Brand strategy, crisis management, leadership, and comms for a post-Covid world


In the latest Walker Webcast, Willy sat down with Russell Dubner, CEO of Edelman’s United States Operations, a role he has held since 2014. Previously, Russell was President of Edelman New York. He attended Franklin and Marshall College where he played soccer, wrestled and played tennis. He holds an MBA from Columbia Business School and started at Edelman in 1992, making 30 years with the company.


Edelman is a global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote and protect their brands reputation. Over 6,000 people in more than 60 locations worldwide deliver communication strategies that allow their clients to lead and act with certainty. When Russell joined Dubner, it was nothing close to the powerhouse it is today. However, Russell recalls their ambition, which has been contagious from the beginning. This ambition ultimately drew him to the company. It was working for the Mexican Government around the time of NAFTA when Russell found his first major success with the company.

When working for a company selling a wide range of products, Edelman is able to find them a unified branding strategy. This is achieved by identifying the customer base and then engaging them in a fun, relatable way. With the rise of online media, the way companies spend their media budget has shifted since the start of the decade. Russell explains many companies now have hired journalists to create their own digital publishing platforms. He then outlines the aspects in traditional media which are dying, and the rise of a new flourishing side of media. It is becoming increasingly popular for social media influencers to be the face of a brand.

The main qualifications for making communication and advertisement strategy effective is to embed something that is both experiential and authentic. Russell recalls Edelman’s work with companies such as Activision, REI and Tough Mudder and reveals how they managed to engage the respective audiences. Then, Russell offers his advice for people looking to start or build a brand. He stresses that trust in a company itself is equally important as trust in the products they sell. In today’s age, it’s also important for a brand’s values and morals to shine through. 

Then, they discuss the degradation of institutional trust in the United States. Business and employers now commonly hold more trust than politicians or journalists. Seeing as politics in America today is such a divisive topic, Edelman usually advises clients to remain respite from public political discourse. Instead, they may focus on living their values. They refer to Dove as a brand that doesn’t shy away from letting their core values shine in their advertisements, evident in their latest campaign Pledge for Paternity Leave.

Edelman’s recent research shows that America is still in a state of trauma following the pandemic. While there is an undercurrent of optimism, people are still feeling hindered from returning to normal life. Russell lays out a few ways businesses can accelerate a successful return. He predicts a boost to be on the horizon, though it is likely to be a delayed response. Throughout the pandemic, Edelman was reliant on local health authorities to determine their next steps and expect a return to the office to happen sometime early fall.

In closing, Russell shares his advice for leaders and CEOs who are readily anticipating a return to work. It is essential for them to be compassionate and understanding towards their employees. Additionally, leaders should be the optimist, realist and motivator. Finally, they revisit the concept of trust, then Russell relays the mindset of Edelman’s most progressive clients.


Learn more about Edelman by visiting their website.

Connect with Russell Dubner.

Learn more about Willy Walker and connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Key Ideas:

1:12 - Host Willy Walker provides background on Edelman and guest Russel Dubner. 
2:30 - Russell Dubner speaks of his background and why he joined Edelman. 
4:35 - How Edelman works with companies selling a wide array of products. 
8:55 - Comparison between average media spend in the early 2000’s vs. modern day. 
11:30 - Russell’s predictions for the future of digital marketing. 
16:00 - The two qualifications to make communication and ad strategy so effective. 
20:00 - Edelman’s collaboration with Tough Mudder.
23:15 - Russell’s core tenants for building a brand. 
28:30 - Edelman’s work in crisis management.
36:00 - Shifting of the trust dynamic in the U.S. 
39:40 - Should employers refrain from disclosing their own political beliefs? 
40:22 - Dove’s new  campaign “Pledge for Paternity Leave”. 
43:50 - How communications and PR may change post-lockdowns. 
47:20 - How has Edelman functioned remotely? 
50:50 - Advice for leaders hoping to return to normal. 
53:00 - Where so many large companies stand in terms of societal issues? 

Webcast Transcript

Willy Walker: Thank you Susan and welcome everyone to another Walker Webcast. It's a glorious Spring Day here in Denver after getting a flash snowstorm day before yesterday. It's the final day of Q1 and it's uplifting to think about the arrival the spring, the celebration of Passover and Easter, the reopening and getting to the other side of the pandemic. I went back and looked at one of the daily videos I sent out to my Walker & Dunlop colleagues last spring, and in it I was talking about potentially being back in the office by early June; amazing how wrong I was, and also to think about how little information we all had at the time about the virus, how to protect ourselves, and vaccine development and deployment.  

I had someone write me yesterday saying she had listened to every Walker Webcast either live or on replay over the last year and how thankful she was for the insight and information this weekly discussion produces.  Firstly, thank you Lynn for your very nice email and second, thank you to all the listeners who join us every week. Our numbers have grown dramatically over the past month.  With tens of thousands of replays of the Walker Webcast being watched on YouTube we actually had over 50,000 replays last weekend of my discussion on the housing market with Diana Olick of CNBC and Ivy Zelman of Zelman Associates.  Big thanks to the Walker & Dunlop Marketing team for all their fantastic work on this and to my guests like Russell Dubner today who bring amazing insights and perspectives to this weekly dialogue.  

