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6 A.M.

Financial Times

A Fundamental Lack of Understanding

by

Published

I awoke this morning in London to have a leisurely scan of the newspapers before breakfast with Michael Stewart, president & CEO of Edelman Europe & CIS. Little did I know that my blood would be boiling within the first three minutes. As a teaser on page one of Tuesday’s Financial Times (I was a day late in reading… my bad), then onto page 12 in the front section was an article by Emma Jacobs titled, “Free publicity with no PRs.” Ms. Jacobs makes three points in her article, mostly via quotes from executives at companies in the finance sector. One, PR people simply stand in the way of effective communication between client and reporter… “they all too often provide a bland message… you don’t get in trouble with the press if you’re open and honest.” Two, companies waste huge sums on external PR consultants… one PR director of a European tech company said, “I have no idea what they do for us… the responsibility gets dumped on a junior executive who is neither empowered nor capable of thinking for themselves… PR experts on occasion drum up controversy simply in order to increase their fees.” Three, she does note that PR is expected to grow in the next decade, especially in employee communications, “as employees engage directly with external audiences via social media.” The overall impression is conveyed in this line: “Warren Buffett spurns spin doctors.”

I had the temerity to email Ms. Jacobs directly and ask for a phone conversation. She emailed me back and said that she was not criticizing PR; rather her goal was to show that there are a number of top executives who are doing the PR work themselves. She did acknowledge her distaste for PR people who come between her and the source. She said that she wanted to start a conversation; that she had received a number of positive notes as well as more critical comments such as my own. She said that she looked forward to my blog post. Well folks, here goes my effort to refute the misconceptions.

  1. The fundamental role of the public relations counselor is to advise a client on policy and only then on communications. The essence of PR is to establish strong relationships with stakeholders. That kind of trust is earned through action over time. PR executives are the conscience of the corporation, making connections to groups such as non-governmental organizations that can be brought into issues of supply chain or treatment of employees. PR people are often the ones insisting on transparency, from social responsibility reporting to public release of ingredients and their sourcing.
  2. The idea that we measure our value by a thirty-year old practice of measuring results in mainstream media column inches is to miss the reality that our programs are evaluated by sophisticated clients using the latest research tools on social sentiment, keyword analysis and overnight pulsing of consumers.
  3. To consider that the primary function of a PR person is to block access to a client is fundamentally wrong. It is true that we do train executives for interviews. But we do this because any decent practitioner would prefer to have his/her client speak on matters of substance. We know that a principal is much more credible than an agent; we are facilitators and creative resources, not replacements.
  4. To describe the PR business as a waste of money based on a discussion with one clearly cynical internal PR person is to miss the realignment of marketing priorities where earned media and social media actually provide the runway of trust that allows advertising to work effectively (one example is Adobe Photoshop 8 which got 20 plus percent of its leads from its earned and social programs, twice as much as advertising — and yes it is an Edelman client).

I want to acknowledge two or three fair criticisms in the article. It is true that too much work with journalists is “dumped” onto junior staff. It is not the way I practice PR. I recently organized and participated in a media tour for Professor Rosabeth Kanter of Harvard Business School, our client, which resulted in five op-ed pieces in Bloomberg Views and a likely story in the FT on infrastructure. Senior PR people need to maintain their press connections in order to give good advice to clients. It is not a business best done by mass pitching of stories on a cold call basis. I also agree that PR people have short attention spans; that the initial engagement is like falling in love, then you get distracted by the next client win. We try to fall in love again and again, to bring in new staff to reinvigorate the relationship. Finally, Ms. Jacobs may well be right when it comes to the boutique-sized financial firms that served as the majority of her sources for the story. If the owner/entrepreneur wants to spend his or her time cultivating reporters and sending along speeches or story ideas, so be it. I would invest my money with a different fund manager who is obsessed with the stock trading day.

I would hope that the executives reading the FT would recognize that Ms. Jacobs’ article applies to a very small sub-section of the corporate universe. PR is a strategic asset and your PR people, whether internal or external, provide an invaluable service based on judgment, personal connection to reporters and a broad set of relationships with stakeholders. That is why most smart CEOs have their PR people sit right next door, for advice and counsel on the most important issues facing the company.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

  • Reid Wegley

    Well stated Mr. Edelman. As a senior practitioner I prefer to take the lead with the media and let junior staffers, ‘work their way up.’ As for Ms Jacobs, she would be lucky to have me pitch her. I’m not a blocker, but rather an enabler of mutual parties.

  • I hope that planned FT piece on infrastructure isn’t pulled!

  • Thanks for writing this Richard. No journalist with any real experience of professional life could agree with Ms Jacob’s naive view of the world. Like many, I have worked in senior positions on both sides and recognise a fool when I see one.

  • Well said Richard!

  • eusis dougan-mckenzie

    Thank you Mr. Edelman. Your thoughtful and reflective response is telling of your personal style. Obviously as professionals we all can learn from our stakeholders and not all of us do things the correct way, so a look at what works and what does not work is fair. However I feel Ms Jacobs went into writing the article with her personal bias, as disclosed to you, and then used faulty premise or begged the question to make her care.

  • Some excellent information Mr. Edelman and a most interesting read.

    Michael

  • Not being in the PR business, per se, here is what I take away from this. Context and nuance matter significantly. This is a point I find myself making consistently, in my world of sales performance improvement. Authors have an experience in one company, with one set of context and nuances, and then write a post, article or book, speaking as if what they learned applies to everyone. This is why I frequently quip that business books are dangerous. Kudos for calling this out.

  • Greg

    An excellent read, thank you.

  • Michael Kawochka

    Bravo, Richard!

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