Edelman's Future History, One Decade Later
In 2012, I wrote a future history of Edelman set in 2034. A look back at this essay, ten years on.
Really, I Was Just Bored
In 2012, I was mentally somnambulating through class during an executive MBA program. Bored to distraction so early on a Saturday morning, I spent the time playing with one of the favorite assignments that Jack Welch would give his lieutenants at GE: “destroy your business.”
The premise was simple. Welch believed that the best way for a business-unit leader to prepare for competitive threats was to invent scenarios that would essentially render their line-of-business obsolete. I decided to point this method at my then-employer, Edelman.
I mean… What else was I going to do in class? I. Was. Crushingly. Bored. Besides, the prof had basically doxxed me the first day by airing my political beliefs out loud to the rest of the MBA cohort, so it’s not like I was disposed to be attentive, engaged, or even… well… pleasant. With a sleep-deprived brain and a stomach full of dry danish and burnt coffee, I pecked at a future history of the world’s largest PR firm for about three-and-a-half hours every Saturday morning for five weeks. I would peck at it some more here and there for the rest of that year.
So What Happened Next?
The result was the eighteen-page essay After Edelman. I got the idea for the title from business consultant Bob “Bluefire” Jacobson who wrote After Microsoft in 1998 during a time when breaking up the software company felt like a very real possibility and, at least to some, a moral imperative.
I set my future history of Edelman in 2034. Told in the first person by Terrence Weltman — the “president of Edelman’s U.S. mountain and southwest regions” — our narrator describes key events and trends that took the firm from the top spot in the agency revenue rankings to Number Three. Weltman had come into his position when Edelman acquired his Denver-based firm Northslope Communications Group in 2019. (Colorado was on its way to becoming the first state to legalize marijuana, so I named the fictional firm after a throwaway line in an old Dennis Miller HBO comedy special where he described a particularly powerful strain: “Some incredibly potent Say-oh [sic] Paulo northslope tripweed. The kind the guys on Amtrak smoke.”)
I hasten to note that, at the time of the writing, Edelman had no official Denver office and no employee by the name Terrence Weltman. This was intentional. Should After Edelman get a bigger audience within the firm, I wanted to have a narrator with a clean slate, unencumbered by any historical baggage.
Hit & Miss
Given that Edelman did not acquire any such mile-high firm in 2019, this seems like an obvious place to point out the predictions and plot elements that I got pretty wrong. That said, I think I did get the major themes right (more later) and, anyway, many of my “predictions” were written more to support a quasi-comedic undercurrent than to indulge any pretensions of prophecy.
Here we go:
By 2016, governments and trade associations had not implemented a “PR Scarlet Letter” to identify stories where media relations people had any role in their placement. Also, congratulations to the intrepid reporter “Janice Raal” at Forbes for not actually breaking this story that year.
By 2019, Sony and Thomson SA/RCA had not merged.
Neither had the PRSA and the IABC.
Unless I missed something, there is no consumer electronics company of note based in Iraq.
Email was still a very persistent means of communication in 2017, despite an anticipated death that has been predicted to take place nearly every year after “today” since 1995 or so.
I actually don’t know whether the burden of compliance data was 1.6 exabytes per company per year by 2020. I did vaguely remember that this was a number that had been thrown around a few years after Sarbanes-Oxley became law a decade before I wrote this, but I think it might have been exaggerated even back then.
IDG and UBM did not merge and, thus, there is no trade journal called CIO/InformationWeek or any other clumsy-sounding mashup.
Nobody talks about the Semantic Web anymore, sadly.
By 2018, I do not believe there was a widespread hack of public relations firms by cyber-activists, even if some individual firms may have been breached. (Anonymous and similar groups were big news at the time I wrote this.)
While we are still early in 2022, the U.S. Congress has bigger issues to work through than regulating the size of communications firms. We also do not have a president of Japanese ancestry who signed any such legislation into law.
Despite very recent calls to do so by the Democratic party, the Supreme Court has not yet expanded past the current roster of nine justices.
One part I might’ve dialed back a hair:
I was perhaps a bit unfair to our industry’s trade organizations, and perhaps it wasn’t altogether nice that Weltman referred to their respective memberships as “dues-paying zombies,” even if I do believe that such organizations struggle to assert their value. This was written during a period when I started to find participation in trade-related activities frustrating, particularly as related to the business model around their conferences, as well as their near-complete absence in meaningful public discussion about communications topics in general. I care about such things a lot less these days.
Some minor bits I totally nailed:
The fictional health sciences firms “AssayTech” and “FemtoScale Therapeutics” could easily be swapped for Theranos today, even if their respective controversies are quite different. That said, the AssayTech story — told in one of the essay’s many lengthy footnotes — also happened to describe a CEO who coerced employees into committing the crimes, just like Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes was alleged to have done.
