Sunday, January 29, 2012

True or not?

Suppose you hear a suggestion that a company is going bankrupt. How many times do you need to hear it before you believe it is true?

By Tan Hui Yee, Senior Correspondent

According to global public relations firm Edelman, the figure for most Singaporeans lies somewhere between three and five. They may need to hear it on the radio, spot it on a blog, and see it on a Facebook update, as well as hear it from some friends or colleagues before truly accepting rumour as fact.

Such dispersal of authority is to be expected in the Internet age, where an increasing array of communication devices makes it easy for just about anybody to broadcast from his bedroom. The flip side of this phenomenon is that people are increasingly sceptical of what they hear, see or read.


Radical approach

'I believe in radical transparency, which is to say you should tell your employees first, everything that you can about a company policy, and then let them talk freely.'

Edelman president Richard Edelman

This level of distrust is far higher in the United States, notes Edelman president Richard Edelman, who spoke to The Sunday Times during a visit to Singapore last month.

The 57-year-old American maps the lay of the land: 'In the year 2000, with three advertisements on evening television, you could get 85 per cent of your target audience. Today, it's not even possible with 50 to 70 ads, because the audience is so dispersed.

'And then the question is: do they believe them when they see them?'

Edelman, incidentally, was the firm that drew fire in 2006 when it was exposed for sponsoring a blog by a couple who travelled across the United States in a caravan and parked for free at various outlets of retail giant Walmart.

The blog painted a rosy picture of Walmart, which was Edelman's client, and which has long been accused of not paying its employees enough or providing enough health coverage.

What the blog did not disclose was that the couple had their expenses paid by Walmart, and were members of Working Families for Walmart, a pro-Walmart organisation started by Edelman.

Looking back at the furore, Mr Edelman put it down to 'insufficient training on disclosure and on behaviour' in the early days of the blogosphere.

'It was a company failure... It was a collective issue.'

The company, he says, has since committed to higher standards of disclosure. 'If we make a mistake we'll stand up and say we'll do better next time, and judge us from what we do in the future.'

It is a promise that seems to have stuck.

'I go crazy if people in my company go into social media and don't disclose they are representing a client,' he says.

And depending on the circumstances, he says, a repeat offender gets the sack.

Trust, in the wired world, is a function of transparency, expertise and exposure, he says. People are more likely to trust someone who not only has in-depth knowledge of a specific area, but also puts his work out regularly though various media, online and offline.

People are also more likely to believe organisations which measure clearly their effort in significant areas like the carbon footprint they leave and then state it clearly in public.

'I believe in radical transparency, which is to say you should tell your employees first, everything that you can about a company policy, and then let them talk freely,' he says.

'Traditionally you tell the employees last and you tell them very little.'

This is not to say that he advocates the approach of WikiLeaks, an organisation which publicises classified or private information from whistle-blowers.

Two years ago, WikiLeaks waded into global controversy after it worked with major newspapers to publicise diplomatic cables which contained, among other things, private conversations between statesmen and diplomats. The White House and other governments struggled for months to contain the fallout.

'The principle of moving institutions to a more open approach is right,' says Mr Edelman. But 'there's got to be some gauge on the value of what you are putting up'.

On this count, a diplomat's opinion of a statesman would not be as substantial as the revelations about how a global conglomerate makes its products, he reckons.

Still, he acknowledges that it is almost impossible to hide information these days. 'The world today has so many ways of learning the truth.'

After the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan last year , for example, ordinary citizens armed with geiger counters were able to tell the world about the extent of radiation in the surrounding areas even while the Japanese authorities were insisting that all was well.

But governments can use such online activism to their advantage. Rather than try to control information, they can use citizens' comments online 'almost like a cross-check of the truth'.

They can seek instant feedback on matters like 'is your street clean?' on social media, so that they know for sure what is happening on the ground.

What then, does he make of the common assumption by some Singaporean politicians that people expressing their views on the Internet and social media constitute the 'vocal minority'?

'There are 800 million on Facebook. I don't know how you can say this is a vocal minority any more. It's everyman.'