Oral Histories

Dan Edelman

Full Interview

Dan Edelman Biography

Daniel Edelman is founder and chairman of Daniel J. Edelman, Inc., the world’s largest privately held independent firm with 45 offices across the globe.  He began his PR career as director of public relations for the Toni division of Gillette in 1948 where he created the first-ever product media tour, taking 12 sets of identical twins across the country.   The success of the tour gave him the confidence to launch his private firm in Chicago in 1952.

Edelman continued his “big ideas” with other products, defining Edelman, Inc. as the expert in marketing public relations and excelling in new product launches, brand building and setting the standard for the direct marketing industry.


Interviewer: Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in our oral history project for the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State.

Dan Edelman: It’s my pleasure.

Interviewer: Thank you very much. I wanted to begin our interview today by asking you if you could explain some of the inspiration behind your beginning a career in the public relations profession.

Dan Edelman: Well, I must acknowledge that I started out as a journalist. I was in psychological warfare during the Second World War. I was doing a lot of writing and nightly analysis of German propaganda. And even before I was drafted into the service a year after Pearl Harbor I was involved in public relations. I had made the move over and I had heard about it and it seemed enticing and I decided to make that my career.

Interviewer: And what was your first position in public relations? What was the first job?

Dan Edelman: Well, I had a brother- in-law later we felt who had a record company and I did public relations for that company and through that I met the Toni people who were sponsoring Mel Tormet and that’s a long story. That’s how I got involved and  I joined the Toni Company as public relations director and I was there four years. I did a lot for them but I also taught myself public relations. Every facet of it. Legislative problems in the state. Employee human resources. Situations in marketing certainly marketing PR for the brand company and the products. And it was a complete exercise. By the time I finished four years I figured well I can do this for other people and that’s how I happened to start the company on October 1, 1952. Just fifty-four years ago this October.

Interviewer: Did you find your company here in the Chicago area?

Dan Edelman: Well I had moved to Chicago for Toni. And that was a natural place to be. It was a Chicago based company until Little Richard came along and became big and finished Harvard Business School and he joined us and then it became Chicago and New York co headquarters. They are about equal size now. Both, our two largest offices.

Interviewer: Looking back on your career in public relations, what are some of your biggest challenges that you faced as a public relations executive?

Dan Edelman: Well everything is a challenge. In other words you can say that a crisis thing, which we’ve had plenty of for clients is the most important. But a marketing challenge introducing a product or a brand. Employee relations any facet of public relations, a government problem in Washington, a mistake, a problem. I can’t even identify which problems are particularly significant but at the time each one of them is crucial.

Interviewer: What would you say are your biggest professional success stories?

Dan Edelman: Well you know we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of clients over the years. We’ve got 45 offices now around the world. I must acknowledge I don’t even know all the things that are being done in Kuala Lumpur let alone Sydney, or Melbourne, or London or Paris or wherever. I don’t even know what’s exactly going on in Sacramento or any of our other US offices except that I get status reports and to the extent of the international offices are faithful to the monthly status report. I’m pretty well briefed on that. The US offices tend to be more faithful and I think I criticize them more or call them and say where is it if I don’t get the status report. And it goes to other people of course not just to me.

Interviewer: In the years that you created your company, did you have a mentor?

Dan Edelman: Well I must say that the two real mentors were the two brothers who were in the Toni Company. Nieson and Irving Harris. More Irving, he was a style. He was a student. Nieson was more of a salesman more of an outgoing guy. They both were an alumni of Yale. But still Nieson had a big sense of humor. He was an outgoing guy. Irving was more of the studious type and I related to both of them. They were both examples to me of business. I, my father was a lawyer. My older brother Albert was a lawyer and other Dr. Morton Edelman practiced medicine and so what do I know about business. Nothing. But those four years at Toni I really learned about business. I learned about market research, about advertising, about sales. And the whole situation of being in business.

Interviewer: After you surveyed the scene now in public relations, do you have a sense that there are more or few, fewer pace setting individuals in the field. Visionary giants in the field. Do you feel that your profession you have more or less of those individuals?

