Today I was honored to receive the Publicity Club of Chicago’s Lifetime Achievement Award, which my father Dan received twenty years ago. This acknowledgement is a reflection of the 71-year history of our firm and our dedication to clients and to improving society. And it could not have happened without the hard work, perseverance and ambition of the 6,000+ Edelman and Zeno employees across the globe, past and present. Please see my full acceptance speech below.

I accept this award on behalf of my 6,000+ colleagues at Edelman and Zeno. I am deeply honored to follow in my father’s footsteps in receiving this honor. We worked together for 35 years; it is now ten years since his passing and his words are always top of mind. “It is great to be the largest firm, but we must always strive to be the best firm.”  

We are Chicago to the core. We are hard-working, straightforward, ambitious, determined, and decent. We have retained the underdog mentality despite our success; we know that we are much smaller than the advertising holding companies and that we have to out-hustle and outwit them. This ethos permeates the global network. Our deep involvement in the city has spanned our history as a firm. From managing the crisis of The Great Flood of Chicago in 1992 with Great Lakes Dredge and Dock and the turnaround story of United Airlines; to the opening of the Lincoln Library & Museum with three living presidents, to our work over the last few years producing a brilliant campaign for vaccination during the pandemic; and followed up with an award-winning campaign on mental health called Un[ ]spoken, urging citizens to get help when depressed. We serve on boards of non-profits, from the Museum of Science and Industry and the Better Government Association to the Adler Planetarium, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and Project H.O.O.D. We are helping the city and state attract business through Intersect Illinois and P-33.  

This is truly a family business. The smartest decision we made was to stay private and independent, focused on results for clients instead of financial returns for shareholders. My late mother Ruth was my dad’s right hand. My sister Renee and brother John play important roles in preserving our company history and ensuring its future through sustainability commitments. My three daughters Margot, Tory and Amanda are prepared to take the company forward into the future; they are working hard to learn the business on the front lines.  

My dad started with four people at the Merchandise Mart. He had a dream, to bring third party credibility to marketing of products through coverage in the mass media. He had a brilliant idea, the media tour, bringing interesting spokespeople to local markets to speak directly to the consumer on TV, radio and in newspapers. We have continued to evolve from that core competency, going direct to the end user of information through digital channels and using influencers to supplement our work in media relations.  

We have a unique understanding of the importance of trust in society. We have done 23 years of the Edelman Trust Barometer and in that time, business has emerged as the most trusted institution. The expectations of CEOs and brands have expanded, with belief driven buyers and values-based employees demanding corporations speak out on issues of the day, from diversity and inclusion to geopolitics to sustainability to wage levels and working conditions. The workplace has become the only safe spot to discuss societal questions. The pandemic has caused a diminution of expertise, so that effective communications must be both top down and peer to peer. Distrust is more prevalent among those without a college degree. Meanwhile, trust in scientists is twice as high for white Democrats versus diverse.

This legacy and impact wouldn’t be possible without the colleagues at Zeno and Edelman — thank you for all that you do, you are truly the best in the business and I’m deeply appreciative of your commitment and contributions to our firm. It’s also made possible by our clients — thank you for allowing us to bring big ideas and deeply important work that sparks action.  

I close with a bit of advice to the younger generation coming of age in PR. Now is our time. We are the only professional service category that can bridge marketing and reputation. We need to guide our clients through unprecedented political volatility and geopolitical strains. Continue to learn and be open to new ways of thinking. I want to thank my wife Claudia for continuing to inspire and immerse me in Latino culture, most recently the brilliant Remedios Varo exhibition of surrealist paintings at the Art Institute. Finally, push your clients to make substantive change because Trust Drives Growth and Action Earns Trust.  

To the Publicity Club of Chicago, thank you for this incredible honor.

Richard Edelman is CEO.