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Richard Edelman on the future of PR: ‘it’s going to be more like a newsroom’

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By Kenneth Hein | US Editor

September 28, 2022 | 10 min read

On its 70th anniversary, Richard Edelman maps out his plan for his namesake company as well as the future of public relations as we know it.

Richard Edleman

Richard Edelman says for brands 'to keep their heads down and just duck is a mistake'

Can earned media overtake paid media? Will Edelman double in size to a $2bn company? Only the future will tell. But on its 70th anniversary chief executive Richard Edelman has a keen eye on the future: whether it’s global growth outside of the US and UK, continuing to steal share from creative agencies or making trust the ultimate metric. Here’s what Edelman had to say about his company’s past, present and future.

PR isn’t really about relating to the public anymore. What’s changed for Edelman these past 70 years?

We’ve done a few things that are quite different from the others that are big in the industry. We stayed independent. That was certainly different compared to Hill and Knowlton, FleishmanHillard and Burson [BCW]. Second, we’ve really tried to become a communications firm, not just a PR firm. Third is we’ve operated under a single brand. The holding companies are creating the VMLY&R combination of brands. There’s something really important about the broadening of a brand instead of having alphabet soup.

How do you define communications?

We actually define who we are, and what we do based, around trust. Action earns trust and we’re trying to get our clients to do things. [From] having Unilever change the song on the ice cream trucks for Good Humor because of that racist minstrel song… [to] all the work we’ve done for Dove over the years around female self-image. It's all a ‘do’ and then a ‘say.’

There is a blurring of what all agencies do these days when it comes to PR, creative, strategy, you name it. Why is this happening?

PR people like me, recognize that classic PR spend is 7-10% of the total marketing budget. So, we want in on the digital and advertising. Number two, the advertising people have realized that a lot of people skip ads and they have to get into earned whether it’s through influencer or just through media so that they get into the conversation. That’s why you’ve got the collision. Our advantage is we understand better what a newsworthy story than ad agencies.

So how has the ad industry ecosystem changed?

How many people BBDO has in the New York office? 350? We have 950. We have gotten into a place where we’re in the decision tree on who can be lead agency. [If a marketer says, ] ‘I want an integrated program. I want to really break through idea.’ You know, it’s not like when I started and they say call the agency. If they like our ideas that go with our ideas.

The holding companies have done a few things. First, they have combined brands. They’ve destroyed JWT, Grey and Y&R. Just bye bye. The second is they have given us a window in the creative area by really emphasizing their media buying. In fact, they are allowing the media buying to be the creator.

What does PR look like five years down the road?

Edelman is going to look a lot like a newsroom. We’re going to be much faster twitch than pitch and catch. For example, we have a unit called Blue Room that does very fast story creation. [For example,] they saw that Drake came out with an album that has pregnant women on the cover. They called Drake’s manager and say, ‘hey, do you mind if we put a Band-aid on their arm and put this up as a social post because we’re promoting vaccinations for pregnant women for a client.’ They say, ‘great, wonderful, do it.’ And all of a sudden it went crazy, like wildfire. I want that to be exactly how we play. While you’re watching the day unfold, [respond with] a lot of fast twitch social communication. We’re going to change how we do what we do in PR. I’m convinced of this.

Second, we're going to have to do much more through company channels or brand channels, because I see continued shrinkage of media. The amazing statistic from the Edelman Trust Barometer is the most credible source of information is ‘my company’s newsletter.’ That’s affecting how people think. Our business can be big in employee communications. [Also,] Edelman digital will be folded into the main house. You won’t be separate over here.

This is going to be how we do everything. And we will be a much more evenly balanced business between [outside the] US and UK. The US is 60% of the business. It should be 50% or 45% because India, all these other places, have companies that will be as sophisticated as western companies. Our Asia business is only 10% of our business and it should be 20% and more because that in theory should be where the people are and where the spend is going to be.

What’s PR look like in 10 or 15 years?

My fantasy is that that earned eclipses paid. That’s probably completely nuts but I may as well dream. There’s much more power in something that is spontaneous and movement and has individuals able to contribute their own points of view to it. If we can do that, we really will have achieved something.

What are the challenges?

It’s a really politicized time. And, you know we're trying to navigate and represent clients who have a wide range of products. I want us to be involved in change on sustainability for example. That may be working for big food companies, or others, that have challenges and we have to express to people, here’s the baseline and here's continuous improvement. And that’s what we’re in the business of doing.

We do want to be about new jet fuels and about alternative energy and those companies. We did a program for Shell where we found that people had argued with their spouse, when they took off for work, they usually sped and used up more oil. So, we said have a 15-minute cooldown before you leave. If you leave pissed off, you might get a ticket and be you’ll certainly use a lot of fuel. Those are fun things that people remember. And you know, that’s what we do. We’re not doing public affairs stuff for energy.

How do you become a $2 billion company?

First is to bring balance geographically because 70% of the business is US/UK. Second is to really make this integrated solutions business of digital, data, etc. core to the proposition. With ‘One Edelman’ we’re trying to bring teams as if it’s a classic agency: your PR type, your media type, to bring all the skills together. And then the third is to get clients to buy into this idea of trust through action. We're working really hard to develop a Net Trust Score and make that [the go-to metric] instead of Net Promoter Score. So, let’s see $2 billion? It’s possible.

Let’s talk trust and where influencers live in the mix.

Observation one is brands have to stand up and speak up. Even in the wake of George Floyd's murder, we found that by two-to-one Republicans expected brands to stand up about race, seven-to-one with Democrats. To keep your head down and just duck is a mistake. Second, there’s real power in trustworthy content. There’s a real battle for truth and that people are desperate for facts. If you can put good information out there, it’s really helpful. The last thing I would say is the dispersion of authority has made it absolutely urgent that this influencers be brought in in a substantive way. Influencers are not necessarily just the mega ones but more micro influence play.

How big of a piece of the PR puzzle have influencers become?

It’s a big growth engine for Edelman at the moment. It’s, I don’t know, a $35m business. We think it should be $100m. Some part of it will be taking share from existing budgets and some of its going to be just taking it away from advertising because it works better ... Today, you don’t even necessarily care whether the mainstream media covers [a campaign]. If you pay three or four influencers to light the fire, it's the beginning of the cookout.

So, what about the metaverse?

When the World Economic Forum is going into the metaverse, and it’s not for transaction but for reputation, we have to pay attention ... We did a really clever campaign putting Absolut in the metaverse … I would say we are baby steps there, honestly.

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