Above: “Mainstream media is read by less than half of the people in the United States and Western Europe,” Edelman (MBA 1978) says. “The opportunity is to build your own communities, create your own content, and go direct to the end user.” (photo by Chris Sorensen)
My father started Edelman in Chicago in 1952. His biggest risk was putting me in charge of the New York office in 1981, when I was 27 years old. In five or six years, that office grew from 12 employees to 100. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Part of what keeps me going is that my family name is on the door, and I have a dream about my kids succeeding me. But the second piece is, oh my God, this business is different than it was even five years ago. “Public relations” is not a complete description of our work anymore.
Everything is being driven by brand democracy—the feeling that we can express ourselves and better control what’s going on in the world through our purchasing decisions.
Our research shows that two-thirds of people, across all age groups and incomes, now buy or boycott a brand based on where it stands on the political or social issues they care about. More than half say that brands can do more to solve social ills than government.
Trust is the central issue for global institutions. CEOs have to speak out on societal issues, because their employees expect to work for a company with values consistent with their own.
Wolverine, the work-boot company, has a program called Project Bootstrap focused on reskilling blue-collar workers—which is perfect in a time of automation. It’s genuine, because it fits with who their customer is, and it means something. Companies need to stay in their own swim lane.
I still love doing crisis work, because it’s high-stakes, it’s intense, and the advice you give is deeply valued. When the outcome is positive, it’s very rewarding. I suppose it’s like being a doctor. The patient is healed.
The greatest gift HBS gave me is that I never freak out. I learned to think: OK, what’s the environment? What’s the strategy? Don’t commit yourself too much. And don’t panic. Just examine your options.
Editor’s note: Harvard Business School is a client of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide.
Class of MBA 1978, Section D