PR Firms as Targets [by Richard Edelman]

Editor’s note: The following piece written by President and CEO, Edelman, Richard Edelman was first published on August 22nd on Richard’s 6 A.M. blog. With his firm’s permission, we republish it here as a contributory, industry supportive piece.

Richard Edelman post photo

I was in London this week when news spread around our office about a protest at a competitor’s premises. Six anti-fracking (that is high pressure hydraulic fracturing to liberate shale gas) protestors literally glued themselves to the doors of Bell Pottinger before work on Monday. They were objecting to the firm’s representation of Cuadrilla, the energy company headed by former BP CEO Lord Browne.

The NGO, Reclaim the Power, put a sign over the entrance describing Bell Pottinger as “Fracking Liars.” They also released an undercover recording of an employee of the firm speaking at a public meeting near a proposed drilling site, with excerpting comments to maximum negative effect. The NGO contended further that the Bell Pottinger employee also said that the net effect of “fracking” would amount to an insignificant reduction of bills to consumers, though there was no recording of that claim.

The press reaction to the protest was stunning. There were articles in The Independentthe Evening Standard, The GuardianThe Huffington Post, the Daily Mail online and broad TV coverage. The Daily Mail online posted a series of a dozen photos, The Guardianonline had choice tweets from protestors.

I spoke to our UK CEO, Ed Williams, about what had happened. “There is a rise in direct action. The NGOs are fighting in a public manner on issues that are poorly communicated. The protest groups are organizing on a peer-to-peer basis. It is manifest that there is a greater degree of distrust in the institutions of business and government.” Williams pointed to an article in the Wednesday issue of the Times of London on the front page quoting a Cabinet minister that reassures the public about the safety of “fracking.” Williams said, “That sort of piece should have been out much earlier.”

Williams went on to say that the NGOs are “running circles around business and government in the digital public space. They understand that need to be visual, speedy and human. And they are playing into a basic British fear of disruption of the idyllic countryside.”

Edelman was in this exact situation when we began our work with Walmart seven years ago. We work around the world with real estate developers seeking to build new properties, biotechnology companies wanting to introduce new forms of genetically modified seeds and technology companies challenged on privacy standards. We encourage our clients to practice radical transparency on production methods and sustainability practices. We engage critics, from community activists to NGOs, in constructive discussions and consultations. We offer the opportunity for a public debate where the facts are aired and challenged. We make sure that our communications are factually sound, checked by client experts. We are aggressive in telling our story, quick to correct inaccuracies, relying on third-party commentary from academic experts.

But it is not enough to make rational arguments. We have to recognize and accept that people fear the new or unknown. We are in the business of educating, not selling. We rely on dialogue, not one-way messaging. We are not advertising agents simply selling a proposition with an alluring 30-second spot. We are PR people who must explain complexity by acknowledging concerns, going beyond messaging to offer real depth of content and a chance for stakeholders to discuss the proposition.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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