Raconteur Richard Edelman weaves an effective narrative during mesh07 keynote interview

“If you score more goals than you give up, you still win.” May 31, 2007, Toronto

Richard Edelman shares his definition of public relations, agency goals scored and missed, plus tips for success in public relations and social media at the mesh07 conference.

Stuart MacDonald (mesh co-founder and organizer) began Thursday’s keynote interview by asking Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the world’s largest independent public relations firm, his definition of PR. “Public relations is primarily about telling a story well.” He continued by indicating that the essence of the story must be based in truth and it can’t involve spin or the black arts. Edelman maintained that the most successful public relations practitioners map out a strategy to tell a “story” in the best ways possible and through as many channels as possible. More recently this has included social media tools and options.

He admitted that the reputation of public relations has been blackened over the years, in particular when it is represented by political communications (“swiftboating” or hard-sell political tactics). But for the most part this damaged reputation is in the past tense, as he believes this is the “best of times” for PR. Messages or stories have moved past a strict focus on ad campaigns that aim to achieve media attention, to involving a greater number of publics.

A baselines of trust with various publics must be established, which is a primary reason why Edelman introduced its Trust Barometer. The most recent report found that trust and credibility have been “narrowed down by the mainstream media,” and that there is a general lack of trust in traditional institutions. Conversely, individuals tend to trust their peers much more. With this “runaway of trust in a stakeholders’ world,” public relations must seek to engage and win over NOGs, communities and regulators, by holding open and transparent conversations with all. Edelman detailed one client project, LowerManhatten.info, as a successful engagement of vox populi. He described the site as “a living press kit where people can share their information and conversations.”

This platform works to achieve the “sweet spot” between the traditional and vertical (top-down) control of the message, with the horizontal access of spontaneous dialogue and personal experiences. The “sweet spot” is the axis of vertical and horizontal messages, with the co-creation process having much less emphasis on command and control. In today’s world control hardly translate to credibility, so he urged the audience to work to find the much-preferred sweet spot.

He cited the recent Dove campaign as another excellent example of this perfect axis, in particular the Dove video that achieved such phenomenal viral legs. He indicated that this was a traditional ad media buy, complemented by the video (and duly credited Ogilvy & Mather Canada* as its creator). [In another session it was noted that the Dove video was never a part of the television or film media buy, it existed solely on the Internet.] Not only was the technology spectacular, but its underlying message was the manipulation by popular media on what constituted a perfect woman. To help change this perception, Dove instituted a fund to help women improve their self image; however, the real power of the message’s delivery was found in the resulting “conversations” on the Internet and in the mainstream media.

Edelman indicated that the lines between public relations and advertising are blurring with social media. He believes both continue to have validity and worth. Which route you take depends on the type of product or service. Do you really have new information or innovation? If yes, PR should lead the campaign.

Not surprisingly, the “Wal-Marting across America” debacle was introduced into the interview. Edelman emphasized that the campaign proved to be a fundamental knowledge opportunity for the worldwide agency, as the emerging standards of the blogosphere was made abundantly clear. Amongst other lessons, bloggers were loud and adamant that not only should there be quality of information in a social media campaign, but absolute transparency in its dissemination.

Lesson learned: for all future campaigns Edelman staffs were charged with, “identifying the source of the funding and who is being paid to do what.” This also translates to Edelman staff who blog needing to adhere to a high standard in disseminating information, including who and where was the source of information found and a judgmental imperative as to whether these sources are credible. The eight employees comprising Edelman’s Me2Revolution practice are charged with disseminating agency information to all staff. This is important because the 2,700 staff at Edelman must all engage to some extent in social media. The Me2Revolution unit continues its work to develop and share standards, best practices, including a 24-hour hotline where any Edelman employee can get an answer to a related concern.

Some other areas Edelman touched upon:

• contrary to reports, the total consumption of media is rising; it’s the sources from where people receive their information that is changing
• likewise, there isn’t really a drop in investigative reporting, rather it’s that the “critical eyes” are coming from different places (and more eyes, not fewer)
• bloggers can’t be salespeople
• ghost blogging is “a dicey proposition,” because readers prefer the authenticity of an actual CEO or other credible source

Edelman admitted that the success rate of C-level bloggers is modest—“CEO blogging is a thin space so far”—and believes that time, skill and risk issues generally account for the lack of take-up. He shared that the CEO of Pitney Bowes is about to begin blogging on health-related issues. Personally, he finds it incredibly gratifying to be a blogger and accounts for its success by his healthy number of daily page views, the numbers of comments, plus the conversations that ensue. He believes he learns more than he imparts, by listening and acknowledging during quality interactions, as well as making changes in Edelman operations where warranted.

When an audience member at the conference queried him about whether social media had inherent risks to it [using another agency’s social media campaign with Chevy Tahoe case as an example], Edelman responded that judgment issues will come up constantly. As a result, he advised in doing your homework: ensure that campaigns are thoroughly researched and considered before being released, in particular think about the dangers that might result. And if a danger emerges that you didn’t anticipate? “Once you’re in the soup, let the soup cool off a bit before you put your fingers back into it.” These are inherent risks with experimentation and pushing the envelope.

The interview wound down with a brief discussion about corporate responsibility. Edelman sees a correlation in the rising of trust in organizations that practise CR with the decline in trust in government. He indicated that this is particularly true in developing nations. The caveat is that businesses will take on the CR issues that are of use and interest to them from an organizational point of view. Edelman believes this is fine, as long as there is transparency about motivation. He also urges management to use CR initiatives as an opportunity to inform and engage its employees about what the company is doing and why.

With any campaign, traditional or social media, public relators should quantify and qualify its effects (pre- and post-campaign), in particular how they relate to the thought leaders and influencers. He believes agencies who engage in social media initiatives can charge their clients additional fees for this “horizontal access.” Aspire to have these projects approved “at the boardroom table.” But proceed cautiously. The race to be first is human instinct, but you shouldn’t proceed with insufficient or inaccurate information. If your organization is found to be at fault about something, admit the mistake and be honest about how it might have happened: “Here’s what we know, what we don’t know and this is the path we are taking to find out more.”

Edelman concluded with three general tips for a successful campaign:

1. Make your stories visual
2. Don’t be defeated by setbacks
3. Don’t let your client say, “Here’s your little box to work from.”
(i.e., channel neutral/platform neutral).

Note: some liberties were taken to aggregate information from the main interview and themes reiterated or expanded upon during the audience Q&A portion of the session.

Update: *On July 20, 2007, Ogilvy & Mather Canada and Unilever nabbed a Cyber Grand Prix for the Dove’s “Evolution” campaign at the Cannes Lions Competition. (The first Cyber Grand Prix ever for Canada.)

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One Reply to “Raconteur Richard Edelman weaves an effective narrative during mesh07 keynote interview”

  1. On Saturday the mesh organizers let participants know that several of the mesh sessions had been recorded by a company called mDialogue (a four-year-old service where you can safely and securely share video in DVD and HDV quality).

    Anyone can access the keynote conversations with Richard Edelman, which is available in two parts:

    Part 1 of the keynote conversation with Richard Edelman
    Part 2 of the keynote conversation with Richard Edelman

    Plus you can access this list of other recorded sessions from the mesh07 conference.

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