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Pam Edstrom: A Passionate Risk-Taker

Posted: January 30, 2014, 6 p