Dan Edelman: I think Gigi that a successful person is a successful person. In other words, it could be a corporate person whose really fantastic and has a staff. I think General Motors did I read they have 80 people on staff. They’ve built a huge capability and they still hire outside firms. But it’s the individual that makes the function effective or not. An internal person there’s some wonderful PR directors in various companies who are in every facet of the company they are involved in Washington they are involved in everything that is going on and others do somewhat less. But take advantage of the opportunity and I think the same challenge is true of us. We often start on a brand and from a brand we lead to corporate public relations to reputation and management. And first maybe a second brand. I mean we’ve had one client which I won’t name. But which started as a single brand and a second brand.  It’s become one of our huge accounts just in the past year year and a half.

Interviewer: What qualities do you look for when hiring a senior executive in your company?

Dan Edelman: Well I’m not doing as much interviewing as I used to but I would say willingness to work hard. An attractive personality. A good speaker, a good writer. A person who can communicate and experience depending on the level in which we are hiring. If you are right out of college, that’s another kind of thing. But we’re interested in what your credentials are from college. Did you work on the school paper? Did you succeed in extracurricular things? Did you have a good academic record? So, we look at all those things and hope to get the best. I think public relations is improving in that regard. We had a hard time getting the best. And even today we tend to recruits from the PRSSA schools that have it, have a PRSSA chapter. I’d like to have more Ivy League people. More of people who are pre selected when they were young to be outstanding because they learn hard at schools. I don’t think we’re there yet, we have to become better known better respected before we get all these kinds of opportunities to recruit the very best that have been preselected for various reasons. High school records and what not. We’d like to have more of them. But it’s happening. We have a good staff and quality people here and all over the world.

Interviewer: Do you feel that colleges and universities adequately prepare their students for a career in public relations?

Dan Edelman: Not a bit. I mean I think that the ones that have public relations courses tend to be less well known universities and we have to as I was suggesting cross over and get more of the majors to pay attention to public relations. They don’t know as you know. It’s just not. It’s not a course. It’s not considered part of an academic curriculum.

Interviewer: Are you troubled by the tendency that some professionals have now substituted the term communications or public relations in place of marketing or marketing communications?  Do you feel that there is a problematic nature with the terms?

Dan Edelman: I do indeed. In fact I don’t’ even like marketing public relations, it suggests that we’re another outlet such as advertising. We have nothing to do with advertising. We do a completely different kind of work and public relations involves, as I was suggesting earlier many other things. Marketing the company, marketing the brand. But also crises problems. Human resources problems. Situations in Washington. Legislative relations. And states depending on circumstances whether it’s a particular situation we get into state relations. So those are some of my thoughts on that subject.

Interviewer: What can public relations professionals like yourself do to make that distinction more clear in the business world and also just in the world at large. Make the distinctions between those terms more clear to people?

Dan Edelman: Well we don’t have the greatest pool as I suggested earlier and I’d like to widen the pool and being able to get some Harvard people, get some Stanford people. But it will happen over time. I think we’re making progress. It may not happen in my time but I think that the quality of the company and the interviewer helps attract good people. Now the question is are they going to initially come to us or not. Are they going to put their name on a list and write us a letter saying they would like to be interviewed. Once in a while I hear from a student from a prestige university. And I don’t mean to denigrate state schools and other schools, from which we get people but we’d like to have more of a variety of backgrounds and talents.

Interviewer: How has the new media affected public relations, for instance the Internet?

Dan Edelman: Oh I think it’s had an enormous effect and it’s only just beginning. Blogging and word of mouth and two way communication, citizen journalism, personal journalism. We had a meeting with Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld in Washington last week. He’s an old friend of mine from Chicago and we were able to arrange to bring 20 people over there. And he spoke about the fact that reports from the field, if a fellow goes out on a raid comes back and on the way back he’s talking to his wife or his girlfriend or his mother telling about what’s happening. Before the New York Times even hears about it or puts it on their Internet. But these soldiers, Don points out are in direct contact with US public by their disclosure calls to their contacts at home and you know in five minutes after they’ve done something people know about it well before it gets on the Internet of a major newspaper or in the paper the next morning. So it’s a different world. And personal journalism it’s a two way street. You don’t just send out as you do in top down or in a major newspaper or any newspaper. You expect to be involved in two way communications. People answer and they should answer. That’s the difference between that and the newspaper or a magazine. You can write a letter to the editor but it’s given certain space and a lot of people don’t pay attention to it.

Interviewer: What do you feel are the greatest challenges facing executives, public relation senior executives today and how can these challenges be met?