Final note before I begin, the Biden Administration is unveiling its enormous infrastructure package today which calls for trillions of dollars of investment in bridges, roads, airports, clean water, job training and much, much more.  One area that the Biden Administration could have an immediate and significant impact on both the building and retrofitting of environmentally friendly buildings is to have the regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reintroduce their green lending programs and remove green lending from the annual multifamily lending caps.  From 2016 to 2019 Freddie Mac provided almost $60 billion in green advantage loans while from 2012 to 2019 Fannie Mae issued $75 billion of green bonds.  Combine these lending programs saved 8 billion kBT of energy 7.9 billion gallons of water and prevented 541,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emission.  The environmental benefits from these lending programs were immediate and dramatic and they should be reinstated in concert with any infrastructure bill.  

So now on to Edelman and to my great guest today, Russell. Edelman is a global communications firm that partners with businesses and organizations to evolve, promote, and protect their brands and reputations. Over 6,000 people in more than 60 locations around the globe deliver communication strategy that allow their clients to lead an act with certainty. Russell Dubner is the CEO of Edelman's U.S. Operations, a role he has held since 2014. Previously Russell was President of Edelman New York.  Russell went to Franklin and Marshall College, where he played soccer also wrestled, and also played tennis. Has an MBA from Columbia Business School. Russell started at Edelman in 1992 and is in his 30th year with the company.  He sits on the boards of Coro New York Leadership Center, Gen Next Foundation, and the Center for an Urban Future. 

So Russell you and I actually have a number of similarities we both went to small liberal arts colleges to play D3 athletics, and then went on to Ivy league business schools, we are both fathers of three boys, you are the owner of two golden doodles we have one and are about to get our second.  We both lived in London, about the same time, in the early 2000s even though we didn't know one another back then and you now run the U.S. operations and one of the largest global communications firms.  Take us back for a moment to graduating from Franklin & Marshall and why you joined Edelman which at the time was nothing close to the global powerhouse it is today.

Russell Dubner: Well first Willy, thanks again for having me on today. Yeah it's a great question. Back then Edelman was not the leader it is today, but the leaders of Edelman we're still the Edelman family and they are an ambitious bunch. And Dan Edelman and then Richard was on a mission; knew that communications had a large role to play at the head table, and you know that ambition is contagious.

Willy Walker: Was there anything you talked about, Dan and Richard, was there anything in your background from either a leadership or an education standpoint that you think made you stand out to them back in the 1990s that they said hey Russell's got legs.

Russell Dubner: Yeah, look um sometimes a place fits you well.  Where that kind of drive, ambition, hustle appeal deeply to me because it fit my work ethos, how I look at the world.  And I think early days, some of my first client engagements we did a bunch of work for the government of Mexico around the time of NAFTA. And here we have this premium assignment working with the White House Task Force on NAFTA after just graduating from college. To be able to coalesce a team that were set of former journalists, a set of people who are really sort of publicists, and looking at a campaign and bringing that together and end up being sort of the campaign quarterback I think showed them that not only to have the hustle that I could coalesce a team. So I think that moment and then after our success there, I naturally thought well how do we build a playbook?  How can this be something that we could take the other clients, which can help us grow in international public affairs, doing inward investment work for Israel, and some for Brazil and the like?

Willy Walker: So early on some of the brands that you worked with were Church & Dwight, Dannon, and Energizer.  I didn't know that Church & Dwight owned Arm & Hammer, Pepsodent, and Trojan brands.  Talk to me for a second about how you work with a company that is trying to sell baking soda, toothpaste, and condoms with regard to a unified branding strategy.

Russell Dubner: Sure, well, I mean I think first you start with the fact that each of those products has a particular audience that they want to energize. But with something like say the Arm & Hammer it's also sort of a master brand because the baking soda can get applied to a whole bunch of different applications. And so what we'll do is look at what is the need of those potential consumers and then overall how you potentially positioning the parent company, which is more the case with you know, say Unilever, where that purpose-driven brand. And interestingly this summer, you know, we still do a lot of work for Church & Dwight and looking at their Arm & Hammer brand we created almost a summer camp, a virtual summer camp for young moms and their children with the enemy being mom's not getting time during COVID. So it's an instance where you're proving the utility of the brand by giving kids activities, all the ways, you can use Arm & Hammer.  With you know, showing them that there's a creativity and we know the problems they face. So those are the kinds of programs and you know, we were able to garner 5 million views of the content, because it wasn't selling it was really engaging people and helping them in a fun way, creative way to solve a problem.

Willy Walker: Talk about the difference of trying to work with a company to promote a specific product like what you just talked about with Arm & Hammer versus someone like BCG or PwC two of the clients that you worked with where you're really you're talking about first of all services not an actual product, and second of all in the case of BCG, specifically, you can't even talk about what they've done, for whom.  So how do you go about selling that type of a service versus we all kind of get okay let's figure out who the target audience is on Arm & Hammer and go promote that product?

Russell Dubner: Yeah, it's a very different problem set. One takes the example of Arm & Hammer it takes a certain kind of creativity to stay relevant with an audience and for a BCG or PwC it takes a different kind of creativity.  So, when we started working BCG maybe it was 10 years ago and admittedly today we do work for McKinsey but Rich Lesser was the main client who's today that global CEO and his ambition was to make BCG seen as an institution, not just a strategy shop.  And so, part of the challenge there is, how do you show up? Where do you show up? For them it's how do you form partnerships like we did with Ted. So there's a BCG at Ted that has now lasted 10 years we're BCG shows up with their Ted Talks and it forced them to change how they delivered their storytelling and created a mechanism for them to do that. And another piece is making sure that you're adjacent to the people who have the most influence to bring forward your best ideas. They were a natural medicine brand back then and getting them in the right mix in the right showing up at the Millkins of the world and the like.  

