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Tag-teaming for Success

Pam Edstrom, CLA alumna and entrepreneur
January 14, 2015

Pam Edstrom

Pam Edstrom
Pam Edstrom
The company:
Waggener Edstrom Worldwide

The mission:
Communication strategies
that will help innovative,
creative companies move
forward

It didn’t look like a promising start on the day in 1982 when Pam Edstrom began her job at Microsoft. She had no desk, no file cabinet, no staff, no phone and no title. “When [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer asked what I’d like for a title, I said, ‘Director of Public Relations,’” says Edstrom. So that’s what she became.

Two years later, Microsoft was her client. More specifically, Microsoft was a client of the new public relations firm that Edstrom and her partner Melissa Waggener had launched. Thirty years after that launch, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide is one of world’s most successful public relations firms. Headquartered in Seattle, the firm employs some 800 employees and has offices on six continents.

“I would encourage people to follow
their passion,” says Edstrom. “You
spend so much of your life working,
it should be something that really
excites you.”

Edstrom did not start out with this job in mind. In fact, she didn’t start out thinking about any specific job at all. Instead, she says, she began with an inquisitive and open mind that found a home in the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts.

“The University and the liberal arts exposed me to a broader world of ideas, and that fueled my curiosity,” says Edstrom, who graduated with a degree in sociology. “Studying the behavior of groups was super interesting to me. Although it didn’t necessarily equip me for a specific job, it was a huge benefit in terms of the ability to think and to organize and express my thoughts in a way that makes sense. I consider it foundational as a way to go out in the world and be successful.”

Her own first step “out in the world” was a job in Portland on the communications staff at Tektronix, an international electronics firm whose employees included more than two dozen communications professionals. Here she found camaraderie, an opportunity to learn the ropes with like-minded professionals—“an internship,” she likes to call it—and an auspicious friendship with a colleague named Melissa Waggener.

By 1983, Edstrom was at Microsoft and Waggener was making plans to start her own public relations firm. Then, she asked Edstrom to join her. The result was the public relations industry’s version of Cagney and Lacey: two strong women balancing each other while committing to the same vision.

“We had a vision and then actually implemented it,” says Edstrom. “We saw that communication could play a vital role for helping businesses move forward. Fundamentally, that’s what the company was founded on.”

Edstrom likes to use London’s Suffragettes of the early 20th century as role models for what such a vision means in practice. At a time when women had no access to media, the London women got creative in their campaign for equal rights. They chalked meeting times and places on the sidewalk. They hired a dirigible to drop leaflets explaining their cause. Finally, they threw eggs and chained themselves to railings as a means to get arrested. If they went to court, they reasoned, the news media would have to pay attention to them.

Although Edstrom has never actually advised her clients to become inmates, the principle is the same. “If your regular communication channels are blocked, you must get creative,” she tells them. “What’s the business opportunity that you want to take advantage of? Second, who are the customers you want to talk to? Then you figure out what’s the most effective way to reach them.”

This requires the broad and innovative thinking that finds its roots in the liberal arts, says Edstrom. “Rather than trying to become an entrepreneur right away, it’s better to articulate what value you can get from a liberal arts education,” she says. “I would encourage people to follow their passion. What are you most curious about when you look out on the world? What is interesting? You spend so much of your life working, it should be something you can bring your passion to and that really excites you.”

But if you don’t start out as an entrepreneur, she says, be sure to do an internship. It’s something her own company thrives on.

“It’s an experience and they get paid for it,” she says. “We see them as professionals; they’re actually assigned to teams to see what skills and expertise they have. We probably end up hiring 80 percent of them on average. It’s important to us to have new blood, new ideas, different ways of thinking, different ways of viewing the world. We benefit and the students benefit. And that’s a total win-win for them and for our organization.”

And if these interns don’t have official titles yet, they do have other benefits that Edstrom didn’t have in 1982: desks, phones, and colleagues. It’s a great start.

Pam Edstrom passed away in March 2017. We continue to honor her legacy and celebrate the wonderful example she set for students.

What she says:

“There are two things that are really important. One is that you deliver on your promise. Second is chemistry. That’s when your clients feel like you are a partner with them and they like working with you. Then there’s actually a third: Always be ahead of them.”

“Find what you’re passionate about. Be curious!”

“Any time that I had to make a risky decision, I always asked myself what would be the worst thing that might happen. Well, the worst that can happen is that you die. I realize I’m not going to die with this decision, so that’s a huge problem I don’t have to worry about. Then I would go to the next-worst thing: I might get fired. Could I deal with that? Well, yes. I wouldn’t like it but I could deal with it.”