In Davos, the annual mountaintop pow-wow of the global elite, the 52-year-old will, inevitably, be sitting on panels discussing topics such as blogging. Edelman is probably the best-known PR blogger there is, a status partially gained inadvertently via controversy. His criticisms on his blog of the Bush administration’s decision to pay for positive stories in Iraq are, he believes, what ‘caught it on fire’.
Similarly, his agency’s new-media tactics have generated some flak, particularly over work for clients Microsoft Vista (PRWeek, 12 January) and Wal-Mart (PRWeek, 20 October 2006).
But Edelman – who loves reeling off self-deprecating stories, and seems to address every female in the building as ‘darling’ – is bullish about any effect on his agency’s reputation: ‘Everyone recognises that Edelman is a pioneer in new media. When you ski a hill aggressively, you might fall periodically.’
Despite the commitment to new media, Edelman admits the first thing he does in the morning is to open a newspaper, before going online to search Technorati for stories about the agency and then checking RSS feeds.
‘This is maybe too much information,’ he confides, ‘but I have to do yoga poses in the morning to get stretched, so I read my New York Times and then The Wall Street Journal while I’m doing the poses. For about 20 minutes I look very strange.’
This is not the only self-diagnosed ‘strange’ behaviour he reveals. He describes himself as a ‘history freak’ who keeps two American civil war bullets on his ‘stand-up desk’ – a lectern in his Manhattan office where he does his writing and makes his calls. He only sits at work to write at his PC.
Although he tells an anecdote about a time he gave a journalist an inopportune quote while tipsy (‘I have the worst tolerance for liquor, I am the cheapest date in history’) and often mentions ‘acting like a kid’ or ‘pretending to be young’, Edelman is, of course, extremely disciplined. He gets his messages across politely, and after interview leaves briskly for another appointment. Tellingly, he says his detractors ‘would say I’m too aggressive and feisty and too
Edelman grew up in Chicago, went to Harvard Business School, and says he always wanted to go into business. He was on the cusp of accepting a job at Playtex when his father, Daniel – the agency’s founder – convinced him to work there instead.
His one condition was that his father would never sell without consulting him: ‘I didn’t want my father to make a unilateral decision,’ he says. ‘Here we are 28 years later, and we still haven’t sold, so something must have been right.’
His father, 86, still spends every working day at the office and is known for sending out ‘Danograms – Dan’s versions of emails’. Although Daniel does not have a computer in his office, ‘he reads my blog when his secretary brings it to him and writes me a note on his dictating machine’.
Although ruling nothing out, Edelman seems keen to continue to capitalise on the agency’s independence. ‘I am incredibly optimistic about the industry. I think we’re in the midst of a big change in how budgets are allocated, and we are in the best position to capitalise on the broader footprint of PR because we don’t have to worry about what sister companies think.’
He does hint, however, that the company may one day go public: ‘You know – why not?’
Married with three children – aged 11, 15 and 19 – he seems most passionate when discussing unexploited business opportunities, earmarking China and Japan as areas for growth.
How long the agency will continue to be run by the family is yet to be decided, given the age of Edelman’s children: ‘I’ve tried not to put any pressure on the kids, but it could be fun for them – God knows it’s an interesting business.’
CV - Richard Edelman
President and CEO, Edelman
Chief operating officer, Edelman
President, Edelman Europe
Head, Edelman East Coast
Manager, Edelman New York
Account executive, Edelman Chicago