The PR industry needs more not less pioneer thinking

Edelman’s first reported revenue decrease since the early Jurassic has unsurprisingly been greeted with substantial commentary, but much has been misguided, a surprising amount is self-defeating and some merely proves that schadenfreude is alive and well in the PR industry.

Richard Edelman has too much class to respond.  I don’t.

Typical commentary has fastened onto Richard’s admission that brand and digital teams underperformed and linked this to his firms’ hiring of advertising agency talent over the last few years and then draws the straight-line analysis that Edelman has ambitions to do advertising work and that it is not working and they should ‘stick to their knitting’.

It’s nearly two years since I left Edelman, but the strategy to put some real focus behind getting more lead brand roles was baked during my time there.  The analysis for the world’s biggest PR agency was very simple and oft stated.  More than anyone else, the firm needed to grow the industry’s adessable market opportunity so that it could continue its own growth. If you are already the biggest, then it stands to reason that your future growth will be hampered if your category does not also expand.

Above and beyond this analysis, Richard just straight-out believed that PR thinking should have a bigger role in management strategy and in the largest area of communications spend; brand strategy and creative.  He dares to be ambitious for us all.

The move into management strategy (or consultancy) was backed with the development of the Trust Study (incredibly, still the only piece of industry IP that anyone outside the industry has heard of) into a properly analytical tool that allows Edelman teams to solve client problems using real comparative data and therefore be taken seriously at board level because of it. It is a long-term investment of many tensof millions of dollars, the highlights of which are made freely available each year to the whole industry.

As for brand, it was clear that with the arrival of social media platforms and new levels of peer-to-peer trust and the increasing skepticism in some forms of (and some of the claims of) traditional advertising, that the PR industry had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take a bigger share of CMO spend.  And bear in mind that CMOs spend between 10 to 20 times the amount (in fees) that CCOs do.

But to get access to that, PR people needed to show up understanding marketing; understanding brand; understanding how to come to real insights and then be able to generate big ideas based on those insights and, finally, put those ideas in front of consumers at scale.   For the most part (with some honourable exceptions) the PR industry does not do this.

This is why we can’t even win our own category at Cannes and this is why we have not increased our share of CMO spending despite the existential crisis being experienced by so many advertising agencies and the big four marketing services groups they dominate.

So Edelman made specialist hires and investments in all these areas, not to replicate the advertising model, but to bring some of their disciplines and skills into the PR model or “earned centric creative” as Richard puts it.  Not all those hires worked out, and I can attest very personally that trying to migrate a PR structure and culture to a hybrid ‘communications marketing’ approach is incredibly hard.

I have no idea whether Richard or his new look management team will eventually succeed and I worry that some of the best equipped change agents have left and whether the complacent elements of the firm are as uncomfortable with these challenges as so many outside commentators appear to be.  And as time has moved on, I wonder if exploiting the opportunities in data and marketing automation are not an easier on-ramp to CMO spend.

But just as Trust puts our industry on the map annually at board level, if Edelman does crack getting significant lead brand roles we will all eventually have greater license to operate at the strategic end of the biggest and most lucrative area of communications.

I don’t discount in this the fact that there is a huge amount of innovation and great work that is done within the more traditional boundaries of Public Relations and of course that will always grow our industry too. 

But there is something to be cheered in pioneer thinking that opens up new markets and new opportunities for all of us and that is why I find some of the commentary and sanctimonious glee about Edelman’s results short-sighted and self-defeating.

David Brain

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