Sixteen Edelbytes from Richard

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Edelman’s president and CEO responds to PRC group questions on public relations, his company, ethics, the recession, the challenges, social media and the future of our profession

I’ve known Richard Edelman since his late teens, watching his early efforts to untie himself from his father, Dan’s, strong, forceful and admirable personality. His early goal was to make Edelman’s New York office profitable and even larger than its Chicago headquarters. Over the years he determined to carve out a distinct, professional identity, which included:

  • playing a role in the professional community
  • further developing the company internationally (particularly in Asian markets)
  • taking many risks (and assuming full accountability for them) while exploring new ideas, concepts and tools

The latter point was of course greatly facilitated by not having to supply explanations to shareholders or to a holding company. Becoming the world’s largest, independent PR agency allowed him to do this. As Richard indicated when we discussed the idea of a collective PR Conversations interview a few weeks ago, “My business model is the oldest of all business models.”

A similar, collective interview was held several months ago with James Grunig. Why do I draw your attention to this? Because these two individuals—despite their many differences, ways of life and even approaches—together serve as excellent examples of the very best of our professional PR community, together with many other scholars and practitioners who fit this description; many of whom regularly write posts or comment on this blog.

James and Richard serve as role models for all of us. Not only for our age groups—I am older than both, and James is older than Richard—but also for the younger generations, including the myriad of students in university and college classrooms around the world. Yes, while we eagerly search for new frameworks, models and conceptualizations for our PR profession, it’s reassuring to know that these exemplary and established individuals continue to lead the way.

Below are his sound bytes (i.e., Twitter-like responses). Despite the brevity of some of his answers, one can certainly appreciate Richard’s sincerity and bluntness. Richard is a respected and admired friend and I thank him for this cooperation. He certainly has his critics, yet few could deny that Richard Edelman is today’s leading (and most successful) global public relations professional. This is partly due to his commitment to social media, including agreeing to be interviewed in this blog.

Here we go…

On the firm and social media

Questions Judy Gombita (Canada)

Q1. In assuming that the world’s largest independent, privately owned PR agency, your leadership team and you (as president and CEO) are for the most part able to define Edelman’s corporate culture with relatively little interference from external bodies, my first request is for you to outline your organization values (i.e., internal branding), including how you articulate Edelman’s culture in both the hiring and promotions procedures and practices. Additionally, how does Edelman regularly communicate organizational values, externally and, more importantly, internally?

A1. We communicate our organizational values in several ways: we are an open society; we have over 40 bloggers on our corporate website—whom we trust to exercise discretion in their posts.

We have a commitment to giving back: our Living in Color program encourages employees to do community work in their spare time and the company also donates one percent of profits in giving away PR advice to non-profits.

We want our firm to be family friendly, so we have organized Edelman Escape, a paid leave after five and 10 years—I’ve been there 31 years and don’t qualify! We make a real effort to speak to our team on intellectual capital. For example, I present on the Edelman Trust Barometer after Davos, Mitch Markson does the same on Good Purpose Survey. I present on financial results, addressing the global staff after our leadership meeting in June. RE

Q2. In February, I attended your presentation at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. You were quite complimentary about how Canada was faring (in regards to “trust”), especially as compared to much of the world. Additionally, the representation from Edelman Canada’s office was strong and seemingly employees are quite valued. Is Edelman Canada fairly typical of your business model, i.e., allowing national branding and flavour, in additional to the defined international corporate culture? If yes, do you believe this has an impact on successful outcomes regarding client work?

A2. Edelman Canada is indicative of our global style. We find the best operations have about 30 per cent global business, the balance local companies. This maintains the “local feel” of an operating unit. If the local team understands that its job is to be part of the culture, to know the local NGOs and media, to advise on the best way for global creative to be applied, then we are successful. RE

Question from Kristen Sukalak (France)

Q3. Many of the initiatives that Edelman highlights on its website are linked to sustainability issues. Does this reflect a fundamental commitment on the part of your agency to be a force for “good,” or do you simply think that these issues provide leverage for your clients to position themselves advantageously?

A3. We do see ourselves (and public relations in general) as a force for good. We are a bridge for our clients to stakeholders such as civil society. Our job is to find creative approaches that can make “green equal green,” where environment and making money are possible at the same time. RE

Question from Toni Muzi Falconi (Italy)

Q4. How did you initially get involved in social media? When and why did you decide to make this one of the characteristics of your company?

