LONDON — Edelman is restoring staff salaries cut due to Covid-19 and is making hires and investment again, as the agency begins to bounce back after being forced to make mass redundancies in June.

Speaking at the virtual PRCA National Conference last week, Richard Edelman said that half of the pay cuts taken by the global workforce were being reversed this month, with the rest to be returned to pre-Covid levels in October.

Edelman also said that the world’s largest PR firm was “making hires again in fast-growing areas like financial PR and healthcare”. He also said the London office in particular was “investing in advisory, employee engagement and financial,” and he praised the leadership of EMEA chief Ed Williams “in a very strange time. To continue to perform as they have is a stunning tribute.”

He added: “The London business is deeply important; the idea of corporate being tied to brand, of having data leading to creative and stimulating global work, all comes from London.”

Edelman described the firm’s performance over the past six months as “like a coffee cup” with a steep decline, a flat base and now starting to rise again. Edelman made 390 staff redundant worldwide in June, just weeks after pledging that the pandemic would not lead to job losses. He said: “The spring was no fun but we got through it and I’m deeply grateful to my colleagues for suffering through it. We are towards the other side now.

“You’ve got to tell your people the truth. I did my best to fight against the tide, but we can’t be in a place where we’re losing money. We just couldn’t get into the red.”

He said the firm had also learned the true value of “good intellectual property” like the 20-year-old Trust Barometer and this year’s additional special Trust Barometer report on Covid-19: “It’s been crucial in guiding our advice to clients.”

On how client work has shifted this year, Edelman told delegates: “Smart PR agencies recognised that they should be pointing out the contributions clients were making to solving Covid or dealing with systemic racism – it’s always appropriate because we’re part of the news cycle. If we can capitalise on that change in work product, we can make a shift in client spend. But we need to go to clients and not wait for them to come to us, and we have to push them to do things and make sure they understand the necessity of action.”

And in response to a question on ethics in the PR industry, Edelman said: “It’s fundamental to the future of our industry to learn how to say no. We cannot be working for people who want us to do the black arts of subterranean work and not identify ourselves. We also have to have standards in favour of clients who are committed to making society better. It’s not just about the money.”

He added: “Not every client is worthy of our attention and support; we are not lawyers, we are public advocates. Remember Bell Pottinger and the shame that was felt by our whole industry. We must have a higher bar for engagement.”

During his conference keynote, Edelman also outlined the firm’s new approach, which he termed “action communications”, and urged the PR industry to now move from “defence to offense”.

“We need a massive change in what we do and how we add value to clients,” he said. “This is a time for us to reevaluate our approach to solving problems, to expand our notion of what effective PR entails. In a world forever changed by Covid, we must not only drive sales and advance reputation, we must also increase trust in the companies we support, while instilling confidence in the global institutions that are the bedrock of society.

“I want us to get clients to change now, not to wait for a crisis to force it. I want us to be brave enough not answer the client’s brief literally. I want us to re-consider the strategy and to recommend the action that creates a catalytic moment in time for a business or brand. Only then can we communicate and that we must do differently as well.”

Edelman said that five years ago he suggested that the marketing services business be reclassified as “communications marketing”, where PR would be used before advertising or digital to establish trust. “I called for the PR firms to recruit creatives and planners so that we had our own ideas, not just promoting those of others. We had to build social communities willing to interact with our messages – hence digital. All of this had to be premised on data – hence research – so that we knew who wanted targeted information then to measure our effectiveness based on sales or loyalty.

“This describes my own firm’s strategy of moving beyond PR into communications, to compete with ad agencies and digital firms, to work with CMOs and CCOs.”

He said he now wanted to propose another strategy: “The way forward for our industry is action communications. A major step beyond the McCann Erickson 1912 slogan, “Truth Well Told”: that’s an essential mission for communications but not sufficient. People will trust what we do, because actions speak louder than words.  Our new paradigm should be: do, say and advocate… This is the moment for communications leaders to become the force that prompts substantive change by companies and brands.”

Edelman described this theory as having four pillars. First, “our communications must follow meaningful action. This means less image and persuasion and more tangible commitments and accountability. Our success will be measured not only by business impact but also improvement in society.”

He said communications must also be “inside-out” with “no more siloed communications for consumers, shareholders and employees. The new way is multi-stakeholder, starting with employees as our first priority.”

Communications must also be “peer-to-peer and based not just on talking at but listening” and move beyond one-way, transactional relationships to those built on “mutuality and trust.” For example, he said, “controlling the narrative is an utterly futile endeavor. We need to give ideas and facts to the community and let them validate these through experience.”

Finally, Edelman said communications “must be relatable and honest”. “We cannot any longer just tell good news, It’s not truthful. We need to offer a full picture based on facts and transparency. It is our responsibility to help correct misinformation as a conduit of reliable information attributed to independent sources.”

To the question of whether the industry could make his new approach work at scale, Edelman said: “First, we have to diversify our talent, so that we are representative of society, with locals not expats leading operations and with diverse people in charge. We will evolve our staff mix with a higher percentage of senior people capable of advising and counselling clients at the highest levels.

“We will challenge those who sanitise messaging to minimise liability – read lawyers – in favour of communications that is empathetic, transparent and values based. Our creative has to be emotional and factual, different to advertising, and based on data and insights. We will move from exclusive reliance on the media to add direct to end user communications relying on production capabilities for content, ready in hours not days.

“And we will determine the appropriate action to take by asking ourselves the following questions: does our creative solve a societal need? Does it have a clear connection to the company or brand? Does it satisfy employee expectations? Does it meet the needs of shareholders and other stakeholders?”

Edelman concluded his presentation by saying: “I look at PR as the communications modality that is for action, not for image and perception. Companies need to lean into problems: it’s not about amplification any more, it’s about solving a problem.”