Edelman Revolution At The Crossroads

“I still find some bloggers unwilling to acknowledge the positive role played by PR people; we are sometimes demonized as floggers or Richard Edelmanworse,” Richard Edelman says in the following interview with PRBlogNews.

Richard Edelman (right) is the CEO of the firm that bears the family name. Richard is the son of Daniel J., the founder and architect of the world’s largest independent public relations firm (by far), with nearly $325 million in net fees last year. In September 2004 Richard launched a blog called 6AM that secured his personal imprint on the firm, signaled a big move into the blogging/PR 2.0 space, and presaged the new era of Pioneer Thinking. From a branding and financial perspective, Pioneer Thinking has been a stellar success. Edelman net fees grew nearly 24% last year, three times the rate of the number two independent, Ruder Finn (according to O’Dwyer’s). Edelman is the hot shop in PR.

That success has come with a great deal of scrutiny, public analysis, and a constant stream of criticism. Richard Edelman’s drive to spread the mantra of the “horizontal conversation” through its many practices and 46 offices worldwide has been hampered by persistent questions about its tactics and operations. Edelman takes a thumpin’ in the April 2 story on Wal-Mart in the New Yorker, the latest in a string of stories that try to pierce the veil that cover Edelman’s strategies and tactics. Considering his constant posts that beg for understanding, it is curious that Richard Edelman is still widely misunderstood.

You are going to gain trust if…
You listen
You make changes suggested by your interested community You acknowledge error You speak through multiple channels You allow dissonance and don’t control Forget the message and embrace the conversation – - Richard Edelman post 2/02/2006

I think that the PR business has to adapt, from a world of mass production to custom dialogue, from press releases and pitching to listening and counselling. It means more training and fewer but better people, a model more akin to consulting and law firms than the broad pyramid used in the past with worked pushed downward. But be clear that I don’t just want experienced people working on my business–I want those who are steeped in their communities, who Live in Color by engaging in arts or NGOs or whatever. Posted by: Richard Edelman at February 3, 2006 10:05 AM

Is this the future of public relations, or the insidiousness of planted PR spies within our midst? Is this the brave new PR land where there is no real differentiation between professional journalists and amateur advocates, between spokespeople and consumers – that indefinable netherworld that Strumpette defines as “surreptitious selling.”  

Of course, what intrigues us most about Edelman right now is last year’s launch of Me2Revolution, the social media skunk works with Rick Murray as President, Steve Rubel, Phil Gomes, and Michael Wiley as SVPs.  Following a blog storm against Edelman’s blogging practices on behalf of clients last fall, Me2Revolution was charged with establishing and furthering a social media code of ethics throughout Edelman.  What does Me2Revolution really do? Can you make money in “social media”? Edelman’s practices in social media spark intense curiosity in the industry. 

See previous post for background and groundrules for this interview.  I want to thank Richard for the time he took to respond to these questions. – Mark Rose, Editor, PRBlogNews

PRBlogNews: What investment did you make in Me2Revolution? Is it profitable? What obstacles, setbacks have you faced? How are you adjusting?

Richard Edelman: Me2Revolution is Edelman’s investment in innovation in digital media. We decided that the best approach is to centralize our think tank function, rather than allow it to be dispersed around the firm. It is important to distinguish between this unit and our Edelman Interactive Solutions, which is charged with executing programs on-line and has been a significant business (and profitable) for us since the late 90s. Me2Revolution was never intended to be a profitable unit—it is intentionally an investment in our future as a firm and as an industry.  

Our obstacles have included concern about regulatory authorities (key point for our pharmaceutical clients who live with the FDA), a zero sum game mentality about budgets (in fact we are now shooting for the broader marketing budgets trying to take a bigger share of the total pie, not more from PR budget), and ambivalence about control of message versus need for spontaneity and originality. I still find some bloggers unwilling to acknowledge the positive role played by PR people; we are sometimes demonized as floggers or worse. We have adjusted by doing education of our account staff, continuing to provide a stream of products such as a social media press release, and helping our client base to understand the potential for this line of business by showing success stories.

What is the most difficult barrier for an established agency to enter the PR 2.0/social media space? Where are the landmines?

