Six Things You May Not Know About Dan Edelman and His Agency

Lessons From 'Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations'

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Dan Edelman founded what is now the largest PR-agency network in the world and one of its few remaining independents. But while Edelman has spent decades spreading the word about past and current clients like Apple, Sara Lee, General Electric and Dove, it has been a lot quieter on its own history.

Dan Edelman
Dan Edelman

This year on the occasion of the firm's 60th anniversary, founder Dan Edelman is self-publishing "Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations." Ad Age got a peek at the book, which will be distributed to employees and clients in January, and learned from it six interesting tidbits about Mr. Edelman and his agency, excerpted in edited form here.

He assessed war propaganda
"I was lucky," he said. "A guy called me up who was going to move to Stars and Stripes [the Army newspaper]. He asked me if I would handle the job of filling out the reports on German propaganda. And I said sure. It worked out well. We did it in France first, then in Germany." Dan and a crew of German-speaking analysts would work through the night to document the disinformation. "It was fascinating, assessing the German claims that their V-bombs were destroying London and communicating what Goebbels was saying in his Das Reich editorials. My report went to general officers all across the front, from General Omar Bradley on down, and to our propaganda people to help them offset the Nazi claims."

He was knighted by Finland
Finland had suffered a series of crushing blows following World War II, having been forced to pay $300 million in reparations and ceding the eastern province of Karelia, a tenth of its territory, to the Soviet Union. Veikko Konttinen, a communications director for the Finnish Forest Industries Association, took a chance on a young, Chicago-based firm with solid media credentials, Daniel J. Edelman & Associates, which would tell the country's story for the next 18 years. For his efforts on behalf of the Nordic nation, Dan was knighted and presented with the Order of the Lion of Finland by Ambassador Jaakko Iloniemi in 1978.

It took convincing to get his son Richard to join the firm.
"It was 1978," said Richard. "I was just three months away from graduating from Harvard Business School when my father pulled me aside and said he'd just been approached by Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising and that they wanted to buy the firm. He said, 'I'll make you a deal. Come work for the firm for one year. If you don't like it, you can leave. But as long as you're here, I'll never sell the business.'" Richard had already accepted a junior-level marketing position at Playtex and booked a six-week European vacation with a girlfriend. But Dan persisted and Richard agreed to the deal, but said he'd start after he'd taken his trip to Europe.

Richard Edelman
Richard Edelman

"Then, a week before graduation, he called me again," recounted Richard. "He said, 'We just won this account called ContiCommodity Services. You know about commodity futures, and we don't have anybody here who can do that . We need you to start right away.' I was desperate for a break after killing myself for two years at school. I told him about my vacation plans. He said, 'I'll give you a vacation in December.'" Richard finished his exams on a Friday and started work at Edelman the following Monday. He lost the European vacation -- and the girlfriend.

Edelman once sold a stake to IPG
Eager to strengthen Edelman's presence in the Golden State, Dan purchased the P.R. arm of Dailey & Associates, a California-based advertising firm. The deal required Dan to do something he had long resisted: sell part of his firm. In this case, a 5% share to the Interpublic Group of Cos., Dailey's parent. Dan hated the idea of losing a share of his agency, even though it was only 5%. After a year and a half, he exercised an option he had inserted into the deal that allowed him to buy back the share at book value.

His agency won Apple after five minutes.
When Steve Jobs returned to lead Apple in 1997, after a dozen-year separation from the company he co-founded, he fired its PR agencies and announced that the company would no longer participate in the big technology trade shows. Jobs wanted to do public relations differently from all other computer companies. So he put out a "casting call" for new PR agencies, with the caveat that only agency principals participate in the pitch. Edelman made the cut, a fact that kept Edelman's technology practice leader Paul Bergevin up for several nights, worried about how he would approach the brilliant but mercurial Jobs. As soon as Mr. Bergevin entered the Apple meeting room for the presentation, Jobs began to pepper him with questions about how to best tell the story of Apple's comeback after several years of failed products and unprofitability. After five minutes, Jobs leapt to his feet and began to write notes on a whiteboard about the key steps to take in a P.R. campaign. Mr. Bergevin realized that the meeting was no longer a pitch. Edelman had been hired.

Edelman plans to keep it all in the family.
The new wave of leaders at Edelman will likely include three young women who share the company name: Richard and Roz's three daughters, Margot, Tory, and Amanda. After graduating from Harvard College, Margot spent two years in Edelman offices in Chicago, Shanghai, New York, and London, as well as on the press team at the World Economic Forum. Now, she is completing her MBA at the Harvard Business School.

Tory, who spent a semester at Minzu University in Beijing, is finishing her undergraduate studies at Bowdoin College. She interned with the Edelman New York digital practice and worked with the 9/11 Memorial Foundation during the summer 2011 break. Amanda, a high-school senior in New York City, is applying to colleges and thinking about interning at an Edelman office next summer, possibly in Spain or Argentina. Margot plans to join the Edelman corporate PR practice in New York after graduation, and Tory talks about the possibility of returning to China and working in an Edelman office there.

"Is it necessary that they all join Edelman? No," said Richard. "Is it desirable? Of course. I want Edelman to remain a family business."

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