WASHINGTON, DC—Companies need to invest in “collaborative journalism”—using their communications channels to educate the public and engage in real dialogue—if they wish to retain the public’s trust, Richard Edelman told an audience at the National Press Club today.

During a presentation of “The Battleground Is Trust,” which drew on Edelman’s Trust Barometer research demonstrating the collapse of trust in numerous institutions, the Edelman chief executive also called on public relations professionals to commit to higher ethical standards and forge a  “PR Compact” to ensure accountability, particularly after Bell Pottinger collapsed in disgrace.

“If business is to take the lead in restoring trust, the PR industry must help in this evolution,” Edelman said. “We have to acknowledge that PR has contributed to society’s trust problem because it is often used as a means of defense, not as an instrument for constructive change. We need PR to adopt a positive agenda—to fight for the future instead of defending the past. Too much PR work is still focused on defending the old order that is rapidly disappearing.”

Discussing his “collaborative journalism” idea, Edelman suggested that companies play a role in educating and leading on specific topics they have a deep knowledge of: “Walmart on China supply chain or GE on wind power.” Companies can provide first-person accounts of what goes on in their operations, research labs, and other activities so that people are better informed about what they do, and how and why  they do it.

Second, companies can “create a platform for employees and customers to talk openly about your company or brand. Provide the ability to rate and review the business. Allow users to voice the good and the bad, permit self-criticism, and encourage open dialogue. Listen to what they say so you can improve your products.”

Third, they can act as aggregators of commentary by smart bloggers and politicians. “The World Economic Forum website pulls in the voices of experts from around the world to discuss the issues on its global agenda. Make it easy for people to find what they need to be informed. 

“Fourth, businesses must recast their communications. No more corporate speak. The public wants you to talk directly to them in language that is natural, honest, and authentic. They want you to talk like a human. 

“Finally, use your channels to report directly on your progress toward meeting your business goals, and be upfront about the changes you are making to get there.”

That kind of collaborative journalism “only supplements mainstream journalism,” Edelman said. “Mainstream media is accountability journalism. Collaborative journalism can become both an open forum for discussion and a home for subject specialization.”

Beyond helping companies engage in this kind of collaborative journalism, Edelman said, PR needs to make two critical changes to the way it operates. “The first is to bring ethics and rectitude back to business. Be the client’s conscience. Every company and brand has a responsibility to behave ethically. The second is to put employees first among stakeholders. Talking to and with them has never been more important for building trust and retaining the best talent. They are the most trusted spokespeople on every topic.”

Finally, he called on the Arthur Page Society and the PR Council to “serve as the industry watchdog in the United States, and enforce” a new “PR Compact” with four tenets: 
1. Insist on accuracy. Check the facts. Don’t just accept what a client tells you as the truth. Get third-party validation and cite sources. Correct errors quickly. 
2. Demand transparency. Press clients to disclose their financial interests in advocacy programs and to reveal their role in coalitions. Advocate for laws that require more transparency in communications. Report on non-financial metrics in supply chains and hiring practices. 
3. Engage in the free and open exchange of ideas. Create platforms that encourage and empower informed public discourse. Tell both sides of the story, and allow for dissenting views. This benefits business, shareholders, and society. 
4. Require everyone to take universal online ethics training. Everyone must learn the same best practices—what is right and what is not. Tie advancement and promotion to successful completion of the course. This training should be free and accessible to all.