A4. I got involved in social media through my second cousin, Linda Stone, who had been at Microsoft and Apple. She was working on the theory of “continuous partial attention,” observing that teens were able to operate successfully though they had six different windows open, simultaneously. She leaned on me to begin blogging: to expose myself to criticism of the crowd, but also to lead by example. This is now four and a half years ago. RE

Question from João Duarte (Portugal)

Q5. Your company is associated with some effective and pioneering social media campaigns. At a time when not all industry is in tune with 2.0 while others already speak of Web 4.0…what’s next? How do you see the future of our industry in 10 to 15 years?

A5. The future of our industry must be to help clients recognize that every company can be a media company. The mainstream media is shrinking, the social media is dispersed. So a company must tell its own story. It should also inform the conversation about its products and its corporate brand by going to where the discussions are happening and adding value. RE

Question from Catherine Arrow (New Zealand)

Q6. Edelman was extensively criticised online and elsewhere over the “fake” Wal-Mart blog in 2006. How did your involvement with that influence Edelman’s future conduct and approach to the digital environment? Plus what would be your guidance to today’s practitioners, regarding the ethics of establishing and/or financing astroturf groups like “Working Families for Wal-Mart?” Or would you see it as part of your advocacy role?

A6. We are transparent about our public relations campaigns: why we are posting content, who is funding our work, the sources used to create the materials. We learned that there is no substitute for continuous training of our staff. RE

On the economy, trust, stakeholders and public relations

Question from Toni Muzi Falconi (Italy)

Q7. How long do you think this recession will continue and what impact will it or could it have on the public relations profession in general, your competitors and, more specifically, your company?

A7. The recession will continue until the middle of next year. We are doing better than in previous downturns because mainstream areas, such as health, tech and consumer products, are continuing to spend money with us. We are seeing a secular trend toward public relations, while the cyclical economic trends are adverse. This weak economy will only accelerate the move of media to digital platforms and thus force PR firms to adapt what they do. RE

Question from Markus Pirchner (Austria)

Q9. Do you expect that when companies and organizations fight for survival, ethical, social and CSR considerations—if they ever existed—will be thrown overboard and that public relations will be under increased pressure to resort to “weapons of mass deception” (WMD)? How could or should we (i.e., leading agencies, PR associations) counter such tendencies?

A9. There will always be ethical temptations. I noted recently a story about a blogger who only posts positive content about brands and is paid to do so by the sponsor companies. This type of pay for play is not acceptable for public relations firms. RE

Question from João Duarte (Portugal)

Q10. After the Davos conference, you wrote that one of the emerging trends was the migration from the “Shareholder to Stakeholder World.” How much of the situation we are in today do you believe was inspired by managers and (amplified by) PR professionals, focused on creating short-term value for shareholders? Plus how likely it is to see business, management and communication schools focus more on stakeholder theory?

A10. I believe that public relations played a small factor in the economic crisis, although we did make heroes out of hot-shot traders in the financial community, plus glorified the CEOs of investment banks.

I do believe there is increasing acceptance of a stakeholder model, which values community benefit as highly as share-price improvement. RE

Question from Frank Ovaitt (U.S.A.)


Q11.
Instead of agonizing over the long and uphill path to rebuilding trust, would it be more productive now to focus our clients on how their behaviours and relationships might change, by simply assuming that trust is so irrevocably broken that it’s not coming back (i.e., for as far as the eye can see)? And what might that mean in terms of building “proof points” into every transaction—instead of asking our audiences to trust us?

A11. Trust will be restored by specific actions or policies, tied to a communications approach that insists on immediacy, full transparency and dialogue. RE

Question from Heather Yaxley (England)

Q12. The last Edelman Trust barometer unsurprisingly indicated a decline in the public’s trust in businesses and governments. Should PR practitioners be doing more to ensure leaders recognise the importance of trust and reputation in guiding their actions, or do you believe that restoring trust is beyond their control?

A12. Trust is within the control of leaders, inasmuch as they recognize that you have to “Be It, Not Buy It.” There is no amount of advertising that can establish positive word of mouth around a product that performs or a company that behaves properly. RE

On public relations in general

Question from João Duarte (Portugal)

Q13. Recent European studies confirm that internal communication (or employee relations) is a key area that will grow, despite the current downturn. Are there fundamental differences—if any—between our work as internal stakeholder managers and our traditional external stakeholder approach? If, as you often say, PR’s mission is to “inform the conversation,” what advice would you give your colleagues facing the challenge of changing paradigms in their internal communication?

