Small Company PR: Fleishman Hillard / Edelman Debate and the Future Direction of Public Relations

public relations

The New Look of Public Relations, published on April 28th in 2013 by The New York Times, featured Fleishman Hillard. It stated the company is to be rebranded “to reflect both the dramatic changes in media consumption and what marketers now demand in an increasingly digital age.” 

My Experience in the Field

Having gained 17 years of experience in public relations, I was here before the 2000 technology bust. During that time, nearly all of the tech print magazines disappeared. Those remaining are less than pencil thin. And believe me, when I say they take care of their few remaining advertisers, which does not leave much white space for companies that cannot afford tens of thousands of dollars to buy an ad.

I was an editor in chief for one online tech publication for three years. I also worked both the agency and corporate side of public relations. For this reason, my take on the future of PR comes from recent experience in, and observations of, all of the disciplines involved.

What I Learned

In these capacities, I learned publishers cannot generate enough online advertising dollars to support a team of writers and editors. And with the demise of the print business, others naturally will fall. So goes the publishers, so goes the editors, so goes the publicists, so goes the advertisers, so goes the printers, and so on down the line.

The pay PR experts used to get has also diminished greatly — by 50 percent, if not more. One main reason for this is internet advertising was introduced inexpensively, as an add-on for print advertising. Unfortunately, publishers early on sold themselves short, which prevented them from fully capitalizing. Just as publishers underpriced Internet-based ads during the birth of its creation, early social media professionals received a pittance for pay.

The Importance of Hiring Real PR Professionals

The first social media jobs were held by interns or college students. There was no regard for whether or not that unskilled worker could represent a company with a high-level perspective. If a company values their reputation online, then they equally need to put a lot of thought into who is tweeting on their behalf and how the public receives it.

Of course, marketing executives must also take the public tweeting and posting of reviews about their company into consideration.  So unaware of the importance of an online image are some companies they now have to hire so-called “reputation management” companies.

But, is that not the job of public relations professionals? Just as you cannot leave your company’s reputation to a college intern with no global perspective, you also cannot entrust your image and credibility to a fly-by-night reputation management company to bury your mistakes off the front-page results of Google. Image and credibility are built with time and careful nurturing by professionals skilled at ensuring a positive image is reflected in the public eye.

The Dangers of Taking the Easy Route

Taking the cheap, short, fast path to an online presence is a mistake. As Richard Edelman so precisely and eloquently pointed out in his recent viewpoint to Fleishman-Hillard’s argument as to what the new PR must be, published on his blog:

“PR is more than a set of tactics or tools. It’s a mindset; the ideas that come from PR people are different than those that come from advertising people. Both are engaged in storytelling, but the PR idea stimulates discussion and has the potential to play out over years. A PR idea has to start with relevancy and newsworthiness.”

I could not agree more with Mr. Edelman. In essence, this is what separates the marketing professional from the PR and editorial professional. Marketing, editors and public relations professionals all have the same goal, but how they develop the messaging is completely different.

We are wired differently…programmed differently. Marketers speak in hyperbole. In the past, it was the task of the PR professional to fine-tune messaging into something palpable to editors, journalists, and their readers. There is a difference between “Buy Now!” and “Learn more.”

The Way Forward

As the owner of a small firm, I do not have the budget to hire media planners, art directors, and analytic specialists as Fleishman-Hillard does. And to expand on this point, most businesses do not have the budget to hire agencies the size of Fleishman-Hillard and Edelman. Now more than ever, public relations professionals need to include social media, blogging, and some website and graphics skills to compete in the workplace.

Marketing professionals have always had their hands full. This is where we can step in to act as partners in content creation. Editors and journalists fight for paid-for article placements. As communications professionals, we need to become the right-hand man of the marketer.

Rather than leaving it in the hands of the publishers and editors to decide on the fate of communicating their ideas to the public, we need to take charge in developing engaging content distributed in a variety of venues. If the entity must create the venues, then, so be it.  The important thing is to produce content worthy of consumption by the public. Essentially, become the publisher for the company or organization. In doing this, publishers deserve more than minimum wage.

When speaking about old-school public relations professionals, Dave Senay president-CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, told The New York Times, “About a third are turned on by the changes, about a third will go along, and about a third will not get it.” If PR professionals do not expand their repertoire of skills, they will perish. But, I do not think we need to try to become marketers.

Fleishman-Hillard Looks to Make a Change

Fleishman-Hillard seems more focused on using rhetoric, like politicians do, spinning their acknowledgment that old-school PR is dead. High salaries and profits can no longer be made solely from the business of public relations.

The following statement revealed in the article reflects the fact they are after the advertising agencies’ business and look to replace the in-house marketing team of corporations.

The firms says, “Reflecting the broadening of the services offered by FleishmanHillard beyond public relations, the agency last year placed more than $1.2 billion worth of ads in paid media, compared with $250 million in 2011.” Small PR businesses cannot hope to achieve what Fleishman-Hillard has the funds to create.

