Oral Histories

Richard Edelman

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Education/Training

Richard Edelman Biography

Richard Edelman is the president and CEO of the world's largest independent public relations firm with wholly-owned offices in 53 cities and more than 3,600 employees worldwide. He was named president and CEO in September 1996. Prior to that, he served as president of Edelman's U.S. operations, regional manager of Europe and manager of the firm's New York office.

Richard has extensive experience in marketing and reputation management, with current assignments for the National Dairy Council, Hewlett-Packard, McGraw-Hill and Scotts Miracle Gro. He has counseled several countries on economic development programs, including Egypt, Israel and Mexico.

Richard won the Silver Anvil, the highest award in the public relations industry, in 1981. He was named "Best Manager of the Year" by Inside PR magazine in 1995. In 2006, he was awarded "Entrepreneur of the Year 2006 - NY Metropolitan Area" by Ernst & Young. Richard was named the "Most Powerful PR Executive" by PR Week in October 2008, for the second year in a row, and "Agency Executive of the Year" by AdAge in January 2008. In 2010, he was named one of "America's Favorite Bosses" (#8) by Forbes.

He serves on the Board of Directors of the Ad Council, the Atlantic Council, the Children's Aid Society and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum, the Arthur Page Society and PR Seminar.


BOLTON: It’s a highly sophisticated, complicated world that you’re describing. Let’s think a little bit about the people in public relations and how they prepare themselves to succeed in the environment you just described. Let’s start with your own education—you have an MBA from Harvard. How important is the business education, the business focus from a preparation standpoint for people coming into the field today?

EDELMAN: I think that a smart student will study science, will have a background in economics, will have a fluency in foreign language, and will also somehow or another be capable in digital and be a digital native. And all of those are required, why? Well, because we, in our line of work have to explain in laymen’s terms, a scientific evolution, technological evolution. Whether you take a science course or an engineering course but whatever it is, have some fluency. Be able to read a balance sheet be able to have some sort of discussion with someone in finance. You must have some exposure to culture that’s not your own. Spend a semester overseas. Take a language in a serious way because again, English is not going to suffice in the next period of time. And then lastly and sort of obvious, most of the people who are 17, 18, 20 are digital natives, they are able to do 3 and 4 things at the same time but the ability to create content, defend your position, have lived through a kerfuffle and get up on your feet again, I think is important.

BOLTON: What are you seeing in terms of young people coming out of public relations education today? Is that a good thing? Do you look for people with a PR background or do you look for different kinds of backgrounds in young people just starting?

EDELMAN: We’re happy to have people come out of PR training at university and in fact, that’s why we’ve been so committed to this new media academic summit, where we’ve tried to help teachers move their curriculum to incorporate more new media. But we, Roger, don’t limit ourselves to PR grads. We’re also happy to take journalism or economics, or government, or international studies because the dimension of what we do has moved from sort of functional to much more strategic and advisory and I think we need that mix of people coming in here.

BOLTON: What are you seeing in terms of the level of preparedness of entry level people coming into the profession today?

EDELMAN: I think they write well. I think that some of them are just remarkably willing to lead and particularly on matters of social media. We have a couple of young people here, Amanda Mooney is one who just—she’s 24 and she came out of college 2 years ago and she leads presentations to clients on that which is social. That’s the great opportunity at the moment, because we sort of have this dislocation. You and I are digital wannabes; we’re trying-to-be’s. These people have it inside themselves and they’ve grown up that way and it’s just this kind of, great moment in time for them. Because we can’t do that, we can’t live that cause we just didn’t have it. We’re trying, doing the best we can. But we’re making up ground.

BOLTON: What about the competency that’s required for strategic counseling of business leaders? How do people, as you bring them up in your firm, how do they develop that?

EDELMAN: They get strategic experience in counseling partly by watching masters at work so someone who’s attached to a Gary Grates in doing change management will see the work on a Kraft-Cadbury merger and say you know, I get this, I understand the tradeoff on nationalism and I get the concern about plant closure. So one of it is sort of a mentoring, that’s a classic. We’re also trying very hard to automate some part of this. We’ve put together a thing called the Digital Belt System where—and it doesn’t sound as S&M as you might think. It’s all to do with—you get your blue belt and then your orange belt and then ultimately your black belt. We’ve created a curriculum and I think 2/3 of our people have taken it. If you make it available, they will do it. It’s a little bit like, make the baseball field and people will come. It’s important to keep this training aspect of the business front and center.