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‘Our research shows Indians have low trust in government,media’

Edelman speaks about the distinction between lobbying and PR and how his company chooses clients

Richard Edelman is President and CEO of global PR firm Edelman. In this Idea Exchange moderated by Associate Editor Shefalee Vasudev,Edelman speaks about the distinction between lobbying and PR and how his company chooses clients

Shefalee Vasudev: The public relations industry has had a deep impact on the world in the last few years,but in India,this has been of a peculiar nature with the telecom tapes (the Niira Radia tapes) out in the open. What does the PR industry give to the media?

Richard Edelman: The PR industry has been categorised as either too clever,or not intelligent at all. I think the truth is,we are neither! My father started our firm 59 years ago. He says the best PR is based on reality. If you are trying to talk about a company that is doing something,you have to be quite clear about what the company is doing. You cannot make it up because otherwise,the gap between what you say and what is,comez out. You will have no credibility,and you will never get anywhere.

So,are we in the information business or are we in the spin business? If Ican put it this way–I think the political PR people maybe in the spin business but those of us who are dealing with companies everyday are in the information business. And our goal is to give you as much information as we can,and you make the judgment. You are the journalists,you write the stories. We can’t pretend to be anything more than intermediaries and be advocates for transparency.

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Coomi Kapoor: In India,there seems to be a very thin line dividing what constitutes PR and what is considered as fixing. This came to the fore recently in some tapes which were released in the media (the Radia tapes). Where does your company stand on this?

Richard Edelman: The business of public relations is not to pay for space. That is the business of the advertisers. Our job is to facilitate–and I use this word carefully–meetings between journalists who have an independent point of view,and who go back and do their own independent reporting and own independent digging and see whether the (company representative) is telling the truth. And then you have a story.

The reason that public relations is so vital is that we rely on you journalists to make a judgment. Our job is to present the facts as well as we can,but the credibility of what you ultimately write is the determining factor. That is the job you have,and we do not seek to change that.

Coomi Kapoor: Where does this fixing come in?

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Richard Edelman: It seems to me these are distinct functions. One is clearly a matter of pitching government officials on a proposition,and the other is press relations–trying to get public opinion on your side through the prism of the media. I do not like the idea of people being paid for questions. This goes back to the problem in the UK where they had the pay-for-questions scam. That is not on. I am not in the lobbying business.

For me,advocacy is fine,as long as it is transparent advocacy. As long as you are saying,‘Here is my interest. I am a company,I stand for Genetically Modified Food’,I am good with that. As long as we think it is a better thing for the farmer,if we say here are the safeguards we are going to have and we agree to go to an independent body of judges who can see that they are doing the right thing. But,the idea of doing this behind the curtain,is rather like the old idea of conducting politics in a smoke-filled room.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: How does your client evaluate you? Is it in terms of how he is represented in the media? Second,how do you judge your client and decide which case to take up? Or are you like lawyers?

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Richard Edelman: On the first point,an unsophisticated client takes a stack of clippings,puts them on a scale,and says,‘This weighs two pounds,you’ve done a good job.’ That’s the old way. And they do a thing called ‘advertising equivalent’. If you get this much space in,say,The Indian Express,they measure and say,‘This is how much advertising we could have bought for that.’ For me,that’s a fairly meaningless way to evaluate PR. The truth is,we should say,‘What message do you want to get across? Did the article communicate that? I don’t believe in poundage or quantity. I believe in evaluation–did your point come across?

As for your second question,I do not think that we are like lawyers. I don’t think we should accept every client,and we don’t. We don’t accept certain countries,we don’t accept certain companies,we make judgments as to whether a client is worth representing. In fact,when we do represent a client and we can’t agree,we leave.

Sunil Jain: So you are actually assuming some kind of moral role.

Richard Edelman: I think we have to accept that we have certain relationships that we put at stake on behalf of clients. We are the bridge to certain stakeholder groups. We are quite close to non-governmental organisations,to the media,and to certain community groups. And so,when I come to you,when I propose a story,I assume we have some sort of relationship that you are going to say,‘It’s worth my time doing.’

Sunil Jain: Do you assume that the client is going to tell the journalist the whole truth you,through you?