A13. The new credible source for companies must be its employees, who are trusted twice as much as CEOs to do the right thing. The old hierarchy placed its investors first and its employees last. The smart company, today, understands that the order must be reversed, so that employees are given a complete explanation, allowing them to become the credible source of information. RE

Questions from Benita Steyn (South Africa)

Q14. Public relations is (increasingly) providing technical support to the marketing function. From your perspective, is it relatively rare for PR to co-operate strategically with marketing, to achieve organizational goals? Or is that aspect also on the increase? Can you please provide examples, if this is happening?

A14. Public relations is helping marketing. A good example is MyStarbucksIdea.com, where employees and customers were requested to provide smart ideas to the company. A few of these have already been commercialized. This creates a virtuous circle, in which the stakeholder model is made full use. PR units in companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, have monitored social media as an early warning system. For example, earlier this year a Motrin ad, which some deemed offensive, was withdrawn based on chatter on Twitter. RE

Q15. The general opinion of the Euprera Conference panels in Milan (October 2008) was that public relations is increasingly playing a strategic role in organizations. Do you agree?

A15. Public relations is absolutely at the table, providing advice to the C-suite. We are being called in earlier, at the strategic moment, to opine on acceptability of the policy. No longer is it simply the best way to communicate. RE

Question from Heather Yaxley (England)

Q16. In April 2005, you wrote “we must counter accusations about PR being propaganda.” How do you see public relations as being different from propaganda, and how can these accusations be countered when much PR practice is seeking to persuade others by propagating one-sided messages?

A16. Public relations has gotten a bad name from activities of political operatives in pursuit of electoral victory. The spin room—or the “wag the dog” mentality where reality can be created through innuendo and leaks—is unacceptable in mainstream PR. We can confront this fundamental misperception of our profession by: knowing our subject; by insisting on disclosure of our client’s interest; and by having a zero tolerance standard for the black arts of spin and leaks. RE

Question from Ronel Rensburg (South Africa)

Q17. Can nations (countries) be branded? And is there really a difference between “reputation” and “brand?”

A17. Nations can be branded. For example, the basis of such branding can be important celebrities or sports stars; the objective success in specific industry sectors; the reputation of global companies (e.g., Korea is enhanced by Samsung); the presentation of global events (e.g., the Olympics for Beijing) and the arts, including the culinary arts. RE

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For more of his vision and thoughts, read Richard Edelman’s blog: 6 A.M.

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References to this post:

– links for 2009-05-06 (y o u j u s t d o n t g e t . u s blog)
– Edelbytes the PR Conversation (Greenbanana blog)
– PR Measurement (Social Media PR Measurement News Network)
– The Week’s Best, 11 May 2009 (Teaching PR blog)

2 COMMENTS

  1. In response to Edelman patting itself on the back, will quote Mr. Seamen’s comments re: Pfizer and insert this here:

    “Pfizer’s view of itself as a “50 bl. dollar start up company” is ironic. Its merger with Wyeth is motivated precisely by Pfizer’s failure to function like a start up company. In reality, it has had to buy the pipe-lines and research of smaller rivals to secure the company’s future.”

    Edelman has done exactly the same thing — buy the [PR] pipeline — by entering markets and gobbling up promising little “start-up” PR firms to 1) gain a foothold in those markets where it doesn’t know the local environment and 2)to make sure that Edelman doesn’t compete with those firms. Fair enough, and I’m sure the little guys are delighted, which is super. So far, win-win. But sadly, in this Edelmanization of the world, the output is beginning to look the same. What was once cultural differences is now homogenized with only a sprinkling of the local culture. I realize that I am making a blanket statement. It is just my hope that Edelman will re-examine its relationships abroad and encourage the local firms to be themselves rather than please Big [American] Daddy.

  2. Please let me clarify. I have nothing against either Pfizer or Edelman’s acquisition strategies. My beef with Pfizer focussed on its its BS. I questioned Pfizer’s motivations. I highlighted Pfizer’s amateur attempt to “connect” with its staff by talking nonsense. Pfizer – based on the account given by Toni – claims that its staff perceive it as a “50 bl. dollar start up company”. Reality is so far removed from that claim as to make it laughable. Therefore, it does not take an expert to acknowledge that Pfizer sought and found the results from its employees that it sought. Whether it did so consciously or unconsciously hardly matters.

    The worst thing about Pfizer’s PR is how consistently it undermines its own reputation. However, Pfizer is not alone in being scared or insecure when it comes to matching the realities of its business to experience. It is as if they wished that their businesses had a different reality to the one that it actually exists. In the mismatch the credibility gap opens up and swallows the reputations of the deniers (mostly corporates, and certainly Pfizer).

    In response (on behalf of the likes of Pfizer), PR needs to toughen up and to get more backbone if it is to connect with modern public opinion. In that sense, Pfizer has got it all wrong.

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