Nick Barron, UK MD of corporate and financial at Edelman, on hiring non-graduates, fear of fake news and why businesses are having to work harder to gain trust.
Earlier this year Edelman opened up its graduate programme to non-graduates, what does that signify to you? Why is it important?
Our recruitment programme ‘Edelman Beta’ helps us in two important ways. Firstly, it creates a level playing field for people with great talent and new ideas to come through. Secondly, we’re trying to create a team with the perfect blend of earned and digital expertise and Beta’s social-scavenger-hunt entry process helped us find people with the right mindset.
What else is current or exciting in your department or in the wider agency?
The most exciting thing about working at Edelman is that clients increasingly come to us with a business challenge or opportunity rather than a communications brief. Our Trust data, our global scale and our expertise in planning and research means that clients want to work with us to solve a problem from first principles. That generally leads to better and more interesting work.
Being big but independently-owned also gives us a crucial advantage – the ability to experiment. Whether it’s our work to develop new ways to measure and map social media influence or the investment we’re making in editorial capabilities, we’re able to invest over the long-term without worrying about treading on any other agencies’ toes.
Finally, we’re just putting the finishing touches to our expanded office, which will finally give us the space to bring together all our teams in one place. It means that everyone from our financial team Smithfield to our new creative crew Edelman Deportivo will be under the same roof, able to work together in new ways. That will be quite a toy box.
On a broader scale, which PR industry issues are front of mind for you personally?
I am worried that growing concern about populism, fake news and hate speech is leading to measures being introduced, which are having a chilling effect on digital discourse. Moral panics rarely lead to good policy and much of the recent debate about these subjects has been driven by political or commercial self-interest.
Tinkering has made Twitter incoherent, comments on Comment is Free are now heavily censored, Facebook is coming under intense political pressure and, on YouTube, interesting voices are being demonetised or banned in order to sanitise the platform. The cumulative result of these changes is that the market place of ideas is getting smaller and echo chambers are getting worse.
It’s true that people tend to follow like-minded individuals on social networks, but at the moment serendipity is still possible – you can discover new ideas or have your worldview challenged. As alternative platforms like Minds.com and Gab.ai start to hoover up people who feel disenfranchised on the traditional platforms, we risk creating two entirely different social media ecosystems, where progressives and libertarians never interact.
What are your clients currently asking you about/for advice on?
More and more clients are asking us to help them define who they are and why they matter. Businesses are having to work harder to earn trust, authority and influence, so the fundamentals like brand purpose and employer value proposition have become more important.
In terms of the issues that are occupying them, two stand out:
Firstly, Brexit. It will have a significant impact on many of our clients’ operations and there’s never been more need for business to contribute to the UK debate about regulation, trade and industrial strategy. Conversely, clients also want us to help them access international markets via our global network. The majority of our work in the London office is internationally-focused.
Secondly, cyber risk. Companies have realised how much customer data they’re sitting on and how vulnerable it is. Scenario planning, crisis training and employee and customer engagement are all areas in which clients are looking for help.
How do you manage such a large team? Any tips?
Hire good people and work hard to keep them. Give them space to get on with their jobs and licence to try new things. Celebrate teams not individuals. Walk around a lot – I try not to get stuck behind a screen for too long. Have an amazing Deputy MD.
What advice would you give your younger self, starting-out in the industry?
If I was starting out all over again, I’d have to raise my game. The quality of young talent coming into the industry is much higher than when I left university. Publish, volunteer, study – work hard to become an interesting person. We are in the business of helping our clients be interesting, after all.