Lisa Osborne Ross takes reins as CEO of Edelman U.S.
Edelman is naming a new U.S. CEO, Lisa Osborne Ross, who will become the first Black woman to lead a PR firm of this size, which has $540 million in U.S. revenue, 13 offices and more than 2,300 employees across the country. Ross, formerly the U.S. chief operating officer, takes up her new post May 3. She will report to Matthew Harrington, global president and chief operating officer. Edelman’s current U.S. president and CEO, Russell Dubner, has been named global vice chairman and chair of the newly formed Edelman Trust Institute.
By definition, being the first means being the only, and it can be both a heavy weight and a solemn responsibility. But Ross welcomes the view from the top. “I actually don’t feel so much of the pressure, because I won’t be the last,” she says. “As a Black person, as a woman, as a communications professional, as someone who believes that you can do well by doing good, this is a wonderful perch for me, because it’s consistent with my values, and it has the resources to execute and the authority to execute.”
It is those resources and authority that are often lacking in other roles (high-profile but not high-power is a common complaint of chief diversity officers, for example), leaving would-be change agents with the will but not the means to effect it.
Edelman has already been undergoing changes. Under Harrington, Dubner and CEO Richard Edelman, half of the new hires the firm has made in the last year have been diverse candidates, bringing the total to 27% of the U.S. workforce and 15% of leadership. The company is on track to hit its goals of 30% and 20%, respectively, by next year. “So we're determined,” Edelman says. The firm has also reached gender parity in senior leadership globally, and earlier this year, Jonathan Jordan, its Los Angeles general manager, became the first Black man to run an Edelman office.
That momentum was not only integral to Ross’ ascension but also drew her into the fold in the first place. She joined as president of the Washington, D.C. office four years ago, after a career at APCO Worldwide, Ogilvy and in the Clinton administration. “We were not Johnny-come-lately to this,” she says of Edelman. “Our numbers are very good, but they were good before I got here—otherwise I wouldn’t have come.”
The company has also been undergoing an expansion of its capabilities and offerings. Ross led Edelman’s COVID Task Force and helped establish its Racial Justice Task Force after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd last year. The group has counseled more than 400 clients on addressing diversity and systemic racism.
“The pandemic revealed what many people have already known—that there are inequities in healthcare, there are inequities in education, there are inequities in housing,” Ross says. “And our research indicated that, so I think many companies, whether they talk about these issues together, they recognize that they are related, and smart ones address them all together.”
Dubner has spent the last 29 years at Edelman, and in his new role, he will oversee growth investments, alliances and partnerships and the Edelman Trust Institute. “Given that trust has become the foundational currency for stakeholder capitalism, our view is this is the moment for us to go deep and create a center and learning lab for the study of how leaders, companies, brands and institutions build trust with people,” he says. It will build on the work over the last 20 years from the Edelman Trust Barometer, the gold standard measurement of the credibility of the world’s institutions.
In 2019, Edelman was ranked No. 4 on Ad Age’s Agency A-List, thanks in large part to the kind of strong creative work traditionally the domain of ad agencies—and made by some 600 creatives hired by the firm, up from just 25 when Dubner took the reins at CEO. “We built this our own way,” he says. “We're not trying to ape somebody else's strategy.” One campaign for Ajinomoto from early in the pandemic feels eerily prescient with its message of combating anti-Asian bias.
The appointments of Ross and Dubner further the progress the company has made, says Richard Edelman. “I think it signifies that we're on offense and, unlike the holding companies, we are going to play very ambitiously and aggressively in positioning ourselves as a communications partner of choice, for clients that want to act and do something important.”
“If my old man was sitting there,” he adds, referring to company founder Daniel Edelman, “he'd be clapping because he'd be so proud.”