Interview: Daniel Edelman

Daniel Edelman, founder and chairman of Edelman, celebrated his 87th birthday this week. In a conversation with Julia Hood, Edelman talks about what he thinks are the significant changes in the industry during the more-than 50 years he has been in the business.

Daniel Edelman, founder and chairman of Edelman, celebrated his 87th birthday this week. In a conversation with Julia Hood, Edelman talks about what he thinks are the significant changes in the industry during the more-than 50 years he has been in the business.

Julia Hood: What has changed the most for you in the time that you have been in the industry?

Dan Edelman: [The agencies] are still running the same kinds of practice areas - corporate reputation product, crisis, et cetera. But we are more [involved] in companies now. PR isn't just an add-on, it's a fundamental practice and companies rely on it.

PR has proved itself - companies have realized it, and the ad agencies certainly realized by acquiring most of the industry that advertising wasn't enough. They had to have this dimension of communications that's not just top down.

Another big change to me is the recognition of PR [with] greater respect... the recognition and the awareness. Earlier, if PR was mentioned we were flacks - there were always negative connotations whenever publicity or a press agent was [written about]. Now you see PR [written about] in papers like The New York Times and four or five places a day - it's a known term and it is looked upon with respect.

The most recent changes - including the Internet and blogging - really play to the strength of PR, which, unlike advertising, is a horizontal activity where you talk back and forth. It isn't just top down; it's conversational, two-way communication.

Hood: What do you think are the characteristics of the successful PR professional today, as opposed to when you got started.

Edelman: You have to be educated, you have to be bright - you can't just be a good writer. Although of course, too many people come into the field who aren't particularly good writers. But the real change is people have to be smart, educated, worldly, possibly traveled in Europe or Asia or both. I think [the profession] is more demanding now - it's not just an extension to journalism, though that's still a good introduction. You've got to be able to understand the world and be a part of it and to relate to the client.

A PR director in a company has to be able to help direct his company in a way that helps meet problems the company may have, and any negatives that have been raised. You have to be alert to that all the time.

Hood: What attracted you to PR in the first place?

Edelman: Money. Well [not exactly], I got married a year after I opened the office. I had just been reading about PR and some developments in that area, and I became the PR director of the Toni division of Gillette and did all the things there that we're doing today.  Except, as I suggested earlier, now it's in even more depth and it's more critical than it was before.

Hood: What drove you to start your own agency in Chicago?

Edelman: New York was obviously big... Hill & Knowlton and Burson were there. It was obvious to me [Chicago] wasn't explored in depth and by that time I had become a Chicagoan.

I just felt there was a vacancy here, and opportunities. Chicago was not fully booked, as they say in London. I thought of myself as being a local, but it became pretty apparent that [the business] was going international.

I think the future will be [more] in-depth geographically rather than the places that are more well represented like NY or LA. The local firms will do well - whether Columbus or Dallas or whatever - because there are good smart people running those firms who are interested in being in that location.

Hood: Do you consider the PR business to be entrepreneurial still?

Edelman: For me it has been entrepreneurial. On the other hand, the entrepreneurial spirit was taken away from me with the acquisitions by the conglomerates. The guys who built the business aren't really running them. Maybe they had contracts for 3-5 years but for the long haul they were taking their $50 million or whatever and enjoying it.

We found that remaining independent is challenging and rewarding and we like it - we like to be able to do what we can do. We have a few conflict problems, but PR people that are part of an advertising agency have really big [conflict issues]. You have to be mindful of which advertising client is going to be a problem for your PR client- you have to be concerned about four, five, or seven agencies and not just one.

I think being independent has a lot of advantages. We like it - I know we're unusual in that regard and we've had our offers. I think people are beginning to give up.

I think the big challenge now for us and other firms like us that are worldwide is the development of the biz in those distant places. Not that the US doesn't represent a huge opportunity - it used to be 2/3 of the gross biz, now maybe it's 60% US. But new business is growing in some key places.

Hood: What residual issues does the PR industry face that need to be addressed, even now?

 

Edelman: Well I think we still have to make PR a necessity - there's an overhang of negative images that are brought up from time to time. It's not like it used to be, but it's still there.

The media still [confuse] PR with press agency, spin, and all that. It's obviously wrong. We have to continue to work on that. And [agencies] don't work together as much as we should in that area. Each of the larger firms has to make it part of their story. The agency acquisition of PR firms, in a way, signified that need and respect and, in a way, that has been helpful.

I'm very fortunate in that I realized at a certain point that I was getting older and we had to have a second person [to eventually lead the firm]. It was so obvious that Richard should be trained for that - he was 25 or 26 at the time. He has been critical. He's the number one personality of the PR field - done a lot of thought leadership. The annual trust survey that we do is now in 18 markets. His speeches are superb and well-thought-through. Richard is critical for the future.

Hood: What has kept you from selling the firm this long?

Edelman: I'm an old guy now. As far as I was concerned that was fine, I didn't need the cash. What Richard will do eventually - a public issue or sale, or maybe nothing - we don't know. We don't have a firm position on this. But there was one advertising group that was really pursuing us and we finally indicated to them recently, "OK already. We're not going to sell."

People have said I should write a book. I'm happy with the legacy of our company. I don't need a book. We'll continue to grow in the US, but the worldwide potential is even greater.

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