Daniel J. Edelman: A PR Man’s Greatest Coups
From an early age, public relations mogul Daniel J. Edelman knew how to get his message across. When he was six years old and confined to his room with the mumps, he tapped out messages to his siblings on a typewriter and slipped them under his door. In 1952, he founded an eponymous Chicago-based outfit that eventually grew into the world’s biggest PR firm, with 63 offices in 26 countries, with corporate clients ranging from Sara Lee and KFC to Microsoft and General Electric.
Companies flocked to Edelman, who died on Jan. 15 at age 92 in Chicago, because he was a master at coming up with ingenious, innovative strategies for getting a brand name to stick in the public’s oft-fickle frontal lobes.
Here are five of his cleverest strategies:
- The publicity tour. When Edelman was doing public relations for Toni in the early 1950s, the hair care company already had a brand mascot, the Toni Twins. But he got the idea of sending the twins – actually, six sets of actresses – on a coast-to-coast road trip in trailers designed to look like the Toni home perm kit, in which they would do newspaper interviews, make public appearances, and be interviewed on local TV talk shows. The “Which Twin Has the Toni?” tour became a template for national media publicity blitzes. But Edelman also had an instinct for capitalizing on unexpected opportunities. When one set of the twins was arrested in Tulsa, Okla., for practicing cosmology without a license, he quickly alerted the Associated Press, and then leveraged that coverage to get them a guest slot on NBC’s Today show.
- Celebrity spokespeople. When he represented the California wine industry in the 1960s, Edelman got the notion of hiring horror movie actor Vincent Price as a spokesman – one of the first uses of an established celebrity in a PR campaign. Edelman got Price booked as Johnny Carson’s guest on the Tonight Show, and staged a wine-tasting test that included actress Zsa Zsa Gabor as a judge. He later hired baseball superstar Nolan Ryan to hawk Advil, and women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem to promote birth control pills, according to an Associated Press account.
- The consumer help line. In 1981, Edelman helped raise raise the profile of the Butterball brand of frozen turkey by establishing the first-ever consumer help line, where novice cooks could consult company experts for advice on how to handle one of the hefty, difficult-to-prepare birds.
- The humorous comparison. When former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis announced that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in the late 1980s, Edelman took ingenious advantage of Dukakis’ low profile. He released data showing that Morris the Cat, the mascot of his client’s 9 Lives cat food, had higher name recognition than the candidate.
- The surprise appearance. When actress Elizabeth Taylor shocked the world by marrying construction worker Larry Fortensky in 1991, TV reporters were barred from the ceremony, so they gathered outside, desperate for something to write about. Edelman, who had foreseen the situation, arranged for a KFC executive to show up dressed as the late Col. Harland Sanders and serve them fried chicken, which they subsequently mentioned on broadcasts. As Edelman’s son Richard told the AP: “You can’t make these stories up. My father had these kinds of ideas.”
Here’s an interview in which Edelman talks about his experiences during World War II, working in a U.S. psychological warfare unit in Europe.