Lessons from a PR Legend

It was with great sadness that I learned that one of the founding fathers of public relations, Dan Edelman, passed away earlier this week. I began my agency career nearly 20 years ago at Edelman Chicago, and it was my privilege to work down the hall from this legendary figure. He started his firm in 1952 with one client and built it into the largest independent public relations firm in the world and one of the undisputed industry thought leaders. He would blow onto the 63rd floor of the Aon Building in Chicago with a burst of energy, walk the halls and enthusiastically ask even those of us in the cubicles what we were working on. The interesting part was that we knew he really cared about our work because he loved the business that much. It was always exciting and interesting to him, in all its facets, however mundane.

There are some major benefits that come from having that kind of exposure to someone who had achieved so much and still had such passion. And, as demanding a work environment as Edelman was, there was no better place to learn what agency life and PR are all about.

So, I tip my cap to “Mr. Edelman” and share with you a few lessons we can all take from him:

  • The client must be served. No matter how tight the deadline or how difficult the battle, agencies exist to meet the needs of their clients.
  • You’ll never know it all, but you should try. Whether getting a client download or attending an internal brainstorm, Mr. Edelman walked into every meeting with a notebook and always took more notes than anyone in the room. He taught by example that, in PR, a command of the facts and a deep understanding of the subject matter is critical, and there is always room to learn more.
  • PR is not the step-child of advertising. While many marketers view PR as an add-on service, he remained true to the notion that it was its own distinct discipline, requiring a highly specialized skill set. He often preached that anyone could buy advertising, but that PR was more challenging. He also worked hard to keep his firm devoted solely to the practice of this discipline.
  • Look for every opportunity to engage and involve. In business and in life, one must have a willingness to shake things up, put a stake in the ground and keep it interesting so that others will want to join the conversation. He was social long before social media was cool.
  • Play to win. Mr. Edelman was so famous for his views on this subject that these words were engraved on the 60th anniversary medallions that the company handed out last year to employees and alumni: “It’s nice to be the biggest, but I always want to be the best.” Quality counts, brilliance is rewarded, and hard work makes it all happen.

I love public relations. I thrill over a well-crafted message, a flawlessly-executed crisis response, a powerful speech, a clever guerilla tactic or a masterful campaign. Many of my colleagues feel that way, too, but I’m one of the lucky few who learned it by osmosis on the 63rd floor.

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