For someone like PwC it's different.  PwC is very much about leading with their action too. So Tim Ryan who's our client who heads the U.S. is a very bold leader. And with Tim, he's very willing to step out and lead for instance on diversity and inclusion.  And created an organization and kind of gifted that outside of PwC around CEO action and has been really bold also about upscaling; seeing the challenges that are coming down the pike and investing big dollars in the firm is doing that globally, and so a lot of building the brand is around their action, in addition to their thinking about what's changing in the economy and how CFO’s are grappling with the next stage post-COVID.

Willy Walker: If we roll the clock back, Russell, to, I don't know 2000, and thought about PwC and BCG for example, and how much of their media-spend was in traditional media.  I remember distinctly walking through Heathrow Airport year after year when we were living over there and seeing all the PwC signs on the wall. And so, there's that typical kind of billboard-spend that you they would do at an airport, but clearly online media has, you know, basically consumed the media world.  If you think back to the spend of someone like PwC in 2000, and maybe PwC isn't the right example, but someone like that in a professional services space, how much is their media-spend from traditional media back in 2000 to now online media, shifted over the last two decades?

Russell Dubner: I think professional services and like-companies are having to look at their spend and say, Okay, I have this pot of money. What really matters to my customer and their influencers now? Where are they going to find that relevance and connector?  And so, what you've seen is that, yes, there still are the golf sponsorships and alike.  But the places where they get more resonance could be around really useful thought leadership and so that there's a digital harkening and engagement strategy around publishing.  And so, each of them have become their own publishing and media company. So, they've employed some top former journalists who are part of their team, and the dollars have shifted from traditional marketing to marketing that is of substantive value, and that some of that shift you'll see in terms of digital and digital-spend. Some it's on the substance itself.  And some of that is also around convening:  who do you bring together to talk through and to solve? So, I think the shift has been pretty dramatic and I know, for instance, some of those firms are looking today at again, What are the returns? How are we getting our customers engaged and are they in areas of common interest? So yeah, it's a very different formula in part because the customer is looking for more substantive engagement.

Willy Walker: I listened to Richard Edelman on a webcast that you all did right after the election, talking about that the media, the lack of trust in the media today is at an all-time high as far as distrust in media. And at the same time, media companies are making money hand over fist right now. And then I heard you just say that a lot of these larger firms are actually on their online media bringing a lot of capabilities in-house. And so, as you think about the media landscape over the next decade, is it that people start to create really their own PR and internal capabilities? Or do they continue to rely on third parties, as both the channel, as well as the creator of content?

Russell Dubner: Yeah, I mean, look, the way I like to think about this is that the media ecosystem is often, you know, parts of it are dying and then there is a vibrant, new ecosystem that's being born. And you really need to track where that is and where your employees / where your consumers / where your customers are finding that trusted information. And so, what's been shifting here is that you’d see both traditional media, parts of it doing well, other parts are really sucking wind, and you've seen this huge exodus of journalists from a lot of the top media and it's taking dollars from billionaires and alike to prop up some of those media properties, right? On the flipside you’d see the greatest trust is in company media. And so, in fact, our research has shown that company as media is more credible and trusted than the media itself.  And so, yes, I think company as their own media property, as producers, is really important, but so is also the fact that you have influencers today.  Which aren’t just celebrities that are paid.  We engage influencers in a technology marketing context; in a B2B engagement; understanding those sources of influence through social [media] largely is also a huge part of the game. You almost have to think of this as, you know, what's happening in media is sort of a hollowing out of what was the middle. So, you have the big players who are doing well, and then you have sort of the sub-stack newsletter types that are also very focused in value. And what company needs to do is figure out how it appeals to both, and how do you fill some of those gaps.

Willy Walker: How does Edelman kind of manage and understand the whole new media / online media space? For instance, my kids on Snapchat or on watching YouTube people, they're these YouTube stars. They're these Snapchat personalities, who you know, I get some newsfeed that says that just yesterday or the day before some young woman tragically died who is some Snapchat star.  I didn't / I had no idea who she was. How do you all manage and monitor that to build up the knowledge base at Edelman to be able to come to companies like Walker & Dunlop and put forth, you know, Who you really need to try and promote this service, or this brand, is “this person”?

Russell Dubner: Yeah, so it's part science and part of it is an art.  On the science side, we've been looking at what are the, you know, most trusted, broadest sources of information from traditional media.  And we've been using / investing in… there's technology, and changes that have happened in how what we call coms-tech, the communications technology.  Just like a change in ad-tech that lets you have a much better sense of which outlet, which individual, has the most, strongest voice, most veracity around a particular topic-set. The same kinds of technologies can be applied to influencer, and then you really need to know who that person is. So, we have a whole team that what they do is really study what's changing; study who the right match is for the brand; and then does some of this is just really being done at a hand-to-hand level and looking at who those creators might be.  You know, there's that kind of work we do for, you know, a brand like Xbox who people are so enthusiastic about actually, you don't need to pay anybody to communicate about Xbox. Just ask my kids and how excited they are and want to get their hands on the next one coming up. Nonetheless, how do you still inspire the right creators? How do you make sure there are diverse voices that are coming through?  And they're really smart about making sure they know who those diverse voices might be and making sure that they get engaged in a way that inspires them to create. So, some firms who went to like a social media marketing that focuses on influencers, they would say: Pay these people these dollars and they'll produce this content for you.  And we take a much more hybrid approach, because we think there's a lot of authentic enthusiasm that you can get through creativity. So that's the basic gist.

