Richard Edelman is the president and CEO of Edelman, the largest PR firm in the world, with extensive experience in marketing and reputation management, having led assignments across major corporations, NGOs and family businesses in over 25 industries around the globe.
Edelman joined the independent family firm in 1978 having completed an MBA at Harvard University, where he also studied as an undergraduate. He intended to take a job in marketing at Playtex, but his father Dan persuaded him to join the family company instead.
He was an executive at Edelman by 1981 and in 1983 became president of Edelman’s New York office. He was appointed president of the company in 1985.
What would your advice be for a young person entering PR in 2020?
Think globally. Travel to and work in different parts of the world.
Have a deep understanding of social, digital and data and analytics. Don’t rely on other people to show you how something works or explain it to you. Experiment with different types of technology.
Continue to meet and build relationships with journalists.
PR is constantly changing, but it feels like we’re at a fundamental tipping point — what role should the industry play in government, society and business?
This is our moment. The expectations of businesses and CEOs are much broader. They are expected to take a stand and speak out on the issues of the day. Our job is to sketch the substantive benefits of doing this for business.
Public relations in its best expression embodies integrity, decency, entrepreneurship and citizenship. And we should insist upon ethical practice by our industry and our clients.
How are the founding principles of Dan Edelman relevant in today’s fast-moving and febrile communications environment?
Dan fundamentally believed in facts and the truth. As a marketer, he strongly believed in the benefit to consumers of third-party credibility and endorsements around products. The delivery channels and the speed with which people receive information may have evolved, but his operating tenets — every employee is an account executive, always be flexible and client service above all else — still hold true and resonate today.
Dan also believed PR was more impactful than traditional advertising and that earned media was more important.
He had a complete aversion to being owned by a holding company and never wanted to be the tail of the dog, which is why we continue to remain independent and family owned to this day.
How different would your life have been if you’d taken that job at Playtex instead of joining the family business?
I like to believe I would have succeeded as a brand manager and maybe risen to the top of a company. I may have also left and gone into politics, which was of huge interest for me at the time.
But had I gone to work for Playtex I probably wouldn’t have had as close a relationship with my father, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the chance to work on issues that greatly impact society the way I have at Edelman.
You’re a rich man — why are you still doing this?
I consider myself a guy who runs a family business. I have the same level and ambition that I did 41 years ago. I wake up at 6 a.m., exercise and then get to the office and push myself and the entire firm to be better than we were the day before.
How do you relax?
I play tennis and I paddleboard. I also read a lot of books on American history and visit Civil War battlefields.
You wield a mean racquet, but who is the best tennis player in the PR industry?
Russell Dubner (U.S. CEO, Edelman).
Which three people, living or dead, would you like to host at a dinner party?
Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.