Global President and COO Matt Harrington on Our – and His – Citizenship Journey
If there’s one employee among our team of over 6,000 who can best convey our citizenship journey since Daniel Edelman founded the agency in 1952, it’s Matthew Harrington, our Global President and Chief Operating Officer. Matt, who first joined Edelman 38 years ago and led the creation of our first Code of Conduct – the first for a major public relations firm – has been involved intimately in our formal Global Citizenship program’s advances since its inception in 2010.
When you joined Edelman in 1984, what stood out to you about its citizenship-related culture?
In establishing our globaxCSR, even if not yet named as such, has been embedded in our culture since Dan opened the firm and viewed ethics, integrity and respect as paramount to success. To him, ethics was rooted in fact and integrity. That was how we discussed being trusted without yet talking about trust.
Under Dan, our work has led to change – from bringing business and environmental groups together to address unsustainable tuna fishing practices in the 90s, to advising one of the world’s biggest retailers to advocate for responsible supply chains.
He also was an industry standard bearer in naming women to senior leadership roles at a time when there were very few women in PR agency roles. He treated women with mutual respect because he viewed his wife Ruth as a genuine partner in addition to his spouse. Betsy Plank, commonly considered the first lady of public relations, was an EVP from 1960-1973 before taking a top AT&T PR job. Pam Talbot, our president and CEO of Edelman US for 12 years before she retired, was among the very first women to be an agency CEO.
How did Edelman’s Code of Conduct come about?
The Code’s creation recognized that we were entering a new information age since the internet became available to the general public a decade or so before. As the internet was being used across the organization, we needed base standards on how people would engage with the organization and the platform. Our Code was noteworthy in that we developed a “Daily Situation” guide that made clear what it meant in practice. We made our Code very public and available online. We’ve updated and revised that addendum since.
The Code reiterated that we were a firm that, reflecting our founder, is committed to strong professional integrity. As we were growing rapidly, it got everyone on the same page about how we show up in the marketplace. We had some interesting conversations with colleagues in markets where some behaviors wouldn’t hold up to our Code. It was an opportunity to emphasize we followed our Code even if it meant different behaviors than competitors in certain markets. Today, social media absolutely requires another layer of guidelines to ensure what we put in the marketplace is fact-based and accurate and that content isn’t being manipulated or altered.
What prompted establishing a formal Global Citizenship program in 2010?
We recognized that we needed to put some parameters around how we and our employees engage with community, and the moment also prompted us to ensure we paid attention to what we were learning from our annual Global Edelman Trust Barometer. We needed to develop some standardization about the actual role of the global citizenship function. Up to that point, it was very much ad hoc in terms of what the U.S. operation might be doing compared with what other of our markets were doing. The bottom line: We wanted to make certain we were walking the talk. Plus, we had a citizenship leader in John Edelman, who was an activist in establishing the practice and making it prominent within our industry and more broadly.
The past few years and especially in fiscal 2022, Edelman has stepped up its global citizenship actions and initiatives. What explains it?
The relationship between employee and employer isn’t static. The ways in which employers show up in community have changed, especially with the pandemic where employers became the chief comforter and work came into our homes. Then with the murder of George Floyd and a global summer of unrest, businesses and CEOs were called upon to speak up and engage more actively around societal issues. This is now becoming standard operating procedure.
Then there’s climate change. While Earth Day has been significant for years, the world has recognized only relatively recently how serious this issue has become. All credit to John and his team for educating our leadership and employees about Edelman’s own environmental footprint, what’s going on in the marketplace, and what’s required to meet a growing number of climate-related regulations and UN commitments.
We’re setting science-based target goals to reduce our carbon emissions, recycling and reducing the use of plastic in our offices, and adopting climate education training, among other initiatives. We’ve established policies about the nature of work we do for clients related to climate change. This has been difficult, and we’ve had some changes in our client portfolio as a result.
As global COO, it’s been fascinating to hold discussions in the Southern Hemisphere where access to energy is at a completely different scale than where we’re at with our Western lens. So, it has been important for us to be thoughtful of that. It’s been an education for me to grasp climate change’s effects worldwide. To understand the devastation caused by monsoons in India, the eroding coastline in Thailand and Vietnam as well as the U.S., the dependency in Singapore and elsewhere on air conditioning, and the growing number of weather-related refugees migrating because of climate change. It’s all very sobering and anxiety-inducing.
How has your own citizenship journey evolved?
I’m more thoughtful about my own personal footprint around consumption and management of resources. I take the subway rather than drive and I’m walking more often than not. We recycle and compost everything at home, reducing to almost zero the amount of plastic coming into the house. We’re more thoughtful with our giving. My wife and I are very committed to the arts, and we’ve pivoted our giving to those organizations giving access to the arts to underserved communities, and that has been very gratifying.