Daniel J. Edelman, founded influential public relations firm
By Emily Langer,
Daniel J. Edelman, a businessman who looked deep into the post-World War II American marketplace and culture, divined the potential power of public relations campaigns and founded what became one of the most influential PR firms in the country, died Jan. 15 at a hospital in Chicago. He was 92.
He had congestive heart failure, said Richard Edelman, his son and the current chief executive of the Edelman firm.
Mr. Edelman was often described as a father of modern media relations in the tradition of Edward L. Bernays, who masterminded a campaign in the 1920s that made it socially acceptable for women to smoke in public.
Mr. Edelman saw before many others in his field that advertisements were only primitive tools, and that PR campaigns could take companies, products and politicians into American newspapers and onto American television screens — and therefore into American homes.
He was more than a “flack,” as reporters dismissively call publicity agents; he was a strategist.
Howard J. Rubenstein, the founder of the influential Rubenstein public relations firm in New York, credited Mr. Edelman with changing the field as it was known.
“When I first came in 59 years ago, you were just a press agent,” he said in an interview. “The client would tell you something. You didn’t question it. You were a publicist, a straight publicist.”
Mr. Edelman, he said, created a “thinking man’s PR.”
The Edelman firm, which he opened in Chicago in 1952, is often described as the largest independent PR firm in the world. It today has 4,500 employees in 65 international offices. The New Yorker magazine reported in 2007 that from some clients, it commanded monthly fees on the order of half a million dollars.
The firm’s clients over the years have included a fledgling pastry company called Sara Lee, whose cheesecakes Mr. Edelman helped put on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in the 1950s; the Brunswick bowling company as bowling leagues exploded in popularity across America in the 1950s and 1960s; and later Advil, whose painkilling medicine he helped promote as it transitioned from a prescription drug to an over-the-counter pill.
For Butterball, he dreamed up the Turkey Talk-Line used by thousands of overwhelmed holiday cooks. On behalf of Microsoft, he helped promote the Xbox machine as it became one of the world’s most popular entertainment and video game devices.
In Washington, his firm was retained to help promote architect Maya Lin’s once-controversial design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which since its completion in 1982 has become one of the most-visited public sites in the capital.
Mr. Edelman was credited with pioneering promotional techniques that are now ubiquitous in American culture. His first client was the Toni Co., a manufacturer of women’s hair preparations that was later a division of Gillette. Toni had put on the market a “wave kit” for do-it-yourself hair permanents.
Mr. Edelman, then working for the Toni Co., decided to use the six sets of “Toni twins” employed as company mascots for an initiative that was later recognized as the first real media tour — entitled “Which Twin Has the Toni?”
Instead of focusing on advertisement spots, he took the twins on a tour of dozens of cities in the United States and in Europe. They paraded about in a trailer painted to look like the Toni perm box.
The women ended up on NBC’s “Today” morning show. When one set of Toni twins was jailed in Oklahoma for practicing cosmetology without a license, Mr. Edelman got some extra mileage out of the incident by wrangling a story from the Associated Press.
In the 1960s, he helped engage actor Vincent Price as a spokesman for the California Wine Institute, another Edelman client. According to Time magazine, the Edelman firm also tried to popularize California wines by getting business conventions to host wine-tasting sessions instead of a more traditional cocktail party. The firm promoted wine as “the safest and best tranquilizer.”
Daniel Joseph Edelman was born July 3, 1920, in New York City. His father, a Russian immigrant, was a lawyer; his mother, from Poland, was a pianist.
The younger Edelman received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1940 and a master’s degree in journalism in 1941, both from Columbia University. During World War II, he served in the Army and was assigned to a unit involved with psychological warfare against Nazi propaganda.
After the war, he was hired by CBS as a news writer. He left journalism, his son said, because he grew tired of working nights. Mr. Edelman found a publicity job with Musicraft Records, a label in New York that represented popular jazz singers such as Mel Torme. He came to the attention of the Toni Co. when it did a joint promotion with Torme.
In recent years, when major advertising agencies began buying up public relations firms, Mr. Edelman insisted that his company remain independent. He stepped down as chief executive in 1996 and was succeeded by his son, but he continued to be involved in his firm well into his older age.
Over the years, the firm expanded to include branding and management consulting, in such cases as failures of corporate governance.
The firm’s current clients include Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Pfizer, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Samsung, Kraft and Johnson & Johnson. In recent months, the firm was retained by Pennsylvania State University following the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal to help repair the college’s image.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Ruth Rozumoff Edelman of Chicago; three children — all of whom hold executive-level positions in the family business — Richard Edelman and Renee Edelman, both of New York City, and John Edelman of Chicago; and three granddaughters.
Mr. Edelman prided himself and his firm on addressing substantive issues for their clients and not acting merely as a mouthpiece. He said that in corporate debacles such as the Enron scandal, public relations executives bore a share of responsibility for the dishonesty that led to the firm’s collapse.
“They went after the lawyers and accountants but nobody said ‘what about the PR people?’ ” he told the publication PR Week. “What does that say about us — that we are irrelevant? Are we just the press release distributors for lawyers? Isn’t this a call to action? We are supposed to be the corporate conscience and we have to get involved in counseling.”