Dan Edelman: Well I think we still have a recognition problem. I think we move from here to here where we’re gaining stature and recognition all the time but we have a long way to go. In other words it isn’t like the lawyer. It isn’t like a doctor. It isn’t a well known accepted recognized profession. And we’ll get there but I don’t think we should look to law or medicine or those professional areas. I think we should look to advertising. The problem is the advertising agencies have been acquired everybody but Edelman are in affect having a negative influence on what public relations does.  You know it’s too much like advertising and I believe it’s a way different kind of an activity or a profession if you will. Many different callings that I’ve commented on earlier.

Interviewer: How have recent ethical lapses in business for example the Enron situation a couple of years ago. How have they affected the practice of public relations?

Dan Edelman: Well Enron is just one happens to be more recent. There’s been a really serious collapse of corporate ethics corporate decisions and a lot of companies have been seriously affected. Either going out of business or you know, paying too much to see your executives, stock options. All kinds of things. And I think it’s not public relations but the corporate world that’s gone through travail.

Interviewer: Do you feel that public relations, the industry, has taken criticism because people have a tendency to kind of lump it all together. But in fact the example that you just gave it would be corporate leaders, not the public relations executives who were found responsible for dishonesty.

Dan Edelman: Well, public relations still has to earn its way and any setback a couple of big agencies were involved public relations firm in problems. I don’t think that there are permanent stains. I think that they were I’ll pass on it if you will. They had an influence briefly but they haven’t affected the public relations field in the long haul. Just you know we’re not unlike other people, it can happen in public relations. It can happen in advertising. It can happen in practicing law. It can happen in any area. And it happened to happen in public relations firms.

Interviewer: In your opinion is professional accreditation necessary in order to guarantee ethical standards within the field of public relations?

Dan Edelman: Yeah even if you didn’t have the word ethical. Just standards. I really don’t think so. I don’t ask people who are here whether they are accredited or not. I never ask that question in an interview although I don’t interview as much but I don’t think all people do. I don’t think it has caught on in that sense of being decisive point with regard to are you going to hire this person or aren’t you.

Interviewer: In your opinion is continuing education necessary for executive senior executive public relations professionals and if so what type of education or training is necessary?

Dan Edelman: Well I don’t think university education is indicated at all. They’ve had that and the best thing is experience. You learn more from being in a public relations environment being in a company, being in a large firm where you are practicing public relations and maybe you start as an assistant and worked your way up to a corporate director and you learned on the job and I think that’s the best way still for public relations. To be learned I’m not discounting what’s learned in college and graduate schools. But I think the most talent and capability in the field is developed on the job.

Interviewer: Learn by doing then.

Dan Edelman: Absolutely.

Interviewer: In your opinion what constitutes ethical public relations?

Dan Edelman: Well it starts with who you are. I mean are you an ethical person? If you have to bring to public relations what it is you represent the kind of person you are. If you are an ethical person and you grew up that way and your parents; my father was a wonderful role model for me in terms of ethics and standards; he practiced law for over 50 years. And one brother was a lawyer. The other one is a doctor. So, I had a professional environment. And I think that’s critical in making a public relations person.

Interviewer: What are the most significant changes you have observed during your career in public relations. If you needed to compare the industry now versus

Dan Edelman: Well we used to just get the story published. That was the assignment. And however I must say that the four years I spent at the Toni Company were counter indicated. I tend to talk that way because I think that happens to a lot of people but we broadened out tremendously. We have a research operation in Washington. We have a little advertising group in our Washington office. Blue advertising which was not designed to compete with the big ad agencies in splashy shampoo or food advertising but rather issues corporate issues that sort of thing and we tend to do work for a lot of trade associations. As well as companies and many of our major clients come out of our Washington office which starts with a specific legislative assignment and then migrates into a very large corporate program. Maybe you get a brand first and then it grows from that. That’s happened to us several times just in the past year or two.

Interviewer: What do you feel is the key in building trust and credibility in a company or organization.

Dan Edelman: In the company or the public relations firm?

Interviewer: In the company at large and then if you would like to answer in terms of public relations also?

