A version of this post appeared on The Business Post.
The public relations industry has found itself in a different game over the past decade, according to the global chief operations officer for the world’s biggest PR firm, Edelman.
All media industries, including communications, are going through transformation, according to Matthew Harrington, who is second in command at Edelman internationally. When Harrington began in communications three decades ago, it was focused on telling clients’ stories through earned media, particularly in print and broadcast.
“With the onset of the internet and then the emergence of social channels and platforms we began to go direct to consumer and help our clients create owned content, whether it be their website or customer service model.
“All of a sudden we were in a very different game, not just providing the counsel around the way in which a reputation is managed or the way in which a brand is monitored in an earned context but rather how is the brand manifesting itself in the broad marketing mix.”
Although earned media is still at its core, Edelman now offers a full suite of integrated marketing capabilities which includes creating film, advertising, social content and web service programming.
Edelman, which had revenues of $894 million last year, marked its 66th anniversary recently.
“I like to believe that we are very much the firm that Dan Edelman opened, but we’re also some days unrecognizable from the firm that he founded,” Harrington, who has relations living in Co Cork, said.
“Traditionally we were a lean team of media advisers. We now have planners, paid media consultants, technologists, and all manner of research and intelligence talent.”
With the advent of the internet, companies in the communications industry began to specialize. This has changed now, as firms consolidate and become more generalist.
“As people tried to harness the internet, specialization was key and really understanding a particular platform or sector of industry. Now there’s an acknowledgement of the importance of power of offer but also the benefit and balance of being a generalist. The magic is in the building of capabilities which enables you to be both a jack of all trades and called on for expertise.”
This requires a change in the type of skillsets Edelman previously hired for, including attracting people from the traditional advertising world such as creative and art directors and people with data and technology backgrounds.
Harrington, who works with clients including GE, Charles Schwab & Company, Samsung and Starbucks, expects consolidation in the communications industry to continue.
“You will continue to see some of the traditional creative agencies that are part of the big holding companies have to modify their business models and modify what they deliver and lessen their dependence on the TV commercial. That is just not a future model.”
Harrington joined Edelman six weeks after graduating from university. During his career at Edelman, he worked in different roles including in financial capital markets and corporate reputation management. He ran the San Francisco office, then the western region, then the New York office, then the US office. He has been global chief operating officer for the past five years.
He joked that he has stayed with Edelman for so long because “they were willing to have me”, adding that “it has been quite the run”. He enjoys his current role as chief operations officer.
“It gives me an opportunity to travel the globe. We’ve got 65 offices around the world but more importantly it gives me an opportunity to help the organization go through a pretty significant transformation because of what is happening in the marketplace.”
The main trends Edelman is monitoring are around understanding the power and impact of data on the industry, according to Harrington. “Our clients are now deep in data and have expectations that we will help them harness data for good and data to drive work.”
As a result, Edelman is hiring data scientists. This will allow the firm to help clients who are “swimming in data to make sense of it”. This will help clients recognize shifts in the marketplace and changes in consumer behavior.
“Measurement full stop is also as important as data. Clients’ dollars are hard fought. Clients have done a hard job fighting to get the budgets from their bosses, and they need to prove that the money has been well spent,” he said.
“Historically if you landed on the front of the papers, that is seen as a victory if the tone is good. That is no longer the sole metric. It is ‘did that story get shared, what is the social amplification conversation? What is it as it relates to inbound inquiries on the website or social feeds on the company?’”
Another major global trend is influencer marketing, Harrington said, adding he has just spent two weeks in China where there were a lot of conversations around the topic.
“The social influencers who have big YouTube communities are on the cusp of a moment where they are migrating to being in the celebrity vein. Our trust barometer indicates that celebrities as spokespeople are not as effective as they have been in the past. Some of the big social influencers run the same risks.”
Consumers are savvy, he said, and they will realize that the influencer they are following has a number of brands they are promoting. Influencers can be powerful and are in a rich space, but he said they need to be careful.
For many years, Harrington specialized in crisis management. These days, he said, communications professionals and brands must pick their battles due to the fast-paced nature of the media.
“It is a space where my own counseling behaviors have had to change. I had long been of the school of thought that you never let a news cycle go by before you have introduced yourself or asserted yourself in an issue or a crisis,” he said.
“You have to be much more deliberative and thoughtful these days because you have to assess whether the crisis is a legitimate one or is it a passing one whereby you providing oxygen to the fire could create more of an issue than whatever you are seeing running across the social channels. That is a pivot in terms of helping clients.”
When it comes to employees using social media, he said companies should not seek to restrict what employees say but they should give guidelines to their staff.
“If an employee has gone rogue and has either done something inappropriate or shared inappropriate information, that needs to be addressed and it is best addressed internally.”