between our clients and the media.”

What does this mean in practical terms?

The first thing it means is that public relations writing has to get better. “A lot of public relations writing is very woolly. It has to be edited better. If we make a claim—if we say our client is the leader in its category—we have to be able to back that up. We have to aim for the same high standards in our written product as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. We may not always meet that objective, but it’s something we have to aim for.”

The second thing it means is that public relations people have to embrace transparency. If experts are cited, it should be with information about their background and their connection—including any remuneration—to the company issuing the release. Participation in chat rooms should always include full disclosure of any affiliation.

The third it means is that public relations materials need to be genuinely interactive, providing access to sources—hyper linking to academic studies, for example, or providing detailed background on third parties cited in materials—creating an opportunity for direct response and interactive via e-mail, and even providing access to competing points of view.

“If you are producing a white paper for an industry group, you need to acknowledge any criticisms of the study methodology, and any dissenting viewpoints,” says Edelman. “If you are creating a web site for a biotech company, you need to provide links to organizations that may disagree with your perspective. Companies that offer a rounded view of an issue will be more credible.”

The fourth thing it means is that public relations people will need to develop a genuine expertise in the industries they represent—to at least the level that journalists become experts in the fields they cover. That’s a prerequisite if PR people are to be educators rather than just advocates, if they are to engage in meaningful dialog with their audience.

Edelman acknowledges the possibility that clients may not be ready for this approach. “I believe some clients understand instinctively that this is a more credible approach, that it builds relationships and that there is a payoff. I think there are other clients who will resist. For us as public relations people, it’s all about integrity. If we believe in something, we have to be prepared to stand behind it. We recently had to resign a client in China because we refused to pay a journalist to write about them.”

He also acknowledges that his own firm does not yet meet the high standards he would set for the industry as a whole.

“This is definitely aspirational,” he says. “It’s a change we have to make over time. We are looking at bringing in copy editors, for example, to ensure that our writing meets the highest standards. But the opportunity is too great for us not to move in this direction. The opportunity is for public relations to play a central role in communications, for PR people to become the navigators of the global economy.”