Willy Walker: So, sticking on your comment about Xbox and your boys… and one of my boys in particular has the same… [laughs]… I would call it a propensity not an addiction, although I think my wife would call it an addiction to the Xbox.  But you've done work with Activision and one of the interesting things in the work, as I heard you speak about your work with Activision, was to embed something in that is both experiential and authentic. And you talked a bunch about sort of the experiential world, both in retail, as well as in using a video game but that also has something that is authentic to it.  Talk about those two, sort-of qualifications that make communication and ad strategy so effective if you can get both the experiential and the authentic.

Russell Dubner: Yeah, so you know, that’s a great observation.  I think in the case of the work we did for Activision when they're about to release a new sort of Call of Duty was really about engaging the Gaming Community where they were, right? It's pretty hard to get the Community to want to switch when they're so enthusiastic about what they're immersed in.  And so, we took that insight, and we created the first Snapchat integration. And so, we disguised it as a software upgrade, a download, so that when some of the top gamers were going through, they could discover it.  And once it was discovered, it gives them a chance to start decoding it.  And then the enthusiasm around solving the problem of like well, What is this gift that's coming in from Activision? blew up. So, by the time they did the launch, it already had tens of millions of people participating and understanding what might be coming and getting energized by it. So, it's authentic to them, authentic to the Community you know, a social media platform they were already deeply engaged with. And so that's where when you thread that needle, then you don't need to spend a lot of money, you just need to get creative and the execution right, to blow out that kind of enthusiasm.

Willy Walker: So that makes great sense in the kind of the video game world. Talk about the work you did with REI on the #optoutside campaign and why that was so effective.

Russell Dubner: Look, I think that one too was one of these lightning-in-a-bottle moments, and with the work with #optoutside, at the time there's an Edelman alumni who was the head of comms, and he called me and said, “Hey, we think we might have something here, we could really use your help.  And we think we have a notion about how we want to define our enemy. And the enemy being really, this notion of being the first indoor species.  That me and Americans in particular are spending too much time inside and how can we get people to understand that REI isn't about just equipment and about clothing, but we're about helping people access the outdoors and how important that is.  And so, they came with this notion, and what we had to figure out, okay, so what's the brand act? How do you get people to understand you really mean this? This isn't about marketing; this is about your mission.  And so, what we all landed on was this notion of closing down their stores on Black Friday.  And to take that hit in profit on one of the most popular shopping days got people's attention.  Got the media's attention.  And then once that started steamrolling, what they did is to get this idea out, right? So, to get again, more people to be willing to participate. So got, you know, governors started raising their hand and saying, “We're going to open our parks for free on Black Friday.” Isn't that interesting? Other brands said, “We're going to do something similar.” Instead of holding tight, we opened up. And each of those things we just… would naturally work in tag team with the team at REI keep evolving as we change. And then there's been subsequent chapters. So when it's really mission-driven, then an organization like REI will say, Okay, so the next chapter is about access to the outdoors for women.  Why aren't women featured in the same way in catalogs? And so they had to do some self-reflection and make changes around that.  Now their focus is around black and brown Americans, and what are we doing to make sure that the outdoors is accessible to them?  And so, the brand, and the perceptions of the brand, and trust in the brand, took a very, very big bump around this. And so, but ultimately is really true to who they are.

Willy Walker: So, as I think about what you… to help promote REI and getting people outdoors, you could also have just done a really poor job of promoting Activision [laughs]….  But I know that would have been well-received by Activision.  You also have worked on Tough Mudder, Russell. And I’m sure many listeners don't even know what Tough Mudder is. But I find the Tough Mudder brand to be something of a cult brand. Can you explain that, and how you all worked with such a -- what I would view as sort of one of these almost overnight brands that took on a life of its own?

Russell Dubner: Yeah. We worked with [unintelligible] sort of when we were going from having momentum to becoming something of greater scale.  And so, what they were looking for from us is, How do you build a story that can be self-sustained?  In each of those the market they're bringing their experience and how do we look at this from a social strategy perspective and make sure that it's getting the right shares. The right visibility. The right loyalty.  And what does it mean from a media perspective? So, you can only do national media around the same story so many times.  And so, how do you find a different twist there? But also, how do you bring it local?  Because ultimately, they needed to get the ticket sales in those markets. They needed to get the local teams that were being set up. Oh, we still did some super-interesting and fun things nationally. We, you know, we got the morning shows. We would literally set up a Tough Mudder obstacle course for them to run through and kind of …we would start by revealing the obstacles early and making that a reveal moment. And for a brand like them, once they got up and running and internalize what it would take, something that they took on themselves.  But it was super fun to be a part of companies that are on that fast rise and how do we help them scale their growth.

Willy Walker: So, on that, a lot of our listeners, there plenty of listeners today who worked for big companies that have big global brands, and there are plenty of people who have much smaller footprints; they own a couple of commercial real estate assets somewhere, they might own a mortgage brokerage firm somewhere where they might be, you know, in the private wealth management space and just have their own business that they're trying to promote. As you think about kind of strategies for building brand, what are the core tenants, if you sit down with a client who says, “Okay, I don't really have much of a brand today, but I’ve got to kind of start somewhere.” As you think about someone like Tough Mudder who caught a little bit of “lightning in a bottle” because of what they were building, but it was a very, very small company when it first started with its first race and then built from there, what would you say to somebody listening today as it relates to how do you go about trying to establish a brand?

