Edelman's Image Takes a Severe Beating

Edelman is the largest public relations firm in America. Two widely followed incidents have hurt its relationship with critics and almost certainly some clients and potential clients. Edelson has made itself out to be a trusted partner and adviser to its customers and the wider business world. It even puts out a trust survey called the Edelman Trust Barometer. As it promotes this image, it has helped scorned Saudi leaders and oil companies improve their images.

The Guardian covered the Saudi Arabia issue, which is the worst of the two problems. In an article titled “The American PR firm helping Saudi Arabia clean up its image,” reporters wrote that at the same time its CEO Richard Edelman trumpeted his firm’s belief in democracy, it signed “at least $9.6m (£7.9m) worth of contracts over the past four years with one of the world’s richest autocracies: the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” It is hard to think of an incident that could be as damning. The terrible human rights reputation of the Saudis has been savaged throughout much of the world.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been identified as the person who ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi leader has used his huge fortune and help from Edelman to get back into the graces of political and business leaders.

Washington Post’s reporters recently wrote that Edelman had helped fossil fuel companies with their “greenwashing.” The paper reported on January 19 that “On Wednesday, more than 450 scientists called on public relations and advertising firms, including the prestigious Edelman, to stop working for oil and gas companies.” Apparently, this upset some former Edelman employees and cannot have gone unnoticed by some clients.

Edelman should know how fragile public trust is. Its relationships with the Saudis and fossil fuel companies have badly hurt its image. It raises the question of whether Edelman puts money before ethics. It will take a long time to change that perception in some circles, if it can be changed at all.

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