The most difficult barrier to entry for established agencies is the mental shift from talking from a set of messages to relating in a continuous dialogue. We must move from selling to listening then speaking. We also have to move from hourly pricing to value pricing because inspiration and ideas do not directly correlate to time spent.

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Is PR 2.0/social media a profitable service for PR agencies to offer? How difficult is it to measure results and show quantifiable, bottom line impact to clients.

I believe this can be a profitable service for PR firms. We believe that there can be consulting revenue (scoping the market, recognizing the niche to be filled), revenue from arranging promotions with MySpace or other comparable entities, and helping to create professional content (example: how to plant tomatoes for Scotts Miracle Gro) or to update company web materials so there is a central source of credible information.

Do you see “social media” infiltrating the rest of the Edelman organization? What is your role as CEO of Edelman?

Social media is definitely infiltrating our organization. We did a meeting of our senior US team in Phoenix about a month ago. Each of eight teams was asked to include a digital aspect in their creative presentations on a specific client assignment. The most hysterical was a concept for Palm that included a video of two thumbs speaking about their overwork on Blackberry and their fantasy about moving to the 10 fingers available to type on a new Palm product. We are delivering quantifiable results, such as the 20,000 people who signed up for the virtual red ribbon for World AIDS Day in the UK as a result of our work with MySpace.

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Strumpette promulgates a theory that Me2Revolution has replaced the media and is engaging in “surreptitious selling.” I’m sure you’ve seen the post I refer to. What does Me2Revolution do and how is it different from traditional public relations? Do you, or others, have any reservations about the morality of social media in public relations?

There is no surreptitious selling at our firm, in the on-line or off-line worlds. We have specific rules of engagement, namely identification of the firm, of the client we are serving, of our reason for being in touch, and of the spokesperson from the client or third party organization. The key difference from classic media relations, where we are the middle man setting up interviews, is that a Me2 program might involve organizing a venue in which people can have their own discussions or put up their own content. I have no question about morality of social media—in fact it is inherently democratic, self-correcting and responsive to its participants. I believe that the best public relations is about truth in the public interest. I reject the old stereotypes of spin, artifice and the black arts as largely being creations of 1990s politics, which correctly have been rejected by the private sector.

Edelman overshadowed its clients Wal-Mart and Microsoft when its blog practices were questioned prominently in mainstream media. What lessons did you learn from that experience?

SpringAssociates.com - Spring Associates - specialists to the PR and Marcom industriesI am proud of our blogging work on behalf of Wal-Mart and Microsoft. In fact, Wal-MartFacts.com has been a terrific contributor to the knowledge about the company, with 150,000 people going each week to the site to learn about environment, health and other aspects of the company. Similarly our work on behalf of XBOX with gaming bloggers added significantly to the knowledge of the product and actually helped the company improve its concept over time. 

Is PR 2.0/social media here to stay, or a fad? Will we see a transformation in public relations practices because of social media?

Social media is here to stay. I see the development of the horizontal axis of communications, where the conversation is peer to peer, based on personal experience, passion and knowledge is the sum of the parts. There is an intersection with the vertical axis of communications, premised upon top down message delivery, where the elites get substantive content and the mass audience gets simple statements largely from advertising. The best results are found from the intersection of the vertical and horizontal, the sweet spot being a congruence of individuals relating their own findings with the controlled messages coming from the company or its independent experts. We will see a transformation of PR because we have the opportunity to become the communications method of choice, facilitating an open exchange among stakeholders, providing sufficient detail in the debate so that trust can be established in a skeptical world.   

Comments

  1. Spoken like a PR guy. Bottom line: Richard’s experiment is based on the failed theories of Cluetrain Manifesto (http://tinyurl.com/yvvpfd ). And his
    investment has resulted in the biggest negatives of any PR firm on the Net (http://tinyurl.com/2jn3h4 ). It has been an indelible blemish on the Edelman brand. It is an embarrassment to the PR Industry.

    How long will Edelman’s involvement with social media last? That’s all about ego. How much will Richard pay to look silly? A lot apparently.

    - Amanda

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