Dan Edelman: Well companies don’t establish a reputation overnight. The companies that really have a favorable corporate reputation are those that have been in business. I’m not going to mention names because I leave some out. A lot of them have but we represent large companies that have been in business 50 or 100 years and that’s how long it takes. It’s very rare to be an overnight sensation. I mean, it happens. Microsoft is an example. I said I wouldn’t’ mention client names but that’s one that comes to mind. You know it just come out of the blue, they haven’t been around like GE for a long long time. Many others but they quickly I think it relates to the “Internet period” and the speeding up of everything.

Interviewer: Is it important for a corporation or an organization to have an ethical mission statement or credo as part of their overall mission statement?

Dan Edelman: Yeah I think it’s probably part of the code of ethics of most companies. And I think most public relations firm have a mission statement but I must say I can’t repeat it by heart. We have it and it’s nice to have on front of the brochure or something. But it’s not how we live. We live based on our moral standards that were ingrained by our parents and teachers and religious leaders or whomever else we were in contact with and you build your moral code as you develop as a person. And you know you can develop right or wrong. If you live in another kind of environment you might get off in the wrong direction. And make a crucial error.

Interviewer: What is the role of the economic bottom line in decision making for a public relations firm?

Dan Edelman: Well I’ve been kind of unusual in that regard. I want to do things and I think later about are we going to make money on it or not. But it seems to have worked. I just said we have to open in Australia or we have to have now it’s time to go back into Japan. We had an entry and it didn’t work and so we went back recently last year or two and it’s going very well. But it’s not easy. It’s never been easy to succeed in Tokyo so that’s what it is.

Interviewer: In recent years agencies have grown while other corporate public relations staff have they’ve shrunk as a consequence of cost cutting or mergers as we discussed. Why do you think that these organizations or departments are merging?

Dan Edelman: Well as I said earlier I think it’s up to the individual. Really able and there are many of them. I see them in the PR seminar Arthur Page. There are many outstanding public relations directors who’ve been in corporations for years. And if you have that assignment, I’ve had it for four years at the Toni division of Gillette. You go around. You get to know people and you work with the market research person or the advertising or other departments. A sales department. Production off to the plant. You get to know the manufacturing facility and the people involved. So you whether you are a agency. No agency is usually restricted. I must say if you are corporate you have a wide open opportunity to get yourself into every facet of the company. As I said from Washington to state legislation to the employee relations of all your plants. Its’ wide open. If it’s an agency they usually they’ll hire us for a specific brand or second brand and maybe we’ll both end up corporate reputation. Although usually the fees are more attractive in the marketing area than they are in the corporate area. But we like to represent the corporation if we’re doing the brand.

Interviewer: What is the role of corporate social responsibility in todays...

Dan Edelman: Corporate what?

Interviewer: Corporate social responsibility.

Dan Edelman: Oh, I think that the nation looks to the big companies to do it right. To have good products, sell them at a good price and to be a good citizen and if we don’t have that we have real problems. We are not a communist or a socialist nation. We can’t impose it from the top. It has to come from the bottom up. The corporate executives and finally the CEO and we have to work with those people and if we can influence them somewhat in a positive way we do. But yes it’s very important to help develop corporations. We can’t invent the products. We can’t help them in sales you know too much. But that’s not our job. Our job is corporate reputation and how they function.

Interviewer: Do you feel in today’s world that the public demands more from the companies that they purchase products from in terms of social responsibility and other things?

Dan Edelman: Yeah I think that people are conscious of the parent but only to some extent. I think brands, I mean US people who make Kleenex. Everybody knows Kleenex but I would think that only a small percentage would know that it’s Kimberly-Clark. Which happens to be a client. We knew about it beforehand. I think people become associated. Hershey is lucky they have both. They have the brand name and the corporate name it’s the same. Gillette was that way too.

Interviewer: How do you feel that the public’s opinion about a product is measured. Is it just by sales or do you feel there are other intangible things that you can measure a customer’s commitment to a product or to a brand. Is it just through sales or do you feel there are other ways you can gauge that?

Dan Edelman: Well you can’t downgrade the role of advertising. But the most important thing is it the right product? Is it a needed product? Is it a good product? Is it priced right? Does it do a job? Whatever it is and ultimately we can’t do anything about that. And the only people who can do something about that are the research and development people and the marketing people in the company. We can help in that regard as we get into marketing public relations. The history of the company. Have we talked about that earlier. The reputation and the brand. Often a brand is they don’t even know that as I said earlier. They don’t know the name of the parent company.  They go for the brand.