Russell Dubner: Well oftentimes there are a handful of core questions that a leader or a company needs to be able to answer for themselves. 1) What do you really want to be known for? 2) Who am I in this market and how am I set apart? 3) How are you living that? How is that showing up? And that requires creativity, and it requires some courage and being bold behind that conviction. Oftentimes we look at is also, you know, to lead, is there some deficit and in the marketing, in competitive field that you can fill? And sometimes for us, that deficit that we look for is around imagination and some of the deficit is around trust. So, for us when that intersection happens, that's the most interesting where you might find that we're doing this problem, is a much larger organization, but someone like Petco who's a great client of ours, they saw this opportunity to fill a gap in trust related to healthful pet foods and access to the health and wellness for pets and pet parents. So, sometimes seeing those kinds of gaps also give you the inspiration to go into build your brand in a way that you can feel energized and authentic.

Willy Walker: And how much on that Russell is, I mean, as you use that Petco example, how much of the marketing or branding around that has to do with the products and services versus Petco as a company? Because I think one of the things that I’ve seen you talk about extensively is just that it is not only trust in the product or the service, but it’s also trust in the company, and we're going to get to the Edelman Trust Barometer in a moment, but as you think about that could Petco go and address that market opportunity but not sort of where that on its sleeve every day?

Russell Dubner: So, the leadership team there, both on the CEO and Tariq who heads marketing and Dave Halsey who heads comms, they think about this in a very integrated way. They think about consumer engagement, the corporate brand, and they also think about their marketing and understand that the core belief that they have deeply for both their employees and for their consumers, really does need to show up regularly in the marketplace and embodied by the CEO, though, also through their actions. So, for instance, you know when recently, they were communicating about their recommitment to add health, part of what we did was take actually all the shock collars out of all the Petco stores saying there's a different way; you have to realize that the emotional health of your pets is real. Dogs and I believe cats feel to the same degree that humans do. So, there are ways that you can be training. So, what's a right way to do this? Sometimes it's the removal of things. It's kind of like the work we get for CVS on quitting smoking. The removal of things to redirect to the positive is also part of what helps a brand like theirs stand out and know that the two pieces are deeply and intricately linked and that they have to stand for that, otherwise, for your grooming, and for veterinary services, you might not go there, and that also holds true of during Covid, how you show up for your employees. What do you do for them? How are you present for them? Because they have to feel that and know that you are behind your brand 100%.

Willy Walker: Talking about the shock collars and the removal of the shock collars, I got woken up at 12:30 last night by our puppy, and he was barking so I thought he needed to go outside to relieve himself, so I let him outside and he would not come back inside. And at about 12:45 at night running around outside trying to grab him and bring him back inside, I was sitting there saying, “I need to get a shock collar!” Fortunately, that thought passed quickly by about one o'clock in the morning when I finally got him back inside.  

Russell Dubner: You should have given him a biscuit.

Yeah, I tried, believe me, I pulled out some good tenderloin to try and get him back inside. He's smart enough not to take that! So, Russell when you talk about building a brand locally, one of the things you've also said, something that Edelman does a ton of, is you also work on crisis management with companies and, as you have said, you can build a brand locally, but when you have crisis management it's a global issue immediately. Talk for a moment about the work that you all do these days with crisis management. I want to dive into a little bit more of specifically where people are asking for the most help, but address that for a moment. Like, as you think about Edelman's work on both communication strategies and branding as well as crisis management. Do you all disclose what percentage of your work is on sort of the crisis management side versus on the general communications and branding side?

Russell Dubner: Yeah. First, I think the point about a crisis being global is it has the potential to be global. It can be a local issue that can become global now because of the nature of media, and oftentimes early stage in what could be a crisis like, “Is this an incident? Is this actually an issue we could intercept?” or, “Is this something that is as large as the material breach of trust?” And there are different dynamics that come into play if it's, you know, in some ways, a breach of a company's values and what they say they stand for, and you need to really get the artful sense of what's happening, but there's also again a science around this. You can see by ring-fencing and understanding from a social media geolocated how fast this is moving, what kind of participation and likes, and from a media perspective, what the trajectory might look like, and using some predictive techniques to understand that. So, I just think it's important like there are gates that you go through as you're deciding what this is, and then there are decision sets afterwards and the decision tree of “What are you going to do about that?” So, for us, crisis is a big business in part because protecting a company's brand and making sure that you retain the trust within your organization, it's so very, very important. And the breakdown of that for us is sometimes it's in, could be related to an audience, like the financial community, if it's material to them, then it raises it up to a different kind of problem set, and for others, it may be specific to consumer. But, overall, are the corporate affairs work that we do overall, for an enterprise, is about half our business, and the work we do promoting brands is the other half, so we're very much ambidextrous.

Willy Walker: And on that, as you think about those companies that have either in place a crisis management kind of plan because they've been working with you for a long period of time, they've sat down and talked to you about well if this happened, or this happen, and the ability to respond to that versus someone calling you up, we get done with this webcast and heaven forbid I got to call you this afternoon and say, “Russell, Walker & Dunlop was, you know, had a breach of our technology and we've got to figure out damage control on that. We haven't worked with you on that specifically.” How much more effective are you all, and are the companies, in dealing with those crises if they have been working with you on the issues previously versus just calling you up cold and saying, “We got to get at it.”

