Reputation Nation

Public relations is in the midst of a marketing coup. Edelman’s Lisa Kimmel, general manager of its Toronto office, explains how the agency is leading the charge.

Imagine a burning building. By the time the fire trucks arrive, the flames are already high, the smoke already thick, and the heat already unbearable. Hoses in hand, firefighters try to save the building. But even if they succeed in putting it out, they can’t unstart the blaze; the damage is already done. Ultimately, the best they can do is control it and contain it.

Now, imagine the firefighters are also licensed architects. Had they designed the building in the first place, their intimate knowledge of fire-retardant materials and fire-safety infrastructure—sprinklers, for instance, and fire alarms—likely would have helped the fire fizzle sooner or, perhaps, prevented it altogether.

PR at a Glance*

The global PR industry is worth approximately $11 billion

The global PR industry employs more than 75,000 people

The world’s largest PR firm, Edelman, has global revenues of approximately $666 million

The ability to master digital and other new technologies is believed by 25.2% of PR agency leaders to be a major challenge for the PR industry

Approximately 23% of agency leaders are worried about competition from other marketing disciplines

According to agency leaders, the biggest growth sectors in PR are digital and online communications (75.3%), corporate reputation (49.7%), and marketing communications (46.4%)

Among the heads of PR agencies, 62.9% rank social media community management as their top focus for increased investment

*Source: The Holmes Group, “World PR Report,” 2013

This is essentially what’s happening today in the field of public relations. PR agencies were once relegated simply to response, riding shotgun alongside advertising agencies—the latter creating the message for a client and the former tasked merely with maintaining it. Now, though, social media has turned the paradigm on its head. By democratizing the relationship between consumers and brands, it has elevated PR from a tactical service that bolsters business objectives to a strategic function that actually drives them. In other words: PR doesn’t just put out fires anymore; it builds buildings.

“It’s PR’s time to lead,” says Lisa Kimmel, general manager of the Toronto office of Edelman, a New York-based PR firm with more than 4,800 employees distributed across 67 offices worldwide. “Historically, communications was top-down; a very controlled CEO had key messages, and those messages were communicated downward. That’s no longer viable. Instead, credibility now happens as a result of a conversation that’s taking place from the bottom up. That means you as a company need to be incredibly transparent about communicating what it is you’re doing. You need to talk about the positives but also address the negatives. As a discipline, PR is very well positioned to help you do that.”

Edelman is on the leading edge of PR’s ascendance. Despite its enormity, it’s a family-owned enterprise that in many ways acts like a start-up, positioning itself perfectly to quickly seize on new ideas and opportunities as they manifest themselves.

“Our global CEO, Richard Edelman, is an innovator and a risk taker,” Kimmel says. “Despite the fact that we’re the world’s largest PR firm, we still have an entrepreneurial spirit. We have the power of this amazing network of offices and people around the world, but we also have enough flexibility at the regional and local level to be innovative and take risks, to experiment and try new things.”

In Edelman’s Toronto office, which opened in 1998, innovation in PR has sprung from innovation in HR. “PR is an industry where turnover is quite high,” Kimmel says. “The industry average in Canada is 30 percent a year; we’re at about 15 percent.” Kimmel herself deserves a lot of the credit for the achievement, having made employee culture and retention her top priorities upon becoming general manager in 2009. “My vision was that we needed to create a really strong, unified culture across the office, develop a really strong employee engagement program, and get employees to be motivated to come to work each day, which would then result in them being motivated to do great work for our clients,” she says. “Out of that, our business would grow. It’s a simple model, and it has paid off in spades.”

With her staff, Kimmel cocreated Edelman Toronto’s employee-engagement program, which is constantly evolving with new initiatives. One of the most popular is “Foursies.” Every Thursday at 4 p.m., employees convene for food, drink, and fun as part of a themed celebration; past activities have included a pumpkin-carving contest and a cupcake bake-off.

“We also have a program that was conceived in our Vancouver office, which we’ve adopted nationally,” Kimmel says. “It’s a corporate social-responsibility program called the Little Give. It’s based on an initiative that Oprah did called the Big Give. Basically, our employees identify small, grassroots nonprofit organizations that they want to partner with. We divide into teams of about 10 or 12. Each team receives a challenge from its charity that needs to be solved in 48 hours. The challenge can be PR-specific or not. We close our office Thursday at 4 p.m., we close our office on Friday, and then we ask employees to volunteer their Saturday. We’ve been doing it for four years now, and it’s been transformative from a culture standpoint. People stay Thursday night and Friday night—all hours—working on their challenge. It’s phenomenal.”

Programs such as Foursies and the Little Give motivate employees to do their best work. A commitment to training and education, though, is what ensures that their best work is also their most effective work, using the latest in a rapidly evolving arsenal of PR tools and techniques. “We invest a significant amount of money into training,” says Kimmel, who leverages in-house resources to develop her own staff as well. “One of the things we initiated a couple years ago, which helped me personally, was a reverse mentoring program called ROTNEM, which is mentor spelled backwards. Basically, senior executives were partnered with junior staff to learn social media. I would meet with someone in my office every week or two weeks, for example, and she would educate me. Gradually, I dipped my toes in; now, I’m totally immersed and totally comfortable with social media.”

That commitment to staying current gives Edelman Toronto the boost it needs to move successfully from the passenger side of clients’ communications vehicles to the driver’s side. “Historically, PR was often thought [of] by clients as playing the role of amplifying the creative ideas that their advertising agency had come up with,” Kimmel says. “That’s not necessarily the case anymore. Our focus now is really on developing big ideas that are channel- and media-agnostic. We want to be the agency that comes up with those ideas, not just the agency that executes them.”

Indeed, Edelman is focused just as much on starting fires as it is on putting them out. “At the end of the day, there are positive outcomes that can be derived from PR,” Kimmel says. “Through your PR efforts, you can increase or earn the trust of various stakeholders, and with that trust, you can effect behavioural change. In that way, you can use PR to help drive commercial success.”