Oral Histories

Richard Edelman

Interview Segments on Topic: Code of Ethics/Mission Statement/Credo

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: The Page Center at Penn State is dedicated to integrity in public communication, and we’ve started to move into the territory of talking about how one builds that, and you just mentioned the culture of the firm. How do you build a culture that’s based on integrity and a culture that stands for the values that you think are important?

EDELMAN: Well I go right back to one of our big clients—J&J and Credo. And I think you have to establish, in a public way, what it is you stand for. And then it’s by your actions that you demonstrate it, so it’s no longer enough to just consider that public relations is about communications. It’s actually about advice on what to do, and then an elegant explanation of why you’re doing that. So it’s both, and I think Larry Foster gets that completely because, it was the action on Tylenol well explained—the both – that’s the basis. So how do I build that in Edelman? Well, I try to walk the talk. I blog, as you know, regularly. I make a big virtue out of seeing midlevel people. I run on the Edelman New York team for the JP Morgan Chase race in the park and I have 90 people over afterwards and we have beers and, you know, talk baseball or fashion—some will like baseball; some will like fashion. It’s good to have daughters. I know nothing, but a little. And you have to, in a sense, live a very public life, I think. So leading from the front is important; demonstrating yourself. But also making sure that others in the firm are given leeway to do interesting things. So we have a thing called Edelman Escape. People can go for—after being at the firm for 10 years—they go on 2 weeks paid sabbatical, then they write about it and they blog about it. One person went to Africa and helped in Rwanda and, these are stories that express a certain kind of conscience that—I want to be part of the firm. Or similarly it gets around if you quit a client because you’ve been abused. You’ve offered advice, you’ve been screamed at, whatever else. You at some point have to say, no more, that’s enough. Roberto Duran, you know. We’ll take our advice elsewhere and that’s fine.

BOLTON: You mentioned the J&J Credo. What would your observation be of global corporations in terms of their commitment to a public set of values and a willingness to inculcate them throughout their organization and live up to them?

EDELMAN: I think, Roger, there’s a continuum. I think that some still believe in the sort of Friedman theory of, I’m here to maximize profit for shareholders, I will pay lip service through my corporate philanthropy to other activities and I do like being honored at the right dinners. That’s the minimalist approach. And there’s another approach which says the world has changed and that the expectations of business are now to be a partner in society. And so that continuum will continue with the ultimate decision to be made by the market place. I heard a wonderful comment from Ian Davis who’s the former chairman of McKinsey, and he said you know, it’s not a matter of shareholder versus stakeholder, it’s a matter of long term versus short term. His view is that long term shareholders maximization is what companies ought to be about, not short term and if that’s the case, then business in society makes eminent sense and that one cannot possibly consider a world where you just pay maximum bonuses and don’t consider the societal context or otherwise.

BOLTON: And there is some evidence, as you’ve mentioned, I think some companies get that and yet we continue to see horrific examples of companies that don’t.

EDELMAN: The problem is that business is judged by the lowest common denominator and it seems to me that in the interest of business and in the interest of the PR people behind the scenes pushing the C-Suite agenda to have business seen in a broader manner. And also frankly, to criticize as necessary, those who break those behavioral rules. Because otherwise it’s seen as nodding to, as opposed to really changing your behavior.