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Richard Edelman: I think that we make sure that before a client sees a journalist that we have vetted that story.

Sunil Jain: A specific example. Some licences were given out by the Telecom minister in 2008. There was a racket,and people are in jail for it. One of the companies which got the licence was Unitech,the owner of which is also in jail. Unitech sold 67 percent of their company to Telenor. Now,if Telenor comes to you as a client and says,‘If the Government of India wants to take away our licence,how are we to blame? We just bought this from a company at a decent market price.’ Would you represent Telenor?

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Richard Edelman: I accept your description of the situation. I don’t want to comment on whether Edelman would take up that case. But we put our reputation on the line as a 59-year-old family business when we represent a company. So,I think we have to feel very comfortable that the client will be forthcoming. If the client has made a mistake,and he or she will admits it,we can go on from there.

We have been asked to do business with certain countries including one that starts with an ‘L’ and ends with an ‘A’ and has five letters. Three years ago,someone came to me and said,‘The US State Department says it’s fine.’ And I said,‘Well,maybe it’s fine with them. But it’s not fine with me.’ I guess that is the privilege of being a private,independent family business. I know we have no big owner sitting in London,saying ‘You have to do this,because this is going to be a million dollars for your quarter.’

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N P Singh: When you decide on your clients,would you draw lines on ethical or moral grounds? For example,would you represent a tobacco company or a gun lobby?

Richard Edelman: We,as Edelman,worked for the tobacco industry from the late ‘70s until the late ‘90s. When I was CEO,one of the first things I did was to get out of that business. We just walked away. I said that it was not the kind of business that I want to represent. Will I represent the gun lobby? No. We don’t represent private security companies that do contracts in certain countries on behalf of other countries.

Shefalee Vasudev: You have worked with NGOs and civil society groups. Now these are overlapping interests and industries. So,what is your ethical discretion that is different from other PR companies?

Richard Edelman: I think the NGO sector regards us as a serious,reliable intermediary–with Chiquita and Rainforest Alliance on growing better bananas,with StarKist Tuna and the environmentalists on Dolphin Safe Tuna. They rely on us to be a bridge for the client and move the client towards doing the right.

Georgina Maddox: What is your policy on gifts? A lot of PR people use gifts in exchange for expected favours.

Richard Edelman: I don’t have a problem with a PR taking a journalist out for lunch and talking about the client and then charging the client for lunch. I propose you a story. We might have talked about kids,we might have talked about travel. But,during that lunch,for half an hour,I was subtly trying to get across that this is a great story,and you really have to do it. I don’t have a problem with my taking you to a cricket match and having the same kind of discussion. Where I have a problem is the idea of sending you tickets where you go off for a holiday or where you get favours. I don’t believe in that. So,if it is based on social interaction on which a substantive conversation happens to propose a story,fine. Where I send you a ticket and you go off for a holiday to Jaipur– I think that’s too much.

Shefalee Vasudev: But would you agree to sending a mammoth gift on Diwali or Christmas?

Richard Edelman: Do I have an issue with sending flowers to a journalist who has done a story recently? I wouldn’t do that. I think it is insulting to the journalist.

Shefalee Vasudev: Do you monitor your staff on how they negotiate?

Richard Edelman: Here’s what I say: ‘Okay folks,if in China,for instance,it is a custom to send $30 to a journalist to take a taxi to come to the press conference,I will go with that.’ The reason is,they are coming to a press conference. They are coming to hear a story. I also tell them,‘If I hear that you have done anything to pay a journalist,or anything of that nature,you are walked off the campus. Period. It’s a family company,it’s my name on the door,you don’t do it.’ So,I hope that’s clear.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: You keep talking about the family name attached to your company. Family-owned businesses are generally seen as non-transparent,where the owner’s writ looms large. Haven’t you ever thought about listing your company–listing does bring about a bit of accountability and transparency? Second,can you tell us some tricky situations you would have faced as the biggest PR firm in the world?

