Richard Edelman is CEO of Edelman PR, the world's largest independent PR firm and has a blog that is increasing in popularity and influence. Following is the result of our interview with him:
The Edelman Trust Barometer essentially found people don’t trust business, government and the media anymore. They’re suspicious of CEOs, traditional institutions and authority figures. Instead, they trust friends, work colleagues and family members. What do you think is the general perception of PR firms these days? How does the barometer impact your strategy?
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, PR people rank far down the list of credible spokespeople. In fact, just above athletes and entertainers and just below lawyers. And PR firms have done themselves no favors in the past six months. The payment of $250,000 by a major PR company to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to guarantee mention of the US Dept. of Education's No Child Left Behind campaign on his program has led to a series of scathing articles in key media such as the NY Times. PR firms are also criticized for insufficient identification of commercial or government sponsorship of Video News Releases.
In short, PR firms have not endured such public criticism since the early 90s, when the government of Kuwait hired a major competitor to generate support for the US' first invasion of Iraq. The Barometer's findings and this rather negative context for PR companies means that: (1) PR companies should put their clients forward as spokespeople not themselves. (2) PR companies must be very transparent as to funding sources and motives, and (3) PR companies should recognize the incredible opportunity afforded by peer-to-peer communication.
Note that in the Trust Barometer the third most credible source is “Average Person like Me” so we can be the communications choice for smart companies seeking conversation with their multiple stakeholders.
The working title of our book is “Blog or Die.” The best way to explain it would be “Blogging is not a passing fad but any brand, business or organization that fails to grasp (that) fact may very well be." We lifted that quote from a recent white paper co-authored by Edelman & Intelliseek. Do you think companies that ignore blogging and conversational marketing are facing the same fate today as did the village blacksmith who ignored the automobile at the beginning of the last century?
Blogging is essential to any company seeking to connect in a spontaneous, continuous fashion with its publics. It affords a window into a company unlike any other--more credible because it lacks the dimension of control, more sustainable because it is rooted in reality, more powerful because it can be connected to comments of others having primary experiences around the world with a company's product or service. Note that we are now talking about co-creation of brands with consumers whose experiences are part of the legend that grows and can affect the future of a brand. Smart companies will take heed of what they learn from on line critics, amending the product or process by being committed to continuous improvement from whatever source.
What do you advise clients to do about blogging? What is Edelman advising them in regard to traditional programs and tactics such as press releases?
Interesting analogy to the village blacksmith--I think those of us in PR have to improve our own game--we have to be very much part of the conversation by reading key bloggers in each relevant product category, be prepared to contribute to the conversation by smart posts and to keep key bloggers updated by having relationships akin to those we have with reporters who count on us to keep them informed of key developments.
We are also asking our clients to designate one or more mid-level employees as bloggers so that the company's R&D or marketing or service units can gain profile outside of trade media or business publications. In fact, good word of mouth in the blogosphere leads to coverage in the off line media.
In your opinion, what’s wrong with traditional marketing? What’s right about it? Can it be fixed? Why or why not?
Traditional marketing is premised on an old model of persuasion. In the old days, in the 50s-80s, marketers could reach 97% of target audience with three ads in prime time on network TV. They relied on a pyramid of Authority in which elite audiences such as investors, regulators, retailers and elite media such as the Wall St Journal received advance notice of company plans.
A large commitment to advertising and appropriate monies for slotting allowances guaranteed favorable treatment at retail...and the consumer, lured by the ads, would purchase, especially if a big name celebrity is in the ad. The big idea--keep everything under wraps until the last moment before the ads break--give an exclusive to the Wall Street Journal and you are home free.
What's changed? Well in short, everything. There is lack of trust, especially in advertising (note our finding of – to-1 advantage of free media over ads in every country surveyed except China where it is 6-to-1). There is no more network dominance so there is no ability to guarantee reach to key purchasers. There are other empowered audiences, ranging from non-governmental organizations to the company's own employees. There is a pinging of the message in an uncontrolled fashion. So now a smart company has a different approach--call it the paradox of transparency.
Co-create your brand with key consumers. Talk to critics at NGOs in advance to reach an understanding. Use your employees as your first line of offense. Use a real person as a spokesperson or maybe the winner of a reality show like American Idol. Create synergy among the promotions and talk across the silos, but offer real dialogue, not hot air
What made you decide to blog? Who is your audience? What have you learned from the experience?
I decided to blog last summer when I challenged my colleagues at Edelman to Live in Color. What I meant was that I expected them to live in the real world, to get outside of the office, to experience mass culture, to join non-profit groups, to give something back to the community.
