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Helping China Inc build trust

By Shi Jing in Shanghai China Daily Updated: 2019-05-27
Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the public relations firm Edelman. [Photo/IC]

PR major Edelman is on course to ride opportunities presented by rise of mainland firms

When Richard Edelman first visited Shanghai in 1986, Pudong, now home to the world's leading financial institutions as well as skyscrapers, was just a piece of farmland.

Five years later, his father, Daniel Edelman, who founded the public relations company Edelman in 1952, came to China for the first time and made the conclusion that "it is going to be a great country". The senior soon made up his mind to buy a boutique public relations firm in China to make their first footprints here.

Over the past two decades, Edelman has remained one of the top five PR agencies in China. Industry big names such as Japanese carmaker Nissan, US confectionery company Mars, as well as Chinese technology giant Tencent, glitter in the Chinese arm's client portfolio.

Last year, the Chinese firm continued to register strong double-digit growth with turnover coming in at $28 million.

The rise of the Chinese companies has made the business environment noticeably more vibrant, providing more opportunities for the PR firm. The work ethic, people's value for money, local customer orientation and the ongoing innovation have not only made the market more vibrant but built companies' trust among consumers, said Richard Edelman, who has been the chief executive officer of the PR firm for 23 years.

In the Trust Barometer report released by the firm in late March, Chinese companies scored 87, more than double that five years ago. The climb was not easy, for the world of business has changed much.

"The expectations of businesses are so fundamentally bigger - be a good employer and fix social problems. While in the past, companies' responsibility was mostly about creating something that consumers had never seen before. But increasingly, people are looking at the intrinsic value of business and of the product, which is not just function, but also the purpose," said Edelman.

But there are challenges that Chinese companies are facing, especially in the developed markets where issues like sustainability, transparency and ethical behavior are frequently mentioned.

As Edelman explained, the challenges can be largely attributed to inadequate publicity of Chinese companies. Trust cannot be built if the company or the manager does not communicate. In this sense, awareness is the first thing that should happen, he said.

But during a meeting with State-owned enterprises in Shanghai in late March, Edelman was more than pleased to see an increasing demand among SOEs concerning more transparency and communication.

"What they are doing is building hospitals and roads, and providing education to the less-developed countries. But nobody would know all these if they do not talk," he said.

Another inspiring result in the Trust Barometer report is the score of 92 of the Chinese government in 2019, overtaking all the rest 25 surveyed countries. With the businesses' effectiveness, there is a "perfect combo" reached here, he said.

Edelman himself had a personal experience that proved the government enjoyed immense trust among ordinary Chinese people. When he went hiking in the Leaping Tiger Gorge area in Southwest China's Yunnan province last March, he walked all the way up and reached a small village with a population of roughly 200 people. It was to his great surprise that he found there top-class telecommunication services. From there, he was able to communicate with his daughter in the United States using the FaceTime app.

"The Chinese government connects people and delivers. That is why people trust the government," he said.

Edelman has been in the PR field for 41 years. He started his career at his family-owned business immediately upon his graduation from Harvard Business School at the age of 23.

"I worked really hard and was all ready for a four-week vacation in Europe. But my father called and said they (Edelman, the PR firm) have won a new client. It was a commodities trading company and I was supposed to understand their business. So I graduated Friday and showed up at the office on Monday," he laughed.

Looking forward, Edelman pictured the family-owned PR firm as a luxuriant tree in the future, with corporate PR business as the trunk and a number of branches such as digital, creative and research businesses extending.