Go Direct: How to Reach Consumers in the Era of “Fake News”

Richard Edelman, a leading expert in public relations and marketing, recently gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame addressing the crisis in consumer trust. His firm, Edelman, is a long-standing chronicler of consumer trust in institutions including business and government (we’ve covered past Edelman Trust Barometer results on our blog). In 2017, their global survey found that “trust is in crisis around the world” with trust in media and government reaching record lows since before the Great Recession of 2008.

The results for 2018 offer little hope for rebounding from the previous year. The most recent Trust Barometer “reveals a world of seemingly stagnant distrust” as “people’s trust in business, government, NGOs and media remained largely unchanged from 2017.” What the survey does offer, alongside Edelman’s recent remarks, is a potential way forward for those companies seeking to re-earn and re-establish the goodwill of their consumer base.

It’s Time to “Go Direct”

The major contributors to our current climate of distrust are the prevalence of “fake news” (both real and perceived) and the failure of media platforms to respect user data. Edelman notes that “In a world where we no longer share common truths and lack rational debate, people are dominated by fears instead of reliant on facts.” As a result, “They make decisions that bring short-term benefit to themselves instead of long-term improvements to society.” How can businesses reach consumers with a message that counters these fears?

The message is important, but especially in times of high distrust in media, the medium is perhaps even more crucial. With trust in traditional platforms for information and consumer messaging at a low, Edelman advises that “Companies must Go Direct to the end-user to Promote and Educate.” In short, “Every company should become its own media company.

Communications Strategy: Promote & Educate

For companies that seek to communicate directly with their target audiences, Edelman recommends a two-pronged, “equally weighted” approach that includes promotional and educational content. Both arms should be guided by four principles: accuracy, transparency, open exchange, and fairness. These guideposts can ensure that the company’s message is as honest and direct as their means of publicizing it.

The Promote wing of Edelman’s proposed communications strategy focuses on “telling the company’s story directly” and replaces the platform that has been occupied by the mainstream media (in this way, it’s similar to what many “under the media radar” companies have been doing for years). United Airlines new customer portal, United Airtime, is a prime example of a major company creating a direct-to-consumer platform for sharing information alongside promotional opportunities. Other opportunities include activating employees who are subject matter experts and can engage with online communities, including through social media.

The Educate wing, Edelman says, “not only generates original content, but also serves as an aggregator of important news and analysis from other sources.” It replaces the consumer outreach that would traditionally have come from local news platforms. Edelman notes that it is crucial that the educate arm of his direct communications approach be unbiased and even willing to criticize its “parent” company if necessary. Rebuilding consumer trust will take radical honesty, but if the result is a direct and trusted connection to consumers, the effort will distinguish trustworthy organizations and reward them with loyalty and engagement.

A New Way Forward

“Go Direct is a pragmatic approach to lifting the cloud of ignorance that has descended on our country,” Edelman writes. His goals are lofty but grounded in the necessity for honest companies to overcome the climate of distrust that threatens their ability to reach consumers. This direct approach may not seem entirely feasible for smaller companies, but the simplicity of the mandate to promote and educate equally should provide inspiration to all business and communications leaders.

“We need to restore civil discourse,” Edelman stresses. “We do this best by advancing the cause of truth, through access to quality information.” If more companies follow his lead, we can hope to see a resurgence in consumer trust in the near future.


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