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NOTIONS: A lesson in contemporary communication: Trust me?

April 3, 2006

I spent March 24 at Ball State University, sitting in a small conference room with some grand poobahs of public relations. A few Hoosier colleagues and I were matched with these industry mavens to discuss the rise of a phenomenon known as "citizen journalism," "participatory communication," "peer-to-peer (or p2p) communication," and other, occasionally less-flattering, terms.

Whatever the moniker, the notion is this: With the proliferation of digital media and the Internet, every Dawn, Dick and Mary can create and disseminate our own opinions, news, tunes, films, gossip or gobbledygook through the same distribution system and with the same reach as the biggest media behemoths.

And should we wish to emerge from Cyberspace and connect face-to-face, we can, via the Internet, arrange to convene with other occupants of our favorite niche for conversation, protest, celebration, entertainment, testimony, etc. at the local Starbucks, union hall, theater or any other gathering spot.

Consequently, more and more folks are saying: "Nix Nuvo. Never mind The New York Times. Move over Indy Monthly. Waste not a minute on WTHR. Skip The Indianapolis Star. Eliminate that employee newsletter. And, yes, ignore the IBJ." We'll just do it ourselves.

What's more, reported Richard Edelman, one of the masters attending that Ball State gathering, we bloggers, e-mailers, meeter-uppers, instant-messagers, podcasters, downloaders and other participatory communicators-trust one another much more than we trust credentialed critics, mainstream media, scripted CEOs and other purveyors of OfficialSpeak.

As a result, if traditionalists in business, government, media and nonprofits don't learn to play by the new rules in the new sand pile-constantly communicating through multiple channels, instead of merely running an ad; engaging in conversations, instead of issuing diatribes; building relationships with people instead of sending messages at them; talking the audience's language instead of our own; inviting participation instead of insisting on imposition-then the undercurrent of unofficial, underground, uncensored conversation eventually will overwhelm and render irrelevant our outmoded, outdated, top-down, command-and-control, "we're-experts-andyou're-not" style of communication.

Edelman, president and CEO of the world's largest independent PR firm, said it all comes down to trust-whom you do and whom you don't. And his firm has measured that quality for the past seven years in a report called the "Edelman Trust Barometer." At Ball State, he shared the just-released 2006 version.

Having interviewed movers and shakers in 11 countries, Edelman's researchers report significant trends that organizational managers and marketers had best take to heart.

"The most profound finding," Edelman's report says, "is that in six of 11 countries surveyed [including the U.S.], '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."

That is quite a change over three years ago, Edelman said.

"In the U.S. ... 'person like yourself or your peer' was only trusted by 22 percent of respondents as recently as 2003," Edelman says, "while in this year's study, 68 percent 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 percent trust in the U.S., near the level of lawyers and legislators."

In general, Edelman's report shows, trust in the media, government, corporations and other "official" sources of information is down and falling. Trust in colleagues, friends, family members and other unfiltered sources of information ranks near the top and continues to climb.

Why? To be sure, corporate, government and media scandals have eroded trust. But Edelman cites "a more fundamental change, a yearning to move beyond the simple act of consumption of information to social networking. The rise of MySpace, Facebook, and Wikipedia is premised on sharing of content with a group of like-minded individuals. It is the wisdom of the crowd, with constant updating of content based on personal experience."

And how, pray tell, should organizations embrace this change? Edelman offers these tips:

"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 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 sees for the first time.

"Embrace new technologies, from employee blogs to podcasts, because audiences are becoming even more segmented."

"Smart companies must reinvent their thinking, moving away from a sole reliance on top-down messages delivered through mass advertising," Edelman said. "What is now required is a combination of outreach to traditional elites, including investors, regulators and academics, plus the new elites, such as involved consumers, empowered employees, and nongovernmental organizations."

So, if you want to talk about it, start that p2p conversation with an e-mail.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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