Oral Histories

Richard Edelman

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: Can you describe the competencies that you think are important to being a successful strategic counselor at a senior level?

EDELMAN: I think you first of all have to live in the big world. You’ve got to bring your knowledge from, whether it’s world economic forum or your seat on the board of an NGO or your senior relationships with media so in a sense, bring the outside world in. Second, I think that some aspect of bravery and integrity is just so fundamental. Too many are willing to go along get along and senior people expect that kind of counsel and it may not jive with what your direct client wants but you need to speak your peace. If ultimately the client decides not to do it, so what? You’ve done your job. And the third, I think, is that you must be able to bring in additional resource from others who have superior expertise in change or in CSR or in financial or whatever. Just don’t try and arrogate all onto yourself. You can be the locus-point of connection but you know, even after 32 years I’m smart enough to realize that I’m good at certain things and self-actualized enough to realize that I’m not perfect at everything and that’s really important. Don’t wall people out.

BOLTON: On your second point, the bravery point. Marilyn Laurie, who passed away yesterday, and we were just talking about our sadness about that, called it guts. Having the guts to be able to speak up and do the right thing.

EDELMAN: I think Marilyn Laurie was an exemplary public relations person because I saw her not just at AT&T but also when she was on the Board of Trustees at Columbia and, she would sit with the president of the university and say, “You know, Lee, I just don’t think you’re doing this right.” And she didn’t care whether she was one-on-one or in a group. She spoke her mind as a true New York City born and bred gal. She was just right up there and all of us should aim to be as full of intelligence and integrity as she has been.

BOLTON: And you used the word bravery which I think is a good choice because, unfortunately I think we’ve all seen people who know they should be speaking up and out of some fear or just unwilling to and they become not as valuable to their clients as they would be if they had the bravery, or the guts as Marilyn would call it to speak up.

EDELMAN: Well I think, Roger, some part of it is that some element of Stockholm Syndrome sets in, particularly if you’re on the client side and been put into a box by the chief legal counsel or whatever, or by circumstance. And that again is a very positive role that a firm can play which is to provide an outside perspective and say, you know, this isn’t right; this isn’t best practice; this isn’t moving in the way that a leader should move. Your expectation Mr. CEO or Ms. CEO is you’re the biggest factor in the category. How can you NOT lead on this debate? You must.

BOLTON: Can’t there also be that kind of fear or concern on the part of an agency? If you’re leading an account, it’s your first big account and you know that they don’t want to hear the advice that they should be hearing, isn’t there kind of a built-in concern about possibly losing that account and what happens to you when you have to go into Richard’s office and explain why?

EDELMAN: Sure. And I think that’s where your culture at a firm plays a central role, because you’ve got to not only encourage but incentivize that kind of appropriate pushiness or bravery or however—Marilyn would call it pushiness. And I think it would be a shame if everything were down to, so what are your quarterly numbers? And I think we’ve all seen that some unfortunate PR firms have been hurt by their ownership structures and the extent to which they’re either subordinate to advertising or they’re simply seen as little cash machines from which deposits which will be you know, taken out all the time. And that’s not the right way to run a business.

BOLTON: So it is possible for an industry or even an individual company to build integrity through those things.

EDELMAN: I think so. And it’s also possible for a country. In the last two years, we’ve seen the reputation of the United States recover substantially. The Obama Effect is real. Arguably he’s more popular abroad than in the United States.

BOLTON: What about the profession itself, public relations and its reputation. This kind of disdain for spin and disdain for the public relations counselor in the broader media. How do you view that?

EDELMAN: Well, I think over time it’s a really important problem for those of us in the business to address, and I think we’ve allowed ourselves to be categorized by movies like Wag the Dog. We’re this sort of shadowy force, a sort of unaccountable, almost dirty tricksters with a sort of Washington heritage that people inherently don’t like. And we have an obligation I think, to point up our work as catalysts in creating and forging new relationships between civil society and business, in helping to promote the Ecomagination kinds of programs that GE does. Beth Comstock is a change agent for global business. On her own with the backing of her chairman and CEO has made a major change. Leslie Dach again at Wal-Mart, the same kind of profound change on business and we as an industry need to tell those stories because you know, they’ve had as much impact as any advertising or other executive in the last five years. They are our people, and we need to lay claim to those. Listen, frankly it’s harder for PR agencies to do that because we always work for a client. But the client should take the credit for that. Some of the work you did at Aetna was absolutely essential on financial literacy, on understanding your ability in health to speak back to your healthcare provider. But again, you brought wisdom from your prior life in Washington so sensitivity to those sorts of things.

BOLTON: Thank you for this conversation. As you think back on what we talked about over the last hour or so, the trends in the industry, the learning that you’ve done, the learning that all of us need to do together to be better and more strategic; does anything come to mind as an enduring truth or two that you think are relevant?

EDELMAN: The big message for me, Roger, is the more we explain what it is we do, the better we will be. I think way too much discussion happens in closed rooms and we have a tendency also to be very centrifugal in the PR industry so there’s the Council of PR Firms and there’s the Page Society and there’s PRSA and there’s seminar and there’s the Institute of PR and it’s sort of you know, cacophony. At some point, I guess, I’d like there to be somehow more tendency to be together as opposed to apart. And I’d also like more people in the industry to stand up and speak out about what it is they’re observing in the world, and not just on functional aspects like writing or you know, social media. But on the big issues that matter. How are we going to achieve trust for business? We have a huge role in this and we have to help our clients do this. And it’s advice on strategy and being brave, as Marilyn Laurie would always say.

BOLTON: Thank you.