Daniel J. Edelman, who founded his eponymous agency in Chicago in 1952 and “pioneered public relations as a corporate marketing tool,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Miller observes, died yesterday at 92 of congestive heart failure. He had remained active until recently in the firm, which has remained independent under the leadership of his son, Richard, with 66 offices and more than 4,500 employees worldwide.
“There will never be another Dan Edelman –- indomitable, ever modest, always resilient, ready for the next challenge,” reads a tribute on the agency’s home page. "His story inspires us all.”
Reminiscences are flowing into a page set up on the site, as well as on its Facebook presence. “To one of the greatest human beings ever born, my respect,” writes Sumit Dasgupta, encapsulating a dominant theme of Edelman’s reputation for integrity, graciousness and intelligence.
Laura McGowan, who got her start in the industry in the Chicago headquarters office in the early ’90s, remembers that “among the youngsters, the joke ran that you weren't someone in PR until George Lazarus would call up Dan Edelman to complain about something you sent over.”
Writes Robert Philips: “…for those of us who grew up in the world of consumer brand marketing, [he was] someone who had shaped the communications profession as we knew it. Here was the man who invented both the media tour and, in effect, ‘newsjacking.’”
Edelman was born in New York City and received a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. After serving as an Army psychological warfare officer during World War II, a stint at a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and as a news writer at CBS, followed by a few jobs as a publicist, Edelman decided to open his own shop “for one simple reason,” according to a teaser for the forthcoming Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations. “He thought he could do better than the competition.”
“He had three employees and one client, the Toni Home Permanent Co., just down the hall at the Merchandise Mart,” writes Robert Channick in the Chicago Tribune. “From those humble roots, he built Edelman into the world's largest PR firm, improving the fortunes of everyone from Orville Redenbacher to Colonel Sanders while transforming an industry through innovation, creativity and a work ethic that never waned during more than six decades of making others look good.”
Edelman famously made Toni a household name when, as head of PR for the firm in the late ’40s, he dispatched six sets of identical twins on a media tour to 72 cities. One had had her hair done in a salon; the other used the Toni do-it-yourself kit. In support of a widespread ad campaign, women were asked to tell “which twin had the Toni.”
“Over the years, Mr. Edelman helped build leading brands like Sara Lee and KFC,” writes Dennis Hevesi in the New York Times. “The firm’s current clients include Microsoft, Pfizer, General Electric, Wal-Mart Stores, Abbott Laboratories, Samsung, Royal Dutch Shell, Kraft, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever.”
In the mid-’60s, Edelman hired actor Vincent Price to represent California wines -- one of the first deployments of a celebrity in a public relations campaigns, the firm says, according to a Bloomberg story. “Other milestones the firm cites include repositioning Kentucky Fried Chicken as KFC in 1975, establishing the first free consumer help-line with the Butterball Turkey Talk-line to help holiday-season cooks in 1981, managing the release of the Iraq Study Group Report in 2006 and helping Starbucks run its 40th anniversary campaign in 2011.”
“Mr. Edelman prided himself and his firm on addressing substantive issues for their clients and not acting merely as a mouthpiece,” writes Emily Langer in the Washington Post. “He said that in corporate debacles such as the Enron scandal, public relations executives bore a share of responsibility for the dishonesty that led to the firm’s collapse.”
“They went after the lawyers and accountants but nobody said ‘what about the PR people?’,” he told … PR Week. “What does that say about us -- that we are irrelevant?”
Howard J. Rubenstein tells Langer that Edelman had changed the field of publicity and created a “thinking man’s PR” where providing strategic advice became as important as generating what used to be known as “ink.”
Edelman was known as a good listener and a keen observer of shifts in media dynamics.
He “predicted that social media heralded a golden age for PR as a way of interacting with consumers,” writes Miller. He observed in 2006 that “consumers are self-publishing journalists. As PR professionals, we have to figure out how to make connections” with them.
Survivors include the former Ruth Ann Rozumoff, Edelman’s wife of 59 years and a member of the firm’s board of directors; a daughter, Renee, an Edelman SVP; a son, John, managing director of the firm’s global engagement and corporate social responsibility initiative; and three granddaughters. There will be a memorial service at 11 a.m. Friday at Chicago Sinai Congregation, 15 W. Delaware Place.