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Richard Edelman: Public relations must evolve, or get left behind


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.”

Thinking big

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.”

Jason Woodward Jason Woodward is a publications intern for Tactics. He is a senior at Brigham Young University studying public relations and business. linkedin.com/in/jasondonwoodward



Comments

Mark Grimm says:

I think today we have to redefine the "media." In a sense, anyone on Facebook is in the media. In the 21st century, we will get much of our news from each other. Therefore, PR strategies have to include swaying the opinion makers now living on the Internet.

July 6, 2011

Doug Poretz says:

The reason that there is a "free for all" for who owns social media (PR, advertising, interactive agencies and professionals vs each other, etc) is that the way the communications industry is organized is wrong. It is organized by distribution channel (that is, ad agencies deal with paid media channels, PR deals with earned media, events companies deal with events, etc.) -- but which distribution channel is used is really a mechanical issue -- the real core issue is: who are my targets? what messages will resonate with them? After you answer those questions, then the channel becomes important -- does it really make sense for the communications industry to remain defined and organized by distribution channel?

July 13, 2011

Jason Woodward says:

Doug, I agree completely with your sentiment: compose the right audience-specific messages first, select your targeted distribution channels second. But these firms each have competitive advantages in their respective mediums. When research shows that an interactive digital campaign will be the most effective way to get a message to a certain audience, companies will turn to a digital firm with a good media department. PR may be able to compose the message and pinpoint an audience's media consumption habits, but few firms have the resources or talent to create what ad agencies and digital firms can in terms of content. I think part of the problem is that ad agencies are incorporating our skills (engagement, trust, relationship-building) into their existing services (big ideas, media production, creating content), but many PR firms are not following suit. They add what we can do to what they can do. They are evolving; we are not. In the Gatorade Replay example, the ad agency's big idea generated more earned media than any series of journalist pitches ever could. They actually EARNED that media placement without needing a PR agency to do it. I think we need to broaden our skill set too if we want to compete with that.

July 15, 2011

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