I am blessed to be the CEO of a communications company with offices in 42 cities. I have amazing experiences almost every day. So, I blog to share some of those moments. But, I also blog because I want another way to communicate with the nearly 2000 people of Edelman beyond my formal end-of-year memo on our financial results or the strategy for the next fiscal year.
I want them to understand that I am thinking hard about the communications business and about public relations. In that context, I took a very activist stance in the aforementioned Armstrong Williams case, with a December blog titled Pay for Play Cannot Work in PR.
Finally, I believe that one can truly advise only when you know how to play the game. I am still learning about the blogosphere--my posts are too long, my writing too infrequent--but I feel as if I am part of the revolution, not simply standing on the sideline observing.
Many of the tactics that you seem to think do not work anymore, are practiced by Edelman and its affiliates. Is this true? If so, how do you plan to make Edelman change over the next few years?
Some tactics used by PR firms are destined for the scrap heap, either because they undermine the integrity of the media or because bloggers will supplant them. Buying one's way onto a video news release issued by a "credible reporter" who uses his national celebrity to persuade local stations to run his 60-second segment will go the way of the dodo. So will exclusive stories for elite media, which agree to stringent conditions on interview subjects or date of release of story in return for sole access to a company's top executives. The limited release of unfavorable data, with a planned later release of the full story (note Bill Clinton's slow acknowledgement of his involvement with Monica Lewinsky to afford the U.S. public time to absorb the shock--attenuation through time and space) will also be undermined.
Here is what I am telling my people for new rules of the road: full disclosure, no use of names of front organizations, enter chat rooms only on identified basis, demand a seat at the decision-making table so you can be heard by those at C suite, listen and learn from cyberspace.
PR practitioners often serve the role of intermediaries between executives and the press. How will blogging change their role?
The role of intermediary has often been used by PR people in the wrong fashion. David Weinberger and I had an interesting discussion on this very point a week ago. He contends that PR is distrusted in the blogosphere because we are mediators--we prevent our clients from speaking freely and openly in favor of a "spun" version of facts. He wants PR people out of the middle to ensure veracity.
I disagreed. I thought that we could play a very constructive role as windows into corporations and as prods to action. We should prepare a company to communicate better by allowing bloggers from mid-levels to speak openly. We can encourage co-creation of brands by finding catalysts, frequent commentators on a given subject online, then arming them with information to enable better conversations. PR should be seen as a spur to true interaction, not a barrier. We need to eschew the Clintonesque spin machine in favor of a more modern approach of truth will out.
We will still need to fulfill our historic role as bridge to the traditional media, but will broaden our media lists to include key bloggers
One evolving argument is: use blogging and conversational marketing techniques and save tons of money. Take the money you save to build products that are more remarkable. What happens to all the PR and marketing people who see their jobs as supporting products and services that are woefully unremarkable? Should they plan to pursue new careers in restaurant service?
The nature of innovation is not quite as simple as you position it. Incremental change can be quite useful. Let's use an example of ibuprofen, which had been sold as an anti-inflammatory prescription drug for a decade. The patent is running out, so two major companies decide to offer it over-the-counter.
Now patients have a choice of a more expensive and powerful prescription products and a proven safe and effective OTC version (Advil). We promoted Advil for everyday pain relief of sports related injury, menstrual cramps, dental issues—in fact, for my stiff back on this endless flight to Seoul.
What I would rather have you consider is the possibility that the huge advertising budgets put behind brand launches may be reconsidered. What if PR were used in conjunction with conversational marketing to create a runway of credibility so that the brand's plane can take off? Advertising's role is then limited to purchase intent, because awareness and preference have already been established.
What advice do you have for companies considering a blogging policy?
There have to be some accepted criteria for bloggers at a company. First, there can be no release of confidential information. Second, there must be a commitment to good conduct--just as a person would not run around naked at the company picnic. Third, there should be some editing function--Derek gets a chance at each of my posts to make sure they are sane. Fourth, there should be real diversity in your designated bloggers so outsiders get a true picture of the firm--we have a blogger in our employee communications practice, one who runs Edelman Korea. We tried a wiki but it failed
What advice do you have for executives considering a blog?
Executives have to be committed to speak as real people, not in “corporate blah-blah.” They have to be ready to take criticism in stride. They need to understand the demand for regular posts and for writing back to those who take the time to read. And they have to be interesting--by taking a bit of editorial license and by having experiences out of the ordinary and being willing to write about them.
Can you comment on some of the executive concerns such as protecting IP, bloggers competing with launches, etc.
Companies have a legitimate concern about premature release of information. But the need for control must be balanced with a desire to participate in the global dialogue. I believe that Apple's recent lawsuit against a blogger was a mean-spirited unnecessary act of corporate bully behavior that will only incite more bad behavior. Why not take the tack of reaching agreement with the violator and establishing rules for future.