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The world’s biggest PR firm claims to be an expert on trust – but is it? | Davos


At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week, the public relations juggernaut Edelman will publish the latest edition of its “trust barometer”, an annual survey that purports to measure whether people around the world trust businesses, governments, NGOs and the media.

There’s just one problem: even as Edelman promotes its brand and pursues clients with stern warnings about the importance of trust, critics charge the company appears reluctant to follow its own advice. The firm’s clients have ranged from ExxonMobil to the Saudi government and members of the Sackler family, the former owners of the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma.

“Trust is my legacy to the PR industry,” Richard Edelman, the firm’s CEO, wrote in a 2021 blogpost and there is little doubt that he has succeeded in associating his company with the concept.

Edelman has published a trust barometer every year since 2000; at last year’s elite gathering in Davos, one speaker described the survey as “the world’s leading metric of trust in institutions”. It is cited constantly by corporations and their executives and reliably earns Edelman prominent mentions in influential outlets from the Financial Times to the Economist to the New York Times.

Edelman has “successfully positioned itself as being the harbinger of trust”, said Christine Arena, a PR expert who left Edelman in 2014 over its work for fossil fuel companies and last year testified at a US House subcommittee hearing about how PR firms have obstructed climate legislation. “That has been a compelling proposition for a lot of clients who themselves are trying to build trust.”

The survey “is recognized as one of the leading pieces of research on trust”, an Edelman spokesperson said in a statement emailed to the Guardian. “Our goal has always been to help business and other institutions navigate their complex environments and effectively communicate with all their stakeholders.”

When Edelman releases a new edition of the trust barometer in Davos next week, it is likely to underscore a finding the company has been pushing for years: that business is the most trusted institution in society. At the World Economic Forum, “I will have the bully pulpit again, to tell business that it must continue to lead on societal issues,” Richard Edelman wrote earlier this month.

Edelman’s website calls trust “the ultimate currency”. Trust has certainly proven valuable for Edelman. Last February Richard Edelman attributed the firm’s recent financial success in part to the publication of 10 trust barometer reports and “trust-based media buying”. In a June interview he predicted that “the trust tools potentially could be a very big business for us”.

Edelman’s steady stream of trust publications and events, as well as branded efforts like its Trust Institute, a thinktank that publishes company research, supplement the firm’s aura of expertise about the topic. “We know how and when to use it – and how to create strategic opportunities to maximize trust,” reads a promise on the landing page for Edelman Trust Management, one of the “core solutions” the company sells to clients (along with the Edelman Net Trust Score and Edelman Trust Management Studies).

“What they can show to a potential client is, ‘We’ve helped move these companies into a better place in society, where they’re more trusted. We can do the same for you,’” said Kert Davies, the founder and director of the Climate Investigations Center, which has uncovered many of Edelman’s relationships with the fossil fuel industry. “They’re … trust specialists because trust is the finish line for a PR campaign.”

Richard Edelman in June 2018.
Richard Edelman in June 2018. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

Melissa Aronczyk, a media studies professor at Rutgers University, has studied how successful PR firms do more than simply promote and spin – they actually infuse the public discourse with their clients’ perspectives. “Ultimately what it comes down to [is that] these companies are trying not just to manage trust, but to make trust,” Aronczyk said. “And if they themselves are the owners of that survey, or barometer, or whatever it is, then, of course, they become the proprietors of that kind of value.”

To demonstrate this value to clients, Edelman’s most effective case study might be the firm itself. It has managed to cultivate a reputation for trust even as its business model appears regularly to contradict its advice and its CEO’s admonitions. Last month, for instance, the Guardian revealed that over the past four years Edelman has signed about $9.6m worth of deals with the government of Saudi Arabia and companies controlled by the regime, while simultaneously urging businesses to stand up for human rights.

But climate change remains the issue on which Edelman’s public posturing differs most dramatically from how the company makes money. Edelman executives frequently implore corporations to lead the global response to climate. Richard Edelman has called climate change “the biggest crisis we face as a society,” proclaiming that “we think very carefully about which businesses we work for”.

Over the years, those businesses have included ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, the pro-coal National Mining Association and the American Petroleum Institute (API), a lobbying group for some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies. Edelman’s work for API has proven particularly lucrative, netting the PR firm nearly $440m since 2008. Energy Citizens, an astroturf group that Edelman helped launch for API, contributed to the defeat of climate efforts in Congress. One study found that between 1989 and 2020 Edelman conducted at least 60 “engagements” for oil, gas, coal, steel, and rail clients–more than any other PR firm.

In 2019, Edelman received a PR industry award for the “We Make Progress” campaign that it developed for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), a fossil fuel lobbying group so destructive that some oil giants, including Shell and BP, canceled their memberships, as BuzzFeed News reported. The award praised Edelman for “a multimedia ad campaign to drive brand awareness, favorability and trust among AFPM’s audiences in the DC metro area” – the region home to the lawmakers and regulators most responsible for the country’s climate response. The climate newsletter Heated, which first reported the AFPM campaign, calculated that Edelman earned at least $20m from its work for the group.

A key hurdle to tackling the climate crisis is that “government is unwilling to pass tough laws to force business to change, lacking the will”, Richard Edelman lamented during a recent event for the company’s “special report” on “trust and climate change”. “It’s too hard to find trustworthy information” about climate change, Edelman said later in the event. “Business has to be the center kind of ground for that information.”

The CEO did not mention the hundreds of millions of dollars of work his company has done for fossil fuel clients. But a year earlier Edelman remained enthusiastic about that work. “I believe in the energy industry. I think that they are making the transition,” he told Axios in November 2021. “We work with oil majors. I’m proud of our work.” In the company’s statement to the Guardian, the Edelman spokesperson said that “we are committed to being the agency of choice for organizations dedicated to climate action”.

In response to both employee and external criticism of its work for the oil and gas industry, last January Edelman announced a series of initiatives, including a requirement that all employees take “Climate Change Communications Training” and the creation of an “Independent Council of Climate Experts.” It did not commit to stopping its work for the fossil fuel industry.

Since then Edelman has “parted ways with clients, declined certain new opportunities and established ongoing follow-up and review of some assignments”, the company spokesperson said. “While we do not speak to individual or prior client assignments, we have a process through which we assess engagements, and we are committed to continue driving change through communications.”

“What you want to do if you’re under fire is deflect blame and promote false solutions, pretending like you’re solving the problems that you’re actually driving,” said Arena, the former Edelman executive. “Edelman is putting into practice some of the tactics and strategies we know it has helped clients execute.”

After examining its oil and gas contracts, Edelman ultimately concluded that its shortcoming was not the work itself but rather how it explained that work. There were “zero examples of us erring on facts”, Richard Edelman said to the Financial Times. “What we found, though, was a lack of context.”

This distinction – between how a company makes money and how it talks about how it makes money – sits at the heart of Edelman’s decades-long trust campaign.

World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, who will welcome Richard Edelman and other corporate leaders to Davos next week, may have summed up the elite monetization of public trust most transparently in a 2014 op-ed. While Schwab celebrated the fact that “companies are increasingly acting with a sense of social responsibility”, the real message was found in the article’s headline: “The profitability of trust.”

“All of this is a form of PR, that trust is something you can accumulate like money,” said Alison Taylor, a professor of corporate responsibility and ethics at New York University’s Stern business school. “What is being called ‘trust’ here is not ‘trust’ in any kind of academic understanding. This is reputation.”



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