I am deeply honored to be nominated for the PR Week Hall of Fame. It is especially gratifying to be following in the footsteps of my father Daniel, founder of our firm, who received the award posthumously in 2014. As I stood on the stage that night to accept the award on his behalf, I made a little gesture skyward to the big man and to my mother Ruth, always his right hand, knowing that they were smiling down.
It is a huge responsibility to succeed your dad as CEO of a family business. There were competitors who cast doubt on the decision. Longtime Edelman people wondered whether I had the right stuff. Clients were supportive but wary, especially those on the marketing side where I had less exposure. My parents and siblings were all in.
It has worked beyond my wildest dreams. We are the largest communications firm. We have a business equally divided between brand and corporate reputation. We are truly global, with over 40 percent of revenue outside of the U.S. We continue to do excellent creative work. We have become a communications partner of choice in digital and experiential for some of the world’s leading brands. We are agile and hungry, never resting on our laurels. And we remain a great place to work for entrepreneurial, ambitious people who believe that clients should do well and do good.
As I think about my career, I would cite the following important moments:
- The Edelman Trust Barometer—This has become a vital piece of intellectual property for the business community. It was recently cited in a Business Roundtable commitment to a stakeholder approach. Our most recent report on trust moving to “my employer,” with corresponding expectations of CEOs to speak out on issues from LGBT rights to gun violence, has prompted several companies to move into the void left by government.
- First Mover in Digital—We started in the mid-90s by taking the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line online. Then we had our first digital offer, which we called the Me2Revolution. But the big spike in business coincided with the rise of Facebook and other social platforms, when we moved from web development to social content creator and community manager.
- Purpose Leader—We did the first environmental program for Star-Kist in 1992 with Dolphin-Safe Tuna, partnering with Earth Island Institute. This led to assignments for Walmart, Starbucks, Unilever and Mars. We do not accept work from tobacco, firearms or coal companies. This mindset applies to our pro-bono work on behalf of the Gun Safety Alliance and other non-profits, ably overseen by my brother John, as part of our commitment to community.
- Creative Force—We have hired 600 creatives, planners and paid experts. We intend to compete with ad agencies and digital firms. We have also acquired UEG, a top-class experiential, sports and entertainment firm. We have staked out the ground of Earned Creative, fast as the news cycle, social by design and earned at the core.
- New York Office Manager at 27—It started as a temporary assignment, until my father could search for a manager. I did not know what was impossible. I did cold calls on companies; one of them was Unilever, which awarded us Surf detergent, then Snuggle fabric softener, and now is one of our largest global clients. We did insane stunts, such as flying a motorized hang glider wired for sound from snowbound Central Park near the St. Moritz Hotel for the launch of Blue Stratos Men’s cologne. We were the kiddie corps, doing Fuji Film’s sponsorship of the LA Olympics and Ortho’s 25th anniversary of the birth control pill.
- European Manager at 37—I never moved to Europe; I just commuted every other week. We turned around the UK office after losing three major government accounts in the Thatcher privatization push. We opened in Brussels and Hamburg. We began to get cross-region clients such as Ericsson.
- Favorite Client Moments—I happened to be visiting my parents for Passover when a dredging company poked a hole in an old tunnel under the Chicago River, causing a flood of the downtown area. We held a Saturday AM press conference to show that the City of Chicago had maps with the tunnel but had failed to provide those to the dredging company. From the merger of Ernst & Whinney and Arthur Young to create Ernst & Young, to the launch of Advil with baseball star Nolan Ryan that propelled the brand to No.1 in its category, to all of the accounts I am currently involved in, client work is the best part of my day. Thank you for believing in me.
- The People—First to my dad, who had the confidence in my ability and the patience to see me through the first few years as CEO, most notably a failed accounting system implementation, and my mother, who arbitrated any disputes while offering her points of view like it or not. Then to Mike Morley and David Davis, mentors of the first order about our global business. To Pam Talbot and Leslie Dach, invaluable partners in building the U.S. business, plus David Brain and Alan VanderMolen for the European and Asian business. To Mike Deaver and John Scanlon who taught me the art of crisis management. But most of all to my long-time associates who have given their lives to the dream that is Edelman, including Matthew Harrington, Vic Malanga, Russell Dubner, Lisa Sepulveda, Katie Burke, Barby Siegel and Kristine Boyden. It is an honor to have worked with you. Plus both of my siblings: Renee, who oversees our alumni network, and John, who runs the Edelman Foundation and sustainability. Thank you.
It is my intention to continue as CEO. This is my life’s work. There has never been a more important time for our profession. We are helping the CCO to guide the CEO in taking public positions on behalf of employees with heightened expectations of business. We are partnering with CMOs on brands with purpose, knowing that trust is the new force in marketing. We are working to make every one of our clients its own media company to cope with the drastic reduction in the journalist force, prompted by adverse economics of newspapers and magazines. We can do so much more with employees, giving them information first and enabling them to be advocates. I wish for my three daughters the same fulfillment that I have had in my career, hoping that they can succeed me in carrying on the tradition of this proud family business.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.