Interviewer: We spoke about the media previously. Do you feel that public relations individuals foster inappropriate relationships with the media at times? Do you feel that that’s a problem?

Dan Edelman: I don’t know anything about that. In other words, when I first went to China I was told you put $20 bill in the envelope with a release. I said we don’t do that. And we started a program among all the PR directors not to do that anymore. I don’t mean PR directors. I mean the companies the PR firms that were in China by that time. We had been there 15 years or more. And I said we don’t do that. That’s not our practice. If that’s the way it is in China. We’ll do without it and they can take the release or not.

Interviewer: And what happened as a result of that decision?

Dan Edelman: We don’t do it. I think the field doesn’t do it.

Interviewer: We spoke earlier comparing public relations to other industries such as law and finance. Do you feel that the industry will be recognized in the future as a profession that’s comparable to those professions?

Dan Edelman: I don’t think we’re that kind of a profession. Law and medicine require medicine requires four years of medical school plus residency. Law requires three years of law school and often summer work in a law firm. Not as rigid as the residency rule in medicine. But we’re not that. We’re different. If anything we’re more related to advertising. I don’t like it personally but to the extent that people define us as being like advertising like marketing. I don’t like that. That’s not, we do that. We promote brands for companies as I suggested earlier but we have so many other aspects of the assignment if we have a broad corporate reputation program. Otherwise we may have a specific program that defines what we do very rigidly.

Interviewer: We spoke earlier about the moral upbringing that people receive as a result of their families or communities. What moral philosophy do you use personally to guide your business decisions or do you?

Dan Edelman: I just, I do what I did, I talked about my father. I talked about other mentors. But mostly it’s the way you were brought up. It’s your moral code. Public relations you know has a few different aspects. Telling the truth, telling it completely, telling it accurately. Getting out the story. But those are little wrinkles. It’s mostly who you are and the way you handle yourself.  I think that this is good. I mean I think we are making very good progress and getting good people.

Interviewer: What do you think is the future both for your company and also public relations at large?

Dan Edelman: Well I never dreamed we’d have 45 offices and be this big and the largest independent and all that kind of stuff. So it’s way beyond my fondest dreams. I never had any sense of or thought... I’d have a little Chicago office maybe. And but I think the field has grown enormously. We haven’t dreamed about having research or having a little advertising group and those have been invaluable lately. Some of our a major trade association client that we’ve done some work for has come in with a huge program that we had to compete but which came our way and you know, that’s all, we’re good.

Interviewer: What would you like your legacy to be in public relations?

Dan Edelman: He was a professional public relations person.

Interviewer: That’s how you’d like to be remembered.

Dan Edelman: He established standards and ethical standards but also codes of practice that people followed and that became the standard in his company and now followed by Richard Edelman who is our president and CEO as I go into my older years.

Interviewer: How important are leadership qualities?

Dan Edelman: Leadership?

Interviewer: Leadership qualities in public relations profession.

Dan Edelman: I don’t think you can get anywhere without it. I just think, if you’re a bookworm if you’re internalized. You got to go out.  I mean public relations, the field public relations practice calls for a lot of dimensions. You’ve got to be able to write, to speak. When I was younger my wife entertained. We had clients at home. I mean there are a lot of dimensions.  You can call it leadership but I call it being a business person. But being a business person part of that is leadership. Getting up there and leading a company and leading yourself, really too.

Interviewer: The Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State is committed to fostering integrity in public communication. Can you suggest a few ways a program like this can be made even more effective.

Dan Edelman: I think you’re on the right track. I mean, the things I read about what the Arthur Page Society is doing, the stories you handed me. Penn State opens center PR’s ethics quality. That’s all terrific. And I think one wouldn’t have expected it to come from Penn State but I’m delighted that it has. And we need more universities to do a comparable kind of thing. So I can’t tell you what more should be done. I think frankly as I said earlier ethics is focused on too much and I think in your program as well. I think you have it or you don’t. But there are many things about this practice. It doesn’t involve ethics. Strength, capability, experience, digging in and getting it done. Can you do it or can’t you.

Interviewer: Well that’s all in terms of questions that I have unless there are other things you would like to share with me in terms of stories or.

Dan Edelman: No, I'm talked out.

Interviewer: You’re done. Thank you.

Dan Edelman: Thank you.