Two weeks have passed since the passing of Daniel Edelman at the age of ninety-two. A spate of beautiful obituaries memorialize the man who founded what is today one of the world’s largest public relations firm.
As one of these obituaries noted, Edelman possessed a characteristic and valuable tendency to think through problems before coming up with responses. How far our industry has traveled since Edelman founded and built his company.
In the 1940s and 50s, Edelman, like fellow pioneers, Harold Burson (Burson-Marsteller), Alfred Fleishman (Fleishman-Hillard), John Hill (Hill & Knowlton), and a handful of others, had a vision of communications as vital to the good functioning of corporate enterprises. Media, he saw, doesn’t just broadcast messages but tells stories—creates meaning—about companies. Today, our industry still takes storytelling to heart, even as we incorporate the new technologies of social media. In fact, our storytelling and communications orientation is precisely what allows us to implement and mobilize new technologies for clients in ways that seem natural and comfortable.
Other parts of Edelman’s vision also seem vitally important today. The public relations pioneers of the 1940s and 1950s started businesses in the United States but quickly expanded them beyond our borders. They did this to reflect the needs of their clients, understanding how important it would be for companies to tell their stories in markets across the globe, and in ways that reflected local cultures and expertise. They also expanded the scope of public relations beyond marketing communications to focus on many stakeholders through reputation, crisis communications, employee communications, shareholder relations, and many others. While such breadth makes it hard to explain to outsiders what we do, the products we offer are so much more diverse, integrated, and powerful.
Perhaps the most important part of our business—its concern for ethical behavior and good citizenship—hasn’t changed in all the years since Edelman was founded. We are all still watchdogs of corporate ethics, a function that will only get stronger. Ethical decision-making is one of the platform issues of the Council’s new Chairman, Dave Senay. The Council Board has also just revised our Code of Ethics, expanding it to include principles such as accuracy, openness and transparency, and diversity.
Dan Edelman was both a champion businessman and a deep thinker about communications. But he also had high personal standards of conduct. We will continue to honor in the years ahead those who foster ethical practices, especially as our industry continues to evolve and grow more complex.