July 1, 2011
In the past 12 months, the world has experienced major crises and scandals involving some of its largest, most powerful companies. Their downfall in the global spotlight unearthed much more than operations problems — it revealed fundamental communications problems.
“We operate in a world without trust,” Richard Edelman said on June 10 at the 2011 PRSA Leadership Rally in New York City, talking about the public perception of business and government. “There’s no other word than ‘dire.’ ”
At the Rally, a two-day event for incoming PRSA Chapter presidents, Edelman, CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest privately owned PR agency, focused his keynote presentation, “The Third Way — Public Engagement,” on the evolving future of the PR profession. “People see everything as spin and lies,” he said, quoting Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.
Research echoes his sentiments. Studies show that people now value transparent and honest business practices above high returns. Of all developed countries, the United States ranks as one of the least trusting in its companies.
But for the PR profession, this data is not necessarily disheartening. As Edelman pointed out, it presents a tremendous opportunity.
“What people want in terms of corporate reputation is honesty, transparency and trust,” he said. “This is what we do. This is our time.”
Edelman said that public relations has the power to build genuine trust between a company and its customers. It can mend wounded brands and help them establish legitimate, honest credibility. Unfortunately, PR professionals aren’t the only ones offering answers.
“Digital firms are saying to clients, ‘We can now handle your whole social media platform.’ Ad agencies are coming up with big ideas based on social aspects. Consulting firms are coming in saying they can do what we do. We have a whole new set of competitors,” Edelman said. “It’s a free-for-all.”
But Edelman believes that the PR discipline is best equipped to handle the complicated challenges that today’s businesses face. “PR straddles the line between consulting and communications,” he said.
He offered an example: Germany’s decision to phase out its nuclear power by 2012. “What issues does this raise?” he asked. “Is it an ecosystem problem? Is it a jobs problem, an economic problem, a stockholder problem? It’s all of the above.” Public relations employs an analytical method of identifying and addressing all the key publics of an issue, and then cultivating mutually-beneficial relationships to solve those issues. The complexity of such problems simply does not lend itself to 30-second TV ads.
However, Edelman was quick to point out that, while a strategic approach to communication provides a distinct advantage, public relations must learn from its more creative and content-driven competitors.
“What you’ve done to date is great,” he said. “But what you’re going do in the next five years needs to change or you’re going to be left in the dust.” During his presentation, Edelman showed the audience a number of imaginative, effective advertising campaigns that not only increased sales, but capitalized on PR opportunities. He used the wildly successful Gatorade Replay campaign from ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day as an example. “That should have been a PR campaign,” he said. “That should have been us.”
Setting new expectations
“Do not think that PR is [just] media relations. If you have to read PR as media relations, you’re cutting off your future,” he continued. “Give them video or other multimedia. Give them some kind of bounce ... Go for big ideas. Don’t wait for the ad people to have big ideas. It doesn’t have to be elegant; it has to be clever.”
Edelman’s remarks reaffirmed the belief that the once rigid silos among advertising, marketing and PR disciplines have eroded. There aren’t any divisions in the marketplace of ideas — only good ideas. “Re-characterize your business as a public engagement business,” he said. “We’re still in PR. We are not campaigners; we are in the business of having a continuous conversation. We have an advantage in that.”
Edelman brought the topic back to the bottom line, which he insisted must drive all measures of public relations' success. “Don’t weigh your success on the basis of media impressions,” he said. “We have to be evaluated on selling the product.”
With a final analogy, Edelman summarized not only the changing model of business, but also the evolving role that public relations must play in helping business succeed.
“The old world of business was a kind of fortress,” he said. “A business makes a profit, it stands alone in protecting the brand, and it controls the information flow. That idea is over. The new expectations of business are profit and purpose. We need to engage, not just advertise ... This is a marathon, not a sprint.”