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Daniel J. Edelman, 1920-2013: Public Relations Pioneer

Today brings sad news for the entire PR worldDaniel J. Edelman, 1920-2013: Daniel J. Edelman, industry innovator and founder of Edelman PR, died of heart failure in Chicago this morning at the age of 92.

Edelman, born in New York City on July 3, 1920, displayed an interest in journalism early in his life: He produced a community newspaper with a friend at age 11 and quickly became a sports writer/editor before earning his master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1941.

Edelman’s introduction to public relations came during his service in the armed forces. Drafted to serve overseas in 1942, he produced a newspaper for fellow soldiers before being assigned to, in his own words, “write an analysis of German propaganda” and advise the United States military on counter-messaging efforts.

Upon his return from the service, he got a job writing for CBS News before working as a music publicist at a record label representing Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and other stars of the era. According to Edelman, his real PR breakthrough came when he devised a brilliant promotional campaign for a radio show hosted by Mel Torme and sponsored by home hair care brand the Toni Company: he packaged Torme’s latest album in a cover designed to resemble a hair care kit and sent it around to local DJs to earn press attention.

The company was “so impressed” that it hired him before sending him to Chicago to work as its PR director. His first project for Toni further revealed his PR instincts: Toni’s promo campaign involved two twins, one of whom had received an expensive salon perm and one who had performed her own at-home perm with a Toni set. Edelman encouraged the company to take the “Toni twins” on tour, challenging women in the audience to guess which one had done the job herself.

Edelman held the Toni role for four years before deciding to start his own firm (and scoring his former employer as Edelman PR’s first client).

Daniel J. Edelman started the company that bore his name in a small Chicago office on October 1, 1952. His second client was Sara Lee, and he helped build the company into the food giant it is today.

He later pioneered the celebrity PR campaign, hiring actor Vincent Price to promote California’s wine industry and booking spots for the star on The Tonight Show, where he challenged Zsa Zsa Gabor to distinguish California wine from French wine (she couldn’t tell the difference).

Edelman also blurred the line between PR and politics, influencing Congress on behalf of clients like Concorde and helping to build public support for Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial Wall project in Washington, DC. Later in his life, he became more active in environmental causes, promoting Star-Kist Tuna’s dolphin-safe nets and other related initiatives.

After early successes, Edelman PR quickly expanded in the 60′s and 70′s, moving into the Asian market in the 1980′s and achieving its current status as the world’s largest PR firm with more than 4000 employees in 60 offices from Chicago to Beijing.

While his company achieved considerable international influence, Edelman’s best-known creation may be Butterball’s Turkey Talk, a customer service innovation that remains extremely popular today.

Edelman was also known around the industry for his ethics and professional advocacy efforts. He was very active in the charity world, contributing to such groups and causes as Save the Children and the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. He received many accolades during his life, including his alma mater’s first Dean’s Medal for Professional Achievement and Public Service along with the Publicity Club of Chicago’s first Lifetime Achievement Award and the Public Relations Society of America’s highest honor, the Gold Anvil.

Edelman is survived by his wife Ruth, daughter and Edelman senior vice president Renee, sons John (who currently serves as managing director of Edelman PR’s Global Engagement and Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives) and Richard (who currently serves as the firm’s president and CEO) and three granddaughters.

At Edelman PR’s 50th anniversary in 2002, the company’s founder said that “We’ve had a lot of fun, and I think we’ve carved out our own style of how we do things.”

We doubt that any within the PR industry would disagree.

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