Iconic Chicago-based PR firm behind ads for KFC, Sara Lee, celebrates 70 years of business

Richard Edelman
Richard Edelman with his father's desk. 70 years ago, his father started Edelman, a Chicago-based public relations firm. The firm is commemorating that anniversary with a new museum. Photo credit Lisa Fielding

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) — Richard Edelman didn't exactly have a normal childhood.

"Orville Redenbacher came to our house and taught me how to make popcorn,” he said, “I also got to meet Miss America Phyllis George, who was married to the owner of KFC. I got to meet Colonel Sanders. I met Charlie Lubin, who started Sara Lee. I grew up around all these characters.”

He grew up with two other siblings on Chicago’s Near North Side as son of legendary ad man Dan Edelman.

"My father moved here to work for the Toni Company, which was doing home permanents, and he invented the media tour,” Richard Edelman said. “He sent seven sets of twins all over America.

Edelman smiled: “That was the beginning.”

"He set up his own agency in the Merchandise Mart with Toni and another Chicago-based company with Sarah Lee, and then [it] became a national PR company with California Wines, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Brown Forman,” Edelman said. “He was a genius at marketing."

Orville Redenbacher Edelman museum
Edelman has handled advertising for Orville Redenbacher, KFC, Samsung, and many more companies. Photo credit Lisa Fielding

As a firm, Edelman is behind some of the most famous household brands.

"Dan recognized the potential of TV and got people to go on air as expert spokesmen, who were celebrities or doctors,” Edelman said. “He actually persuaded one of the Gabor sisters to go on TV and say she prefered California wine over Italian wine, which was a big deal. We then started getting into corporate in the late ’90s for Walmart and GE.”

The firm then got into the crisis management business.

"We handled the burning phones for Samsung and the United problem with Dr. Dao a few years ago," he said.

Dan Edelman
Dan Edelman founded his eponymous public relations firm in 1952. Photo credit Lisa Fielding

Edelman said his plan wasn't to follow in his father's footsteps.

"I had no idea that I would go into the business,” he laughed. “I thought I'd be some corporate type. At 23, I was a recent grad from B-school, and my dad said an ad agency was trying to buy him and asked me to work with him, and here I am in year 44.”

To mark 70 years in Chicago, the agency unveiled a brand new museum chronicling the company's history. It’s now the centerpiece of Edelman's new space in Fulton Market.

Edelman museum
To commemorate 70 years, Edelman has chronicled its work in a new museum. Photo credit Lisa Fielding

"We are now in an old warehouse space on Canal,” Edelman said. “This museum features my dad's desk, his war service, and then 70 years of Edelman's PR work. This actually grounds the company in our origin in Chicago at the Mart and it shows the breadth of work we've done and the importance of the work we've done."

Edelman said over the years, PR and marketing has evolved in so many ways.

"The business has changed fundamentally because the number of people who actually watch ads has diminished,” he said. “There is much more social media, which means the power is no longer just in the hands of mainstream media, so we have to talk to consumers, employees because they are also creators.”

“The power of influencers is expanding massively. The speed with which campaigns win or lose, and the idea that somehow you can be in a crisis in 15 minutes is all new."

Dan Edelman's desk is featured in the Edelman exhibit. Photo credit Lisa Fielding

Edelman said the pandemic and the George Floyd murder was a game changer for them.

"We did 300 assignments for our clients in the wake of the murder of George Floyd,” he said. “We've helped companies change the narrative, the situation. We worked with Unilever on Good Humor Ice Cream to change the song on the trucks. ‘Turkey in the Straw’ turned out to be a racist, minstrel song. For the 100th anniversary of Good Humor, we changed the song and changed the way kids thought of ice cream."

In recent years, the agency has also added the Edelman Trust Institute and a Gen Z Lab.

Edelman's three daughters are now taking the company into its third generation, something he said would make his father smile.

Photo credit Lisa Fielding

Edelman is now the largest PR company in the world. It employs 7,000 people in 60 cities.

"My dad always instilled me to hustle, to come up with big ideas,” he said.

"We've been part of so many company's journeys. G3 is now ready to take the company forward." he added.  "I think my dad would not be just amazed, but so proud that his dream came true. He was a dreamer. He had this crazy vision that this company in the Merchandise Mart could be a global firm. He was a competitive guy, and so am I."

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Lisa Fielding