While I had a very different vision for how micropayments for content would take shape, there is a section in there that appears to predict the Substack model.
The fictional “BlueCollab” service could be a stand-in for Slack, Teams, or Workplace, even if such services haven’t yet replaced email as predicted. At the time, Edelman was a big user of Skype-for-Business (neé Lync), so we were still a ways away from the kind of collaboration apps in widespread use today.
Thematically, though, I think I got the big stuff right:
Public relations is deeply distrusted and too many of the trade’s practitioners have hand-waved this as a classic shoes-for-the-cobbler’s-kids problem. In reality, though, the degree to which someone is expected to distrust PR strategies and tactics depends largely on how good-and-decent people are expected to approach the organization practicing it.
Based on the above, I do think that we are on a long road to the licensure-driven cartelizing of communications and, in some circumstances, maybe even marketing to the degree we’ve seen in law and medicine. Time will tell. It would be a shame if this happened.
Public relations and marketing folks tend to over-estimate their ability to produce content that people aren’t prone to begrudgingly consume or are otherwise desperate to avoid. There are some successes here and there, yes, but I nevertheless don’t think the description of “network damage to be routed around” is too strong.
So, Then What Happened?
After Edelman went largely unnoticed internally, but only because I didn’t share it very widely. It wasn’t a Jerry Maguire kind of thing; I didn’t intend to write a manifesto or presume to dictate a direction for the firm. I really just wanted to entertain myself. I kept it to a small group of colleagues whom I thought would receive it in the spirit that it was intended, give solid feedback, and keep it to themselves. I figured I might or might not “pass it up the chain” eventually. Never did get around to that, though.
I selected my ad hoc review committee carefully and got some very good notes on the piece. Amusingly, one such colleague was an experienced editor who said that the fictional BlueCollab exchange between a vice president and an executive vice president was “not very believable and could never happen at Edelman.” Just as amusingly, I remember I had modeled it on a much lower-stakes interaction about a completely different matter that I had observed earlier that year.
2014 saw the last of a few reasonably substantial revisions to the essay. After that, I pretty much forgot about it. By then, I had already been digging into the possibilities of blockchain technology and was well into a Quixotic adventure attempting to ameliorate PR’s relationship with Wikipedia, so I was consumed by other interests.
A few reasons:
It’s been a decade. I rediscovered it after doing some Google Drive cleanup. After giving it another read, I determined there wasn’t anything proprietary in there. In fact, take away the “number-one agency” aspect and plop any other large agency in its place and I’m not sure that much would change.
It’s parallel with this newsletter. I talk about the vision of “A Penny Ahead” as a newsletter about life, business, culture, and tech for communicators who are serious about their careers and, at the same time, are so much more than their careers. After Edelman is representative of this synthesis.
I think everyone should do it. I find it tough to imagine a better way to exercise both hemispheres of the brain in the business context. So, I highly recommend playing around with the “destroy your business” concept.
Alright, Already! So Where the &$#@ Is It?
Fine. Enough of the exposition that, by now, is almost as long as its subject. Here’s After Edelman. There’s so much more that I would rewrite given enough time, but still serves as a kind of capsule for where my head was at a decade ago. Metallica doesn’t apologize for the let’s-just-go-rock-out exuberance of their debut record Kill ‘Em All, so I figure I’d present it more or less as it was save for a few very minor tweaks. Enjoy.
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Lovely stuff as always. You mentioned about the potential of regulating the comms and marketing, noting how it's done for law and finance. As someone who works in a VERY regulated industry I can tell you it actually happens the other way around, and differently: Governments regulate the industry not the practitioners. A regulated company can hire a comms or marketing firm that also handles the free-wheeling world of, say, children's educational games, and that firm plays by one set of rules for one client, and a different set for the regulated one. Short of not being allowed to lie outright (natch) the burden is on the client not the agency. This may sound like some version of Hell but, in fact, the restrictions add a level of "intellectual purity" to the art of marketing and communications: Can you win this fight with one hand tied behind your back and an undersized portfolio of channels? It does bring out one's inner MacGyver...
To bring this to some of the present-day rumblings: I am unpopular in my belief that, if Edelman wants to take on Big Petroleum as a client(s) they should do so freely. Edelman's job is to help their clients accomplish their goals. It is the consumer's job to determine if the messaging / approach is honest or greenwashing, and then to vote with their wallets. The risk Edelman (and others) no doubt calculate is, if I do take on Big Petroleum does that automatically exclude me from working for potentially more exciting, "cleaner" energy companies? It's a business decision grounded in the tensions of a moral imperative.
Thanks again for the thinking on this. There should be more like it.
this is fantastic. i miss more regular interactions with your singular mind.