PRNewser Interview: Matthew Harrington, President & CEO, Edelman, U.S.


Matthew Harrington, a 20-year Edelman veteran, oversees the firm’s U.S. business, which includes more than 1,600 employees and 2008 revenue of $294M, representing approximately 65% of the firm’s worldwide revenue. He currently provides counsel to a variety of Edelman clients including General Electric, Charles Schwab & Company, Getty Images, Samsung and Starbucks.

PRNewser caught up with Harrington to discuss his first year leading Edelman U.S. (“there was considerable uncertainty”), what he thinks Q4 will bring for the PR industry (“overall I think we have seen the worst”), and how the recently announced 2009 Mid-Year Trust Barometer revealed significant changes from Edelman’s previous Trust Barometer released just six months ago.

It’s been a year since you were named President & CEO of Edelman, U.S. What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve noticed in the agency business during that time?

To state the obvious the biggest shift since July ’08 was the dramatically changed nature of the economy. Navigating uncertainty is quite different from managing growth, and there was considerable uncertainty as client programs and spending shifted. The instability called for a greater flexibility and nimbleness, and that has served Edelman well. Clients didn’t stop communicating entirely but rather heightened their focus on priority stakeholders and where there was likely to be the best ROI.

After the month of August, many agencies kick into “high gear” again, closing out the year with the always busy fall and holiday seasons. While there seems to a be a small uptick in RFPs this quarter, compared to Q1 and Q2, what do you think Q4 will bring?

As of this moment, calendar Q4 appears good. The much discussed green shoots do seem to be real and has given our clients additional confidence in their programming as we close out the year. This is especially true of our marketing clients who want and need to ensure that they are connecting with consumers.

Edelman recently released it’s 2009 Mid-Year Trust Barometer survey. The findings note that, “Nearly one-half of informed publics (48%) in the United States trust business to do what is right, up from a low of 36% in January.” What do you think or what does the research show as to the reason for this change?

The 12-point recovery from January indicates that business is taking the right steps to rebuild trust. Success comes to those who are engaged in continuous conversation with employees, customers and a wide array of constituencies that influence relationships and business. Companies that express a commitment to mutual social responsibility and their role in community and follow up with action are beginning to restore trust.

It’s interesting that in terms of tangible actions business have taken in the past six months to improve trust, communicating frequently and honestly was cited 91% of the time, while increasing share-holder value was cited only 66% of the time. What do you make of this finding?

Given the dismal performance of the global stock markets over the past year, it makes sense that expectations for corporate behaviors should shift away from share price performance. That said, the arc of our nine years of tracking data indicates a steadily increased expectation of companies as good employer and corporate citizen. We are moving from a shareholder society to a stakeholder society, where the license to do business is contingent upon far more than solely financial performance.

The Council of PR Firms recently released their Q2 survey of 67 agencies. The survey found that most agency leaders think “client budgets have seen the bottom.” Do you agree?

While there may be some areas of the economy that still have to flush out remaining problems, overall I think we have seen the worst. I suspect we will be riding along the valley floor of the economy for a while with moments of modest improvement, and this should continue over the course of the next 12-18 months.