Spin doctors

Public relations used to be one-person job. Your spokesperson talked to the newspapers, the paper printed the quote and the public saw your message the next day.

That’s not the case anymore. With the Internet and dozens of 24-hour news and sports channels, the public is better informed than ever, and controlling the message of your company has become more challenging.

That’s why firms like Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR firm, have become more specialized over the past two decades, says its U.S. president and COO, Pam Talbot.

Edelman, founded in 1952, maintains two global headquarters, one in Chicago, another in New York. The company has evolved from a general consumer products public relations firm into a highly diverse worldwide business comprised of teams of experts focused in areas including health care, technology, financial services and others.

“The business has become intensely specialized,” Talbot says. “Twenty years ago, it wasn’t. We didn’t really differentiate between all the different skill sets.”

Talbot has led Edelman’s work on such high profile accounts as Microsoft, Kraft Foods, KFC and the NutraSweet Co. She has also been recognized as a “Public Relations All Star” in the consumer products field by Inside PR Magazine.

Talbot dropped the PR spin to discuss with Smart Business the changing face of public relations and how CEOs can do a better job delivering their company’s message.

How has the public relations industry changed in the last 20 years?

Twenty years ago, most of us were generalists, and there were a few people who specialized in different areas. People generally floated back and forth between marketing public relations and corporate public relations, and health care was usually marketing people.

Now, we have people who are so specialized, it’s hard to move from one area into another area. They know different areas very deeply.

Second, the Internet has made a huge change in our business in the ways we reach out to different audiences. We reach them more directly; we have a whole different media set we’re dealing with. Things are much more instantaneous, and because of the Internet, we’ve gone into what is essentially a 24-hour-a-day news cycle. There’s no news cycle anymore; it’s just a constant updating of information.

The media set beyond the Internet has changed dramatically. Everyone has talked ad nauseum about the proliferation of media. Certainly, for our business, that has posed huge opportunities and huge challenges to go along with it.

We’re not dealing with mass audiences the way we once did. We’re dealing with audiences that are much more focused on areas that have special meaning to them, and tend to be more knowledgeable. We’re dealing with audiences that are smarter and better informed in areas they really care about.

What specific changes have you made at Edelman?

We celebrated 50 years last year. We started off as a consumer products public relations firm. In that, our people sort of did everything within that and moved back and forth.

So now, not only do we have people who only do health care, only do financial services, only do crisis, only do technology, but even within those groups, people are specialized. There are consumer tech people. There are people who only do food. There are people who only do nutrition within food.

In addition, we have added people who only do research. We have a whole group that does nothing but interactive media and work on the Internet. Those are just some of the ways we have diversified to stay competitive in the industry.

What emerging trends do you see in the industry, and how are you responding?

There has been much more emphasis on measurement, and we’re doing that by including online measurement tools that we can share with our clients and use on a real-time basis, so we’re able to assess what’s happening in the media on a real-time basis. Who’s saying what, how we’re doing versus the competition, whether our messages are being picked up as we hoped they would be or whether we need to change our messages. That is very helpful to us.

We’re working now to enhance our capability to embed messages successfully in entertainment programs because we think that’s going to be critical going forward. We’ve done that in the past with some of our health care clients being able to reach them through programs like “ER,” where illnesses are covered, and we want to raise the awareness level of certain illnesses.

What is the biggest public relations mistake that CEOs make?

If you look at the last couple years, one of the biggest mistakes that CEOs tend to make is when their companies come under scrutiny or are criticized for financial performance or anything else. CEOs tend to go very dark. They don’t communicate with the media.

They don’t want to make themselves available, including CEOs who before, when things have gone well, have been all over the place. They couldn’t get enough ink for themselves, and suddenly, when things get bad, just don’t want to talk to the media or just get very angry.

So when they’re talking to media, it’s kind of an argumentative style instead of trying to understand why they’re being criticized and explain themselves, explain their companies and show what they’re going to do and how they’re going to change things.

They take on a bunker mentality with the media, and that’s a huge mistake because they can get really ripped apart. And when they come back to talk to media, there is more skepticism and more anger from the media, and it makes it very hard for them to turn around their companies.

Have you grown your crisis communication practice?

We have. What we’re trying to do, which has been successful, is to pair our crisis and issues capability with experts in the area. For example, when we’re dealing with obesity, we might have people from our issues group, but they’re working very closely with people from our food and nutrition and health care and public policy team.

It’s much more complicated team structures than we’ve ever had to deal with before.

How to reach:
Edelman, (312) 240-3000 or www.edelman.com