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?”