The New York Times quoted one of Fleishman-Hillard’s customers. “I am happy to report thumbs up in every regard. The creative and the messaging are well received,” said Mike Brooks, executive director at William K. Busch Brewing Company.

Fleishman-Hillard was hired to create television, radio, outdoor, online, retail, and social media ads introducing two beers. That sounds like a marketing and advertising agency.

In essence, to survive, Fleishman-Hillard converted its mega-PR company into an advertising agency. If it walks and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That’s not to condemn them for surviving by any means. But, small firms need to show value beyond converting to an advertising firm. After all, there are already plenty of them out there with experience in this area. 

Fleishman-Hillard Hong Kong

The New Fleishman-Hillard

Even so, as of 2015, Fleishman-Hillard seems to have reached its goal. The company now boasts its position as “the most complete agency in the world”. Today, the company boasts expertise in a number of areas, virtually eliminating the need to turn to a marketing or ad agency.

The current offerings include:

  •         Brand marketing
  •         Crisis management
  •         Digital and social support
  •         Media relations
  •         Public affairs
  •         Reputation management
  •         Research and analytics
  •         Strategic integration

FH’s clients enjoy the company’s one-shop-stop offerings due to the convenience. Despite the radical change, the company still held on to its major clients, like EA Sports, Chevrolet, Levi Strauss, Olay, AT&T, and many more.

Edelman’s Advice

Even so, I believe Edelman is closer to defining the “new PR”:

“We are going to take full advantage of the inherent advantages of PR, which are credibility, speed, two-way interaction and continuous story creation. In the end, the consumer may not care about the source of the content, but quality counts.”

He goes on to predict…

“We see massive white space opportunities with media, squeezed by declining print circulation and diminished digital advertising rates. We can accelerate promising content through promoted tweets and sponsored lists that go viral. We are going to reinvent the advertorial in cooperation with mainstream media. We will propose topics for special reports financed by a sponsor but with editorial autonomy. We will create a place for intelligent debate, from salon dinners to Twitter newsfeeds and industry conferences.”

This may be true over time; however, smaller companies cannot afford to “pay to play” via advertorials. As far as pitching story ideas to editors and journalists, those heydays are gone. As a PR professional, it is nearly impossible to sway one of the few remaining print publications to write about a non-advertising company, and you can forget about vendor-contributed material.

We have journalists and editors fighting to keep their jobs – at least those who remain employed – and the publishers keeping their advertisers content by giving them plenty of “white space”. Both continue to suffer. Content written, published, and distributed by the vendors will prevail.

Those who have the skills to write engaging content without sales pitches, acquire new sets of skills needed for publishing and distributing in the new media channels, and have a solid foundation in unbiased, yet credible, messaging and search engine optimization skills will survive.

Edelman continues,

“It is public relations that is best poised to serve clients in a dynamic marketplace that can be disrupted by a poor customer experience well catalogued in social media. We listen, we recommend policy change, we announce the new approach giving due credit to the aggrieved customer who pointed out the problem.

Exactly so, bad publicity cannot just be buried off the first page of Google. It always resurfaces. As professionals, we need to promote our unique skillset and advise and educate executives about the risks of doing reputation management the wrong way.

“We are playing a broader role, but we have to focus in our area of comparable advantage. Clients want specialist expertise and the opportunity to choose best in class partners. We are happy to work with advertising agencies, CRM and media buying firms for the betterment of clients.

“Our industry has grown more slowly than advertising and much slower than digital in the past year. We have to re-frame our argument. Some will opt for the FH play of becoming a full-service provider. Others, like Edelman, will expand the definition of PR.”

My Final Take

Edelman is spot on.

We need to expand the definition of PR. However, I’ll go a tad further. I believe we need to reframe and rebrand PR, wearing the hat of the marketer temporarily. Having the advantage of being in the trenches with the majority of practitioners vs. entrenched in a mega-PR agency with well-established connections and relationships, PR is placed in a silo, tasked with the sole purpose of garnering what is viewed as free advertising and writing press releases.

If we have to adopt a new title, content marketing will suffice. But, I would argue for a new definition aligning us with the past, but recognizing the circumstances of the present: public content specialists, managers, executives, and chiefs. Let the marketers do what they do best.

As a practitioner, I have incorporated so many other skills in addition to public relations to survive in today’s world. These include website design and development, content development, graphic design, B2B social networking, and search engine optimization techniques, to name a few.

The role is only now expanding more into content development beyond that destined for publishing houses, as fewer and fewer editors and journalists write about our smaller clients. We no longer need them to present us to the consumer. The Internet leveled the playing field long ago.

What remains in question are the creative ways we engage directly with customers. However, we cannot sell ourselves short. As professionals in conceptualizing from a high-level and creating authentic content minus the hyperbole, we provide more than just a warm body in a seat that knows how to tweet, chatter, blog, and post.

What we need to do is find a new definition for who we are.

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