The new look of public relations, by Richard Edelman

Monday’s New York Times ran an article by Stuart Elliott on the rebranding of our competitor, Fleishman-Hillard (FH). The firm will “be the most complete communications company in the world… channel agnostic… across paid, owned, earned and shared media,” according to agency CEO Dave Senay. His is a bold vision, to partner with brands and to serve consumers with content that is alluring and worthy of sharing. The firm is hiring from outside of the PR field, from ad agencies, consultancies and brand identity firms. It sounds to me like the creation of a marketing services company within a single corporate entity.

I agree with Senay’s assessment of the convergence of media. I also agree with his recruitment of non-traditional talent. Where we part company is his strategy for becoming a one-stop shop that is as much an ad agency as PR firm. At Edelman, we are going to evolve and expand the remit of the public relations business.

The world is moving in our direction. We are not selling to an audience; we are trying to build relationships across the community of stakeholders. The horizontal, peer-to-peer, conversation is supplanting the top-down, controlled messaging that is the essence of advertising. The consumer is now also an employee, a shareholder, a member of an NGO, a community activist and a passionate user of products willing to advise on design.

PR is more than a set of tactics or tools. It’s a mindset; the ideas that come from PR people are different than those that come from advertising people. Both are engaged in storytelling, but the PR idea stimulates discussion and has the potential to play out over years. A PR idea has to start with relevancy and newsworthiness.

We are going to take full advantage of the inherent advantages of PR, which are credibility, speed, two-way interaction and continuous story creation. In the end, the consumer may not care about the source of the content, but quality counts.

We see massive white space opportunities with media, squeezed by declining print circulation and diminished digital advertising rates. We can accelerate promising content through promoted tweets and sponsored lists that go viral. We are going to reinvent the advertorial in cooperation with mainstream media. We will propose topics for special reports financed by a sponsor but with editorial autonomy. We will create a place for intelligent debate, from salon dinners to Twitter newsfeeds and industry conferences.

It is public relations that is best poised to serve clients in a dynamic marketplace that can be disrupted by a poor customer experience well catalogued in social media. We listen, we recommend policy change, we announce the new approach giving due credit to the aggrieved customer who pointed out the problem.

We see the potential of expanding into new product development, utilizing the community. Our client Adobe uses Facebook and its fans to beta test its products while in the development phase, then gives credit to members for useful adjustments. For this program we developed Adobe’s Create Manifesto, which helped frame advertising and overall communications.

We are playing a broader role, but we have to focus in our area of comparable advantage. Clients want specialist expertise and the opportunity to choose best in class partners. We are happy to work with advertising agencies, CRM and media buying firms for the betterment of clients.

Our industry has grown more slowly than advertising and much slower than digital in the past year. We have to re-frame our argument. Some will opt for the FH play of becoming a full-service provider. Others, like Edelman, will expand the definition of PR.

Richard Edelman is President and CEO of Edelman

Blog entry originally posted here