Russell Dubner: Oftentimes there are issues that if you planned head, you can intercept them and lead on something as opposed to having them bite you in the ass, right? And so, if you do enough of that scenario planning, if you imagine the potential downsides of, say, a technology, right? There's work at a client of ours done when they saw the issue of deep faked coming, and so what can they do to make sure that there are actions in place and that they're making sure that their technology is going to be used in ways that aren't manipulative to society? And so, I think again, if you're waiting around and that comes and bites you, you're going to find yourself on your heels. What could be a moment in time, where you have ethics and you've made your decisions in a coherent way, instead you're on your back foot and as soon as you're in that defensive posture, becomes very difficult to reestablish unless you're making actual real changes or you're able to refute it effectively. So, to me, the best value is to be able to see these things in advance and turn what could be a crisis into either an issue you manage or a leadership position.  You know when it's something like a cyber breach, I don't know, you know, simulation builds muscle memory. So, we do the simulations and make sure that the management teams and others know how they're going to respond and what the escalation points are.  Nonetheless, when it hits it hits, and it's for all these other broader stakeholder concerns that don't need to be a crisis where it's most valuable.

Willy Walker: You mentioned to me previously a client, which will obviously go unnamed, but that you all were working with where they thought that there was just an HR issue. But, as you all engaged and started to peel the onion, found out that there was something that was sort of endemic in the business that was kind of rotten, and right now that company is working in the spinoff of that division, can you shed a little light on that? 

Russell Dubner: Look, I think sometimes what we get called in to do is some of the things that the lawyers would prefer not to do. Yeah, so, we'll come in and we will go through, and say here's what is publicly available about you and your problem right now. Here is the likelihood if this was discovered what it could mean for you, because of what you stand for, or how your leadership will be evaluated based on these decisions. And so oftentimes these discussions will be at the board level, and the Board will want to understand if this happens, how will this likely play out, and then want a recommendation from us. We stop it at the recommendation of what action, but we make sure they understand. We put a mirror up to them and the most likely scenarios and show them where they aren’t sort of living up to the promise that they share with their employees and with others. So, the instance that you're talking about you know, a company can go, or the border leadership can go to the point of saying, “How are we going to spin this?” which is something that we don't we don't participate in. It could be defend this. Or do we need to take action? And sometimes that action becomes much more clear. We've had a CEO in a discussion like this actually volunteer to step down, saying “I get it now, this makes sense. I need to step down for the organization to move forward.”

Willy Walker: So, after the election, I was watching the webcast that you and Richard Edelman did, and in that, as you all were giving people advice on sort of how to play the uncertainty after the election, and how corporate leaders ought to be engaging with people, and basically, I think one of the things you said was, “For right now, you probably want to lay low until there's a little more visibility on what the outcome looks like,” and then you're going to need to jump in at some point and show leadership and show support of the overall system, what have you. But one of the things that Richard Edelman said was the trust used to be top-down, then it went horizontal, and now it's local and focused on employers. Why do you, for a moment before we dive into the Trust Barometer and the survey that you all do, why do you think it is that institutional trust has gotten degraded in the United States, particularly as much as it has? And why has it gone from a top-down to a vertical to a true local and literally the four walls, we all work in every day?

Russell Dubner: Well, we've been studying this for over 20 years, the trends with trust and we've seen a decline of trust in advertising early days. As we talked about before we saw the rise and fall of trust in social media and then after the financial crisis of 2008, fall and then rise again of trust in business. But what's happened as of late is people don't know, both from an individual perspective and from an institution perspective, who to trust. They don't trust, unfortunately, religious leaders, media and government. I think some statistic is about 57% of Americans believe that a leader, a journalist, a politician and alike are going to either mislead or provide misinformation and they're not sure where to turn. So, the one place that you really decide wholeheartedly yourself of where you should turn up is, your place of work.  And so, employers are the only ones that we embedded in competence and ethics. If you think about a two by two in the upper right, business is the only one that's in the upper right now. So, when you're looking around, who's voice do you hear, who can play this role of being unifying, increasingly its local with your employer.  I’m sure it's also local as we work around the vaccine front for a range of clients, local spreads from there, but that is generally still the best source outside of the scientists. So, I think it's almost by process of elimination of other institutions failing that business and your CEO, your employees are likely 80 plus percent of them trust more in you than any other leader.

Willy Walker: So how do you all advise business leaders on communication, and most particularly communication on some of the trickier issues that are out there today because you know the politics in America are so divisive today.  That, if any leader sort of carries his or her political beliefs on their shoulder they're likely to sort of turn off 50% of the people who work for them, given the numbers in the last election. So, as you all work with business leaders and saying to them that their voice is so important, and their leadership is so important.  At the same time, how do you also advise them to stay away from that third rail of displaying or talking about their own political beliefs?

Russell Dubner: Well, the being pro-human is different from having a political view. We do advise our clients to try and be a respite for political rancor and to really rely as much as they can on living their values and examining that. Sometimes that will mean there are organizations we've worked with who didn't think that they would be willing to stand up and be heard on an issue and after finding their voice they realized that they need to take new actions. But you don't want to go in and just be responding as best you can.  Just like in the topic of the issue, Management, to be a trusted leader now, means to understand where is the place you really want to lead, you can't lead everywhere.  And where are the places that you will be an active supporter and where are you going to let it pass you by. And spending time figuring out the path to be a trusted leader for succession planning is something that increasingly our clients are asking us to help them think through.