Richard Edelman: I am more afraid of tarnishing my family’s legacy than facing any shareholder meeting. Edelman had won a tourism contract from a country. We won it fair and square,and the guy who was at the ad agency came in and said,‘Now that you have won the contract,you have to send money to the following person.’ My father said,‘Excuse me,you stand up and you get out of my office. And if you ever come in here again,I am going to have you put in jail.’ And you know what happened? We kept the contract. Because they were afraid of my father. But,it’s the right thing. If you stand up to people who ask for that sort of thing,they won’t do it again. This is why the US has this Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. American executives have liability for actions taken by his or her company,anywhere.

Ritu Kant Ojha: Have you hired journalists for PR jobs and how has the experience been? Because the two require different skill sets.

Richard Edelman: I think journalists are used to asking tough questions. Good,you should be. PRs have to learn to ask tough questions. But the distinction is that journalists should be then prepared to put the other hat on. And some journalists are not really cut out for that. That’s fine. That’s fair enough. I would say it takes a while and some journalists make the transition while others don’t. The media is like a clover leaf. So,I think of it as four leaves: there’s mainstream media–that’s what you guys are. But you guys are also in new media because you have the dotcom and there are bloggers. Then there is the third leaf which is social media: Twitter,Facebook,Orkut. And there is the newest part,which is owned media: so,it could be a Youtube channel,a company’s website,and so on. I think there is a very interesting opportunity for companies as mainstream media shrinks. Particularly in the US and places where it is not a boom economy. I think there is a role for the company to tell its own story. I think journalists who come over to the PR side can be very valuable because they can have a news sense about what to say and how to say it. But I want to be clear. I don’t want PR to say we are substituting for the media. We are not objective; we are going to make it as good as it can be. This is where I can count on former journalists to say,‘This is not objective enough. It won’t sell. No one would believe it.’

Coomi Kapoor: Could you tell us about the trust barometer that Edelman has come up with? You have done India this year and you have come to the conclusion that trust in media has come down substantially. You say trust in business is increasing,but if one looks at the recent debate on the tapes,trust in the business community should also have fallen. How would you explain that?

Richard Edelman: We started the trust barometer 10 years ago. We wanted to understand the power of NGOs in the wake of what is called the battle of Seattle (protests against WTO). Then came 2002,the Enron scandal and we thought it was interesting so kept doing the study. And then there was the American invasion of Iraq,then 2008 and Lehman Brothers,Citigroup and General Motors and all the bankruptcies. Last year,there were problems with Toyota,HP,Goldman Sachs,BP. How can you not have some issue on trust?

In India,we did this research in early November. This was just before the tapes came out so we would have missed the scandal. India is different from other BRIC countries. One is low trust in government; every other BRIC country has high trust in government. The second is low trust in media–it used to be high,it has come down in the last three years. I have a few hypotheses on this. One is the kind of shrill tone that we hear,particularly of TV. The second is somehow the conflation of what’s happened with the scandal on journalists has had an effect. And the third is proliferation of news media. Trust in media is substantially higher than in the US or UK. Trust in business has remained where it was. The business of business is to do business,make profit. Seventy per cent of our respondents in India said yes to that. India is not like China or Brazil,which say business has a social responsibility. India is a very free market. The other thing we saw in India is that contrary to what we have witnessed elsewhere,CEOs in India are the most credible people. Where I come from,a CEO is at the bottom. Trust in government remained about what it was before. Trust in media came down 15 points significantly in two years and trust in NGOs jumped 30 points in that time.

Sunil Jain: All the big scandals and murder cases have been unearthed only by the media.

Richard Edelman: I am the biggest fan of media and without media we don’t exist. I am just saying you have to ask yourself what is going out there and somehow the reputation of the sector is being negatively influenced. I think part of it is that some of the brands have been ruining the reputation of the media business. An average informed person has to hear something 3-5 times before he or she believes it. Why is that?

Shefalee Vasudev: A former PR chief told me they identified the people in a particular media office who could be broken down and how they managed to convert certain kinds of journalists but could never convert others. Is it as strategic as that?

Richard Edelman: Our test is to present the most objective facts in front of the most talented,objective journalist who is therefore the most credible. I am not interested in swaying people. You are a brand,you have a reputation. My job is to go to the media with the toughest reporter and trust her to make the judgment and hopefully it will be a good one.

Deepu Sebastian Edmond and Shruti Srivastava

First published on: 05-06-2011 at 03:25 IST
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