Edelman Was Example of Relevance

Daniel Edelman, one of the giants of corporate public relations, passed away this week. The Wall Street Journal had a nice remembrance in Wednesday’s issue. He was 92 and had only recently stopped going to the Chicago office of Edelman Public Relations, which he had started in 1952 and built into the world’s largest privately held public relations agency.

I was never lucky enough to meet Mr. Edelman, but I knew his firm’s name well. When you’re a reader of Ad Age and ADWEEK, you can’t help seeing articles about the firm and its campaigns for Microsoft, Kraft, Starbucks and so many more well-known brands. He was a pioneer of celebrity endorsements and responsible for ground-breaking event campaigns, such as the one for Toni home hair permanents in the 50’s that involved taking the identical twins who were spokesmodels around the U.S. for photo opportunities with local luminaries and politicians, plus pitting the consumer’s own product use against the professional permanents applied by local hair stylists and salon owners. The local newspapers ate that stuff up!

However, two things about Mr. Edelman always impressed me and seem to point to his ability to remain intellectually curious and professionally relevant throughout old age:

  1. He was clearly a student of popular culture and, in fact, manufactured some of it through his client campaigns. It was his idea to have Morris, the finicky cat, fly first-class to his cat food spokescat appearances. It was his idea to have a Brunswick bowling alley installed in the Nixon White House (where it is still in use today.)
  2. He recognized, in 2006, the onrushing power of online social media and called on his corporate clients to start conversations with these “citizen journalists” who were filling the internet with blog content.

Sure, the world that we see through the lens of the media and advertisers, both traditional and new, can seem exceptionally superficial at times (how many “realities” can we intimately experience?). But if, like Edelman, you are alert enough to discern the trends from the fads, you can counsel your corporate clients to join the ones that have influence over behavior and opinions in ways that use that lens to magnify your products and services in the consumer’s eye. Part sociologist and part journalist, Daniel Edelman’s version of the professional public relations practitioner included a hefty dose of promotional savvy and cultural vision. It’s a standard that kept his counsel relevant right through until he left us.