When I heard the news that Dan Edelman, founder of the eponymous public relations firm, had passed away at 92, I was stunned.
Then I asked myself why. After all, 92 isn’t young, and I’d heard from former associates that Dan had been in poor health. Sad, yes, but why was it so shocking?
If you knew Dan, you would understand.
He was such a colorful and vigorous character, and so dominant during the time I worked at Edelman New York that I suppose I thought he’d live forever. And in a way, he will. His legacy is huge.
I was at Edelman for five years in the '90s—more than a pit stop, maybe, but less than a career. Make no mistake, I had my difficulties with Dan, and no doubt things have changed enormously since that slice of time in the agency’s history. But I was proud to have worked there and became a better practitioner and a far better business development person for the experience.
I learned a lot from Dan Edelman, both directly and through his son Richard. And at least one lesson has stayed with me all these years.
Hire smart people.
During one of Dan’s New York visits he gathered us in the conference room and exhorted us to “hire smart people.” He said it just like that. In fact, he shouted it like a football coach at halftime until the colleague standing next to me in the packed room rolled his eyes and murmured sardonically, “Good thing he didn’t see the ‘Dummies Wanted’ ad.”
We giggled, but as an example, Dan mentioned a recent D.C. office hire, a rising young public affairs star named named Leslie Dach.
“He’s so bright we didn’t know what to do with him,” explained Dan. “But we knew we had to hire him and figure it out.”
That was a classic Edelman move that I saw repeated over and over. Hire smart people.
It seems basic, but talent is not the most important thing in a creative service business, it’s the only thing. And what Dan was really saying that day was this: Take a risk. Don’t be afraid to bring in someone who’s smarter, better, more talented, or more aggressive than you. In fact, make that your mission.
I’ve reflected on the “hire smart people” mantra quite a bit since then, and it’s not as self-evident as it seems. In those nearly 20 years, I’ve worked and partnered with some truly excellent and talented PR professionals and savvy managers who couldn’t quite bring themselves to follow Dan’s advice. They didn’t try hard enough; they felt threatened; they thought they couldn’t afford it, or they simply wouldn’t risk it.
It pays to have high standards and to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Recruiting is only one example, but it’s a big one. Rather than hiring to fill a box in an org chart, Dan and Richard Edelman would often seek out the best and the brightest and shape a role for them. It didn’t always work out, but when it did, it was spectacular.
It’s that simple, and that difficult. Hire smart people. Thanks, Dan.
Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and creative director of Crenshaw Communications. She has been named one of the public relations industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week. A version of this story appeared on the Crenshaw Communications blog.