spring / 2014

The magazine of branded content

Stories Go Global

Content gets to work at Edelman as the world’s largest privately held P.R. agency embraces storytelling.
Apr 7, 2014


Steve Rubel, Edelman's chief content officer

As Edelman Public Relations makes a serious foray into content marketing—with partnerships in the paid/native space with players like BuzzFeed—the world’s largest privately held P.R. firm isn’t having a problem getting the word out.

For Edelman, partnerships with native advertising venues have been important in selling to clients. “The GEs, American Expresses, the Coca Cola’s, not all of them are Edelman clients, but what they do and the leap of faith they put in content is rare,” says Steve Rubel, Edelman’s chief content officer. “Everyone wants to be safe about it, so the more we can show them how things work through metrics from other clients is important.”

From the top down, it’s an initiative that they’re happy to shout about. President and chief executive Richard Edelman, “partly for offense and partly for defense,” as he recently told The New York Times, has elevated Rubel from EVP/global strategy and insights to his current role as chief content officer. “We’re seeing a changed competitive landscape,” Edelman told The Times. “All of a sudden, clients are open to ideas from P.R. firms, digital agencies, media-buying agencies, not just creative shops.”

As content becomes a front and center offering, with the recent recruitment of FastCompany.com editorial director Tyler Gray as editorial director in New York, Rubel explains that the discipline is grounded in the roots of their client work.

“For a long time, our job was to equip the media to do storytelling. Now more and more we see content as being an equalizer for us.”

“A lot of the best work that Edelman has done started with a clever idea that involved content,” says Rubel, 43, an eight-year veteran of the company. “Our philosophy is we are focused on how to do great storytelling across the firm. That’s why we are hiring journalists here in the creative newsroom, because we recognize there is a talent for people who know how to do that.”

When we spoke to Rubel, seated in a glass-enclosed conference room overlooking the Hudson River in their Tribeca offices, the largely open plan environment, replete with contemporary art, conveyed the feeling of an idea shop more than an exchange for mere media placement. The menu can range from a single post for as low as $5,000 up to the low- to mid-six figures.

Screenshot Edelman got its feet wet two years ago with this sponsored content piece for its client, Schick, for distribution on BuzzFeed. Edelman recently placed Steve Rubel as its chief content officer.

“You’ll see us doing more programs that are less traditional in terms of public relations—‘Come up with a good story about the client, have good message points, and go out and get to know the media and make sure they are equipped to tell the story’—and more of where we are starting with the content we create,” says Rubel.

However, it’s no surprise they’ve got an eye firmly focused on where the content will be seen. As Rubel puts it, the biggest misconception on the client side is that if they build it readers will come.

“One of the things I’m encouraging the teams and clients to do is to think of distribution first and content second, which is a totally different paradigm,” says Rubel, adding, “What I worry about is that there is too much content out there and not enough time to read it. The time we have to spend with content is not increasing. That means the competition for attention is going to get harder, so you have to be smart about the quality, and the way the information finds its way to your end stakeholder.”

“This will be the year when the prices for native advertising come down enough and the media companies get desperate enough to offer solutions that are tenable.”

Edelman sees a way forward by creating tightly focused content while still hoping to take advantage of the social traffic. As the landscape evolves, they continue to ask questions about how best to engage audiences on social channels, how to fulfill a client’s desire to create their own assets and, naturally, how it continues to drive conversation in the media. For Rubel, content should be created to satisfy audience need and have marketing be the beneficiary of that work.

“I’m worried about a lot of these publishers that are banking their strategy on social distribution because Facebook, Twitter and Google change their algorithms quickly and that seems to crown kings and queens and leaves others holding the ball,” says Rubel.

From their vantage point, Edelman is seeing brands with a desire to embrace content, but taking a cautious approach. “I think this is the year when people say, ‘Let me do things on other people’s land first where I can achieve scale, gain an audience and be heard and let that be the driver of my own strategy.’ Rather than building out your own website first, this will be the year when the prices for native advertising come down enough and the media companies get desperate enough to offer solutions that are tenable.”

“I think there are a lot of people who don’t fully appreciate what it takes to really make [content] successful. There are people who have been doing that professionally for decades and if you tap into their expertise, they can make that work even better.”

So far, the agency’s increased focus on content as a discipline has deepened their relationships with clients, whose broader business needs—engaging customers through social media, being seen as a thought leader and using content to start the domino effect that leads to that broader outcome—may or may nor align with such specific P.R. deliverables like issues management and corporate reputation.

But at the forefront of it all is education and inspiration, where Rubel spends nearly half his time. “It’s equipping people to be the best they can. My goal is to lead and assist, not to score points. It’s really to equip people to do the best jobs possible, to equip them to have the means necessary to do even more great work than they do today.”

Apr 7, 2014


Steve Rubel, Edelman's chief content officer