Mumbai: He is president and chief executive officer of public relations firm Edelman, one of the world’s largest, which has an India agency in R&PM:Edelman. Richard Edelman spoke in an interview about the forces driving media today, and new credible sources of influence and information. Edited excerpts:
What are the four forces driving media today?
One is that now you have much more opinion in news. It’s also somehow bridging into entertainment almost... The tone has changed, it used be sort of straight up,
now it’s got more flavour. Second, there is no wall between digital and the mainstream product and clearly, people are filing digital and then amending for print. Third, you start to see the tremendous impact of video and particularly YouTube.... The video aspect of journalism is picking up substantially online. People want it short and they want it visual. And the fourth thing is citizen generated content because it’s not just for fun or in crisis, it’s a way of interacting with the crowd...
Fading boundaries: Edelman president and chief executive officer says it’s not so much who the influencers are but what is enabling them.
For PR (public relations), the important thing is that mainstream media windows are shrinking. If you (PR agents) think your job is pitching stories... that’s good, but not enough. It’s about developing content and communicating visually in different ways. The line between news, entertainment and consumer-generated content is all going away.
What are the guidelines for public engagement in times of economic crisis?
Companies have to go beyond the mantra of what is “good for business is more business”. They have to have something that makes money but also meets the needs of society. I would also suggest they cooperate with government and NGOs in coming to the right policy, which we called private sector diplomacy. Frankly, business, with the scandals...has lost the mandate to lead by itself.
They (opinion leaders) are calling for business to be active and partnering with government and NGOs, so business are being called upon to address big societal issues outside of their core competency as a business. This is a real shift... We’ve moved from a shareholder mentality society to a stakeholder mentality, which means we have community benefit and not just profit. Wal-Mart, for example, talk about their broader responsibility and therefore, their broader opportunity; they use scale to advantage.
What is crowd surfing in political campaigns? And what is the role in our elections?
I think the Obama campaign was incredibly clever about recognizing the power of co-creation. And the MyBarackObama site said we are going to go where the eyeballs are, we’re going to set up a Facebook page, set up a MySapce page, a Twitter account and going to listen to what people say.
In India, this election is already quite different than past elections. Also, the Tata Jaago Re campaign, which gets people to sign up and register to vote, is quite amazing.
Who are the new influencers in the communications pyramid today?
My observation is, it’s someone like the young lady (Nisha Susan) who said, “You can’t tell us not to go to bars.” She came up with a good symbol (for the pink chaddi campaign) and motivated other women to get together around it. The other lady who came up with the For-She taxi service for women.
And it’s not so much who the influencers are but what is enabling them. It’s this melding between entertainment and news content that is powered in your country by mobile technology but also the Web. And as you get greater penetration for broadband and as you have lower price points on PCs (personal computers) and greater functionality in your PDAs (personal digital assistants), it empowers people out there to report what’s happening on the streets.
You’ve said employees are the new credible source of influence and twice as credible as CEOs. Please explain.
Our trust barometer says that a person like yourself is probably three times as credible as a chief executive. Chief executives are at 17% trust in the US... I think it’s partly a negative association... There have been enough violations... We haven’t seen in the region, and in India specifically, a huge plunge in CEOs credibility. What we have seen is a democratization of sources and channels of news and information about business. So, people want to hear from the CEO, an analyst, a customer, employee… they are taking in several pieces of information before they decide to trust and believe what they hear.
Smart companies are realizing that the first audience they should speak to is employees; it used to be the last. And a good example of that is Starbucks, when Howard Schultz came back they did a site called MyStarbucks.com and they asked employees and customers do you have good ideas? What products? What packaging? What can we do? And it’s worked really well in re-energizing both those constituencies.
You speak of the current crisis in terms of failure of government policy and the government using the old model of media relations? Please elaborate.
The most striking example of that was when secretary of Treasury, Paulson wanted to sell the package of bailout money, the TARP fund. He went on the Sunday morning talk shows, Meet the Press, Face the Nation. The average age of viewers was 60 and he didn’t do any of the cable TV shows, he didn’t do any of the bloggers. He just did New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Face the Nation and Meet the Press. And all of the characters whether it was Larry King or the CNBC people said, this man is a joke, it’s an outrage, he did it in two pages. The whole plan was two-pages which basically had the headline “Trust Me.” There is no better example of a bad approach to media relations! First of all he’s the only guy speaking. Second of all who should have been speaking? Car dealers, university presidents who’s going to benefit from this… not the fat cats on Wall Street, that’s the opposite message. You got to surround the story, so a lot of people are getting their news from cable TV, blogs or other sources. He was as if, he was in 1985! That’s pretty grievous.
What should every PR Agency remember?
First is, we are the lead communications tool now. Not the tail on the dog. Advertising has always been the lead, and I think we’re the brains of the operations now cause it’s a stakeholders society we’re just not talking at consumers. Second point whatever we do must recognize this tremendous change in the media scene, this is happening at revolutionary rate maybe a little less in India, but the three screens – PC, TV and mobile and the content has to be short form and has to be visual. Third, every PR company should be telling it’s client that you’re going to have your own very robust website you will have to drive people to information but also go to places which have the eyeballs. And the fourth thing is, central to the proposition that PR people move the mentality from hype and spin and exaggeration to speaking frankly. There’s no room in our business for exaggeration.