Analysis: 'Father of modern media relations'

American communications veteran Daniel Edelman, on a 'Jubilee' tour of Europe to celebrate his agency's 50th anniversary, outlines his vision of PR's future to PRWeek editor Kate Nicholas

Analysis: 'Father of modern media relations'

For 50 years Daniel J Edelman, founder of the world's largest independent public relations business, has helped shape the PR industry as we know it. And now at 82, he feels that the industry, and his eponymous consultancy, have reached a stage of maturity, where it is no longer necessary to spell out the nature of their business.

The decision to drop the term PR from Edelman's brand in the year of its 50th anniversary is, however, more than just a statement of confidence in PR. It also indicates a bid to expand the influence of the discipline and Edelman's own offering.

By PR industry standards Edelman is a massive organisation, with 2,000 staff in 38 offices globally. With global fee income last year of over £140m, it is the world's sixth largest PR firm and is comfortably the biggest independent.

Despite the scale of the operation he oversees - and his age -- Edelman still works on client business from the firm's Chicago HQ. He has also received more awards from more institutions than it is possible to count, and is widely recognised as the father of modern media relations.

This week he was in London talking about Edelman's new approach, which he dubs 'The Relationship Imperative'. As part of an exhaustive 'Jubilee' tour, Edelman talked to PRWeek about what amounts to a bid to embrace allied areas including branding, management consultancy and research, diversifying and building on Edelman's historic strengths of marketing comms and corporate consultancy.

Edelman's marketing materials now wax lyrical about how shifts at a global level - from advances in science and technology to an erosion of trust in institutions - have created new stakeholder dynamics, fresh expectations of companies and channels for dialogue, and pointed to a need to master the 'Relationship Imperative'.

Diversified service brands in Edelman's portfolio now range from research firm Strategy One, and advocacy advertising specialist Blue (formerly Callahan Creative) to the creation of Edelman Corporate Advisers, a firm that under the leadership of ex-Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Richard Breedon, is advising clients on the ramifications of potential corporate governance failures.

The fact that this consultancy addresses issues such as the make-up of the board, which more usually tend to remain the province of related professions, is indicative of the fact that Edelman currently perceives in the corporate arena both an opportunity and a threat.

'(With Enron and WorldCom), they went after the lawyers and accountants but nobody said "what about the PR people?" What does that say about us - that we are irrelevant? Are we just the press release distributors for lawyers? Isn't this a call to action? We are supposed to be the corporate conscience and we have to get involved in counselling,' he says.

There is no doubt that Breedon's involvement will help Edelman gain credibility in this arena. The client list, inevitably, is confidential, but Edelman says the aim is to work with firms and give advice on areas they should be looking at such as expressing of stock options, and reporting.

'I have been involved in stock holder meetings for years. For CEOs the faster it is over the better. The annual report can be a beautiful sales product, with CEOs keen to emphasis the good and rationalise the bad.

We can't have that anymore,' he says.

Edelman, like many, voices concern that the current wave of corporate scandals represents only the tip of the iceberg, and sees further investigations as chance for 'PR to get closer to the action and not just leave it to consultants, auditors and lawyers'.

According to Edelman, the opportunities for thought leadership do not only lie in the corporate arena. The original Daniel Edelman Public Relations was built on consumer marketing. The agency's first client was the Toni Company, inventors of the 'wave kit' for home perming, and Edelman is widely regarded as the man who invented the media tour with the breakthrough 1950s 'Which Twin has the Toni?' campaign. Consumer work still accounts for two thirds of Edelman's business, and Edelman still sees the area as the industry's great white hope.

He points to two recent books by marketing experts - Al and Laura Ries' The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of Public Relations and Sergio Zymans' The End of Advertising as We Know It' - which argue that the mushrooming of media channels has rendered traditional 30-second ads a blunt tool and that marketers need urgently to consider other methods of reaching audiences such as PR. In particular Edelman points to the growing importance of viral and guerrilla marketing, a point underlined by the consultancy's acquisition this week of Stockholm-based viral specialist UFO.

Edelman regards this shift in consciousness away from traditional marketing mechanisms as little less than the launchpad for the next stage of PR: 'The last 50 years that I have been in the business have really been about establishing a base, but what we have now is a real breakthrough.'

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