Willy Walker: So, as you think about that, talk for a moment about the big campaign that you won an award from PR week on, where you work with Dove on their pledge for paternity leave.  Talk for a moment Russell about how you all came up with that and why that was so impactful as it relates to both promoting the Dove brand but then also acting in an area that was so important from a social standpoint.

Russell Dubner: Unilever is one of the most progressive companies and thinking about that combination of profit and purpose.  We've been working with the Dove brand from the inception of the real beauty concept, right. So, we were at the table helping to define that concept and how it came to life. In this instance, it’s the Dove Men Care product and when we were talking to them about what’s your enemy, what can they stand up for, what are they going to stand to, to be a voice for, who can they be a voice for? And ultimately, we gained a lot of energy around this idea of the new parent, and fathers given the change in the family construct and the need for parents to be able to tag team in different ways that paternity leave was something that a lot of people didn't have access to in the ways that you might assume.  And first, what Unilever always does and we do with them is say, okay, are you standing for the brand and for this issue in the way you should? They then made changes on how they're approaching their own paternity leave, and then they became a real advocate.  Not just an advocate in marketing, but really advancing almost like a social justice and making sure that this opportunity was something available in multiple states. So, we ended up doing sort of grassroots and public affairs work with them in multiple markets to change what those policies were and also get companies to reconsider and then that’s evolved from there, right. So, then they look at the different roles of fathers today, for role models for black and brown Americans and you know the Father’s Day not experienced by those who are incarcerated. So, it gave them a deeply authentic way to stand up, to be heard, and to represent a voice that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to push an important topic like that forward.  We’re really proud of that.

Willy Walker: Yeah, you guys won a great award for it.  As you think about where we go from here and the great reopening if you will. I watched a speech you gave back in 2011 where you asked to project forward 10 years and give a sense of where the world would be in 2021 and you said I can't look really further than six months ahead, so I’ll give it a stab. And one of the things you interestingly said, and I don't think you had a pandemic in your thinking at that time, but you said that there's going to be a melding of Facebook and Facetime and that people are going to want to be doing Facebook at one moment but then also Facetiming and interacting with other people and that experience has got to be at the core of it.  And you know that was 10 years ago, and right now, as we come back out of all this, that was a very prescient thing to have said Russell.  But talk for a moment as we get back out of this Zoom world and start to engage with customers and with our employees again and engaging in the old world, how is that going to change from a communication and from a PR standpoint?

Russell Dubner: First our research or most recent research is showing that America is still in a state of trauma.  And as much as we want to believe that because the vaccines are rolling out and because there's a sense of enthusiasm, the new season, as you said from the start that it's springtime and we want to be positive.  That we have to recognize that two thirds of Americans are still in pandemic mode and so there is an undercurrent of optimism. We've seen it with a consumer confidence, and it hit its peak since the beginning of the pandemic, but still, there's a pandemic mode that people are in. So, I think we need to look at their willingness to go back to certain workplaces, to travel and most of those things I would surprise, they were pushed further off into this year than I would have suspected. Now things can change, things are fluid, but you need to recognize that.  And so nonetheless, there are people who are trusting in the vaccine, who are trusting in science and are going to be more willing to take action. So, one of the things that we're encouraging our clients to do, for instance, I was talking with a group, we do a lot of work for Hawaii tourism, is how do you get to those people? How do you get to the people that trust in the science, the people who trust in the vaccine and who believe in the brand of Hawaii and that mix of what they can experience there, but also the culture, the Hawaiian culture and being a participant in its revitalization of the island and be a positive part of it.  

And so, I do think there are ways the business can accelerate a successful return. I think some of that's about encouraging vaccination, not requiring it but encouraging it and rewarding it. There's some fun stuff that Krispy Kreme did around that, giving everyone a free doughnut to everyone that’s willing to get vaccinated and that’s really building that sense of trust and making sure that people know that they are going to be safe on the way back in.  I think we will probably find ourselves, as I understand it, it’s been in China and other markets, a burst and a boost and you know the sex, drugs, rock and roll and fleeing back into experiences that people have been missing for so long. I think it will be an interesting moment for the Trojan brand, I think that they'll have a fun moment when people are actually allowed to be with one another and go back to a more normal life. So, I think there's going to be a little delayed response. People are still in panic mode, trust builds and then I think whether it's the experiential kind of work that we do, our clients like the Hilton’s and Hawaii tourism and United ‘s of the world they're going to see a steep incline.

Willy Walker: So, as the CEO of a firm that's based in New York you've had your workforce at home and you're in a very sort of, one of the things that I heard you say was that if you want to come to Edelman’s and work on a team you better be ready for constant change because you're constantly trying to revitalize brands, be forward thinking and what have you. So you're one of the most creative types of companies that exists and you've been remote for a year. A) how's the creativity level kind of maintained itself, if you will, inside of Edelman, working for clients in a remote fashion. And second of all your thoughts as it relates to bringing your team specifically back to the office in Manhattan?
Russell Dubner: Well, I’ve been amazed at the creativity that our team is able to marshal remotely. I mean, I came in really concerned and skeptical that we'd be able to do the kind of strength of work that we do in person.  The team has been absolutely phenomenal in steeping themselves in what's changing, what the tenor of conversation is and finding ways to then get steeped in the topic. And make sure if it's, we’ve been doing some work lately that’s around injustice, environmental injustice, that’s inner cities versus suburbs and how do you address some of those problems and people just get so deep into it and find a way to be ingenious. But still, I do think that when we fundamentally believe that you get better ideas when people are bumping into each other, and you have that ability to bounce the ideas around and to massage them together.  So, as we're thinking about the office, whether it’s, where we've got 14 offices in the U.S. and I think one of the beauties of this is when everyone's nowhere you're able to collaborate across in a way that you might not have done before. So everyone knows each other in different ways in different contexts which is fantastic.  But we'll need those touchdown meetings. We’ll need those spaces where people can gather, less for individual work, but more for inspiration, more for ideas, more for learning. And so, that's what we're thinking through right now, is to make sure that, that’s the sorts of energy you get from the office without losing the power of being able to collaborate across expertise in different markets.

