Baseball loving Edna Kissman knows what’s good for her health division
When Edna Kissman arrived at Burson-Marsteller’s New York offices in
1978 her first assignment was to take a crash course in the all-American
game of baseball as part of a campaign for client Gillette.
A baseball card of her favourite player the St Louis Cardinal’s Enos
Slaughter is among the memorabilia which fight for space in her office.
‘Slaughter had this reputation,’ explains Kissman, ‘that no matter what
obstacle was in his way he would keep running.’
Kissman is still running. The 46-year-old Israeli who cheerfully
acknowledges her trouble-shooting reputation as a ‘marine corps of one’
has stormed though the ranks of the world’s largest PR company.
But her PR career began in Israel heading the agency Ruder Finn. There
Kissman was seconded as assistant press secretary to the late Prime
Minister Rabin during the Kissinger Middle East shuttle in 1975. She
established the government’s first news monitoring service and
translated the Hebrew press for Kissinger’s select entourage of
journalists, dubbed ‘the mighty 14’.
‘I can’t say we influenced the way they wrote but we certainly
influenced the way they thought about issues,’ she said.
Kissinger left, Kissman became ‘bored’ and the US beckoned. It was at B-
M, New York, that she began to work with pharmaceutical companies.
Kissman had no knowledge of medicine and remembers telling her client
that the patient, not the nurse should be the target of his drug
‘because on the TV programme St Elsewhere the surgeon never listens to
Luckily her client agreed and his inability to communicate directly to
patients opened up a world of new business healthcare PR opportunities
for B-M. ‘It was like the road to Damascus for St Paul,’ said Kissman.
‘I knew enough to sound intelligent but didn’t need to go to medical
school to reach the outside world for clients. We tripled the healthcare
business in one year.’
But B-M grew too fast and when recession hit in the 80s cracks began to
Kissman spent the next ten years hopping from New York to Burson-
Marsteller’s UK and German offices ‘to start the healing process’. And
the healing process is well underway. Today the agency has over 2,000
clients in 62 countries. Healthcare business in the UK accounts for 32.5
per cent of total fee income and is growing by 22 per cent each year.
But Kissman felt this global aspect of B-M was not being effectively
communicated to the client or its staff and in 1993 ditched line
management to take on a role she describes as ‘a strategic change
‘All we could talk was dots on the map,’ she said. ‘We had very little
capacity to demonstrate the power of Burson-Marsteller as a visible
global organisation to clients. It’s size had become a detriment.’
B-M’s answer is to transform itself from a PR to a ‘perception
management’ firm. Accounts will have ‘client leaders’ as the point of
contact for account staff worldwide and clients will be assigned to one
of ten ‘practices’ including healthcare, headed by Kissman. ‘We are
aiming for long term and much closer relationships,’ she said.
But according to colleagues the woman who cites her hobby as ‘collecting
people’ has never had problems striking up good business relationships.
‘She can have the client eating out of her hand in five minutes,’ said
Kissman seems to command the respect of her staff too. ‘She made me what
I am today,’ said a colleague laughing at the cliche. Nick May,
managing director of Burson-Marsteller healthcare in London describes
her as ‘one of the most professional, dedicated people I have ever
But the woman who rises at 5.30am insists she is not a workaholic. ‘I
enjoy opera, theatre, oh and I’m a good rambler as you can tell,’ she
1976 - 1977 MD, Ruder Finn, Israel
1982 Director, B-M, New York
1988 - 1992 Joint md, B-M, London
1992 - 1993 CEO, B-M, Germany
1993 - 1995 Vice-chairman, Worldwide Strategy
1996 Chairman, B-M Healthcare Practice, WWD