ndia is a growing market for Edelman, one of the world’s leading public relations (PR) firms. The family-owned company’s president and chief executive Richard Edelman was in New Delhi to take stock of the local business and meet his staff and clients. He spoke about the changing role of public relations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and why Edelman stays independent.

Edited excerpts:

Do you think PM Narendra Modi is in need of reputation management experts, considering he’s receiving a lot of flak on social media?

I can’t say. I think he is a deeply attractive character for an American. He is straightforward, and he is pro-business, pro-US and he seems like someone you can have a candid discussion with. He has a vision in a way that seems to me to create a certain promise.

I was at the dinner that the Fortune magazine had with Mr. Modi in New York, a month ago. He was deeply impressive. For the first hour he listened to all the CEOs and then he said at the end that he’s deeply committed to fixing the tax system, infrastructure and IP (intellectual property) issues.

He sounded very credible.

But he’s been under fire for his policies and his silence on critical issues.

I am not going to answer the question about Modi directly because I don’t know enough, but I just think that every one of our clients, whether it is Mr. Modi (he is not a client) or a commercial client, should set out his or her own narrative. Every client should be its own media company. Every client should put his own material up, that is, short-form content, stories about R&D (research and development), investment, new products.

The world has moved to a point where media is like a four-leaf clover. There’s mainstream media like Mint, born-digital like Quint, social (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and then “owned" media.

Owned media is like Tata.in, or whatever. It’s urgent that companies tell their own stories on digital platforms.

Richard Edelman, 61Edelman is the son of Daniel Edelman who founded the public relations firm in 1952. He is regarded as an industry thought leader, who runs the world’s largest independent PR firm with 65 offices. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Through owned media or social media?

Both. Social lets consumers talk about the products. You may pay your way onto the Facebook feed but after that, it’s conversations by the users. That’s not sufficient because it leaves out what is possible for employees to talk, for R&D to talk, or the CEO to talk.

In fact, our Edelman Trust Barometer shows the employee is much more credible than a government official or a CEO in most parts of the world.

It doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t talk to the media. But the problem is that if you are not Google or Facebook or Tata, you are having a harder time getting into press. So, you have to tell your own stories.

What is the current size of the public relations industry globally?

The current size of the top 10 firms, more or less, is around $ 4.5 billion, compared to advertising which is more like $14 billion, and media buying at about $11 or $12 billion and digital at $11 or 12 billion. So, public relation is the smallest of the marketing services. But what we are trying to do is to reclassify the market away from the marketing services towards a concept called communications marketing. There are three or four trends that are leading to this.

First, is the trust issue: trust in institutions. India actually has pretty high levels of trust in business and government but in a lot of countries, ranging from Brazil to Germany to the US, we have trust issues. Second is the convergence of corporate reputation and brand marketing. It’s hard to distinguish between the two.

Three, you’re seeing advertising being blocked through software that enables you to block ads on your cellphone. Besides, increasingly people choose services like Netflix that have no advertising. You are also seeing winnowing of newspaper readers and audience for television. People are increasingly going to social channels. The average person is on Facebook 12 to 20 times a day.

Communications marketing implies a basic equality of communication, which has been corporate reputation and marketing, which has been for brand.

You need the specificity and quantified result of marketing, but you need the stakeholder and engagement and reputation part of corporate communication. You need to do both. So, the chief communication officer and the chief marketing officer have to work together. Traditionally, they have been separate.

But that’s not the future. Because you can’t distinguish between an interaction you have on Twitter when you complain about a product and a call at the call centre. It’s the same thing. Twitter is a different manifestation of saying “this doesn’t work well, help me" versus picking up the phone and calling. So, it is a continuum now, it is not two distinct things.

How has the role of PR changed over the years and what are the kinds of challenges it faces now?

I would say that when I came into the business—I had a relationship with you. We worked together on stories and I would pitch you a story on a visiting CEO and you did the interview.

And that was PR. There were some speeches and some internal communication also and the team would help if there was a crisis. The first change was that PR working on behalf of brands started to do experiential, pop-up stores and events.

The second change was empowered by social networks —to build communities on social.

And now the third change is really this idea that every company should be a media company—that is, the “owned" part of it. PR people were great at telling stories or good at writing press releases. The visual part was with advertising agencies.

Now PR people are good at short-form videos, photo montages and infographics. We have changed to “show and tell".

The change would have required training and retraining people.

We have hired 350 people in Edelman over the last two years who are creative and planners.

Our aspiration is to be the lead agency. What we are now doing for the clients is coming up with the idea for the campaign. (Edelman in India has over 40 people for creative and planning work, including visualisers, art directors, etc.)

So you are eating into the advertising agencies’ business.

What I would say is that we are not eating away, but the whole model is changing... something new is forming. It’s a grey area. But we know what the criteria for success are. It’s two-way communication and not one-way. It is engagement.

How come you continue to be an independent PR firm?

We have no plans to change as two of my oldest daughters—28 and 24—are in the business. One works in San Francisco and the other in New York. They want to take over, though not kick me out yet.

We like being private because when there is a downturn, as in 2001 and 2008, we do not reduce people. Also, we have flat decision-making. It’s quick. We don’t have to meet quarterly numbers and it’s all about excellence of work for the client. We are now the size of some mid-sized agencies and growing at 10%. The industry is growing at 4% a year.

How do you deal with a situation that Volkswagen, the German auto maker, finds itself in. It is your client.

Yes, it is. I can’t talk about it. It is confidential work. Sorry.

What are the learnings from some of your other clients who may have been in a similar position.

One of lessons is: don’t speak until you know. You should get control of the situation and say we have a problem and I have assigned an expert for it. But talk every day about what you know, what you have learned. Talk to everyone—consumers, regulator employees, dealers.

Part of the comeback process could be to have a new product, or something that creates some excitement. But too many times people get trapped in comments they make when they don’t know for sure.

What are you interests other than work?

I love playing tennis. I am an exercise freak. I like going mountain hiking. I went to Sun Valley in Idaho. I am a history freak too. I am reading a biography of Henry Kissinger by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson.

I am an avid reader of Shakespeare. This summer I watched The Tempest at Shakespeare in the Park (held in the Central Park) in New York. I watched the play, but I read it first. My best friend is the Shakespeare professor in Columbia. His name is James Shapiro. He has a new book out on the year that Shakespeare wrote King Lear.

I am a real theatre buff. I went to see Hamilton. It is the hot play in New York right now. It is about Alexander Hamilton, the revolutionary war guy. The play is all in rap.

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