PR industry should ‘tell both sides of the story’ after Bell Pottinger scandal, says Edelman

Richard Edelman at the Cannes Lions festival in on June 20, 2017 in France
Francois G. Durand | Getty Images
Richard Edelman at the Cannes Lions festival in on June 20, 2017 in France

PR chief Richard Edelman has called on the industry to be more balanced in the stories it promotes to the media following a scandal that saw agency Bell Pottinger's British business file for bankruptcy.

Bell Pottinger ran a PR campaign for Oakbay Investments that was labeled racially divisive by a law firm hired to investigate it. Oakbay is owned by controversial South Africa-based family the Guptas.

Speaking to CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Edelman chief executive said the job of a PR agency is to help the media find quality information.

"I think the whole PR industry, and I'm going to work like, hard on this, this year, should move from a position of advocacy and lobbying, towards one that is informing. Tell both sides of the story," he said Tuesday.

"Even if you're being paid by the company, your job is, oftentimes, to go direct to the end user of information, and, in the moment, silence is a tax on truth. And we've got to get companies to speak up, but speak up in a way that is educating, as opposed to just lobbying."

Edelman's Trust Barometer published Monday suggested that there is less trust in social media sites than mainstream media. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of those surveyed said they got their news from social platforms, including search engines, but trust in those platforms decreased in 21 of the 28 countries the agency surveyed.

"Seventy percent of people tell us that they can't distinguish between a real story and 'fake news,' and they also believe that media is somewhat politicized, elitist," Edelman told CNBC Tuesday. "Half the people have now signed off of mainstream media altogether, so they're getting their news exclusively from search and social.

"So, I think it's urgent for companies, and media companies, especially, to try to bring the discussion back to informing, as opposed to opining."