Willy Walker: And so, from a timing standpoint on when you think you'll have your teams back in your 14 offices in the United States, what's your thought about that?

Russell Dubner: Throughout this we've looked at guidance from local health authorities, so we didn't make an edict across the firm. So, for instance in New York, Chicago, DC we are accessible and available. It's not open per se, but we have some of our employees who really need to escape to be able to focus and as long as they are following the health guidelines and doing all the things necessary for social distancing we've kept those doors open except when the health authorities are advising us not to. So, we've really been following that both in shutting down and then being in this hybrid state. So I suspect we’ll follow that. My guess is that it's probably going to be September time where we’re really going to see more of the population return, feeling confident and feeling comfortable that they can safely be in the office. Though I suspect they're not going to be in the office in the same way that they were before and with the same frequency. We're going through, we just finished a whole bunch of polling of our employees and doing sets of workshops to make sure we really understand the experience of the future, that is going to be most productive for them and for our clients.

Willy Walker: And as you, if you will, are advising CEOs and when I say CEO here, this could be a CEO of an entire company, it could be a CEO of a group, it could be a CEO of a team.  But as you're advising people who are leaders on how to communicate as we get back to it, you mentioned be empathetic.  Understand that many people are still in crisis mode from this, give a cheat sheet if you will, as it relates to a leader trying to get back to the normal and wanting to sort of get back on track and at the same time being understanding about really what's going to evolve over the next six months.

Russell Dubner: You know we've talked through the COVID era about, first of all as a leader, what do you want to be known for doing in the time of COVID?  And make sure you're almost doing that future forward planning and making sure that you understand this is the lore that will be created around your action or lack of action during this moment in time. Part of that is tone and part of it is really listening.  So, CEOs are the chief empathy officer and just because vaccines are rolling out, people are not ready to return back, and you have to keep an ear to the ground. Understand where your employees are, not just through surveys, but really to listen to them, so chief empathy officer remains paramount.  The next part of it is really making sure that your people can see themselves in you as a leader and that you're modeling the behavior, not just talking about the behaviors that you expect.  And the last part is really being the source of energy, and you have to be that optimist and show people that post COVID, we're going to be what kind of company.  With any disruption comes an opportunity if you look hard enough. Of course, there are companies that haven’t made it through this that didn't have the cash and that's a totally different story.  But how are you coming in with an equal part of realism of now and optimism for tomorrow. So, that's really the path that we see and knowing where you want to lead because these societal issues and the expectations are high and that should be imbued across those three areas.

Willy Walker: And as you think, Russell, about the really forward-thinking companies that you all work with from both an ad strategy and also from a communication strategy, don't need to mention them by name, but where are they focused today as it relates to that combination of the societal issues that we're dealing with, the positioning of their brands, and also what their companies stand for? Because all of these issues, I think, what I’ve heard you say today during this webcast is, no one of them, you could have the best ad campaign possible for a given product, but if you don't stand for something or are not thinking about the societal issues, you aren't going to be able to go sell that actual product. And it sounds like if you want to be successful in the paradigm of the future, you need to be able to focus on those three different fronts simultaneously, am I hearing you correct?

Russell Dubner: One of the things we talked about is that trust is sort of the foundational currency now for the stakeholder capitalism era.  And if you start with that thesis and understanding that if your trust ebbs, you know we've seen it in the multiples that companies have, we've seen it in their market CAP, we've seen it in the willingness for employees to stay and be an advocate, we've seen it in sales and around growth.  And so, these pieces that we've been talking about really come together and our most progressive clients today have digested that and so they're no longer grappling, they built some muscle memory.  And now they're really looking at what is both a concrete action and creativity that we can infuse together around those kinds of changes, that kind of trust thrives transformation.  And, of course, you have your ability and dependability that are still foundational for driving that trust, a purpose and integrity are of equal importance.

Willy Walker: Russell, W&D has worked with Edelman for many years, and the work we've done together has been hugely valuable to us, and so I thank you and your team for all the work we've done together.  And I thank you personally for joining me today on the Walker Webcast. It's been a fantastic discussion and really insightful on where companies need to be at this time and it's a very, very important time. I think everyone always says, we hear in elections, this election is the most important election ever and you know, they're all important.  But this time seems to be somewhat unique and its clearly uncharted territory; there's nothing normal about all this and so getting your input in these transitional times is super helpful and very insightful, so thank you very much for joining me today.

Russell Dubner: Thank you so much, Willy.  I really appreciate the forum and look the succeeding tomorrow is going to demand trust from leaders so being able to impart some of this wisdom and our learnings from our clients is as part of our pleasure, but also our duty.

Willy Walker: Well terrific. Thanks everyone for joining us today. We'll be back next week with the CEO of Booz Allen Hamilton to talk about cybersecurity, about exploration of space, the U.S. space command and a bunch of other things that Booz Allen is focused on. 

So, have a great week, thanks everyone for joining us and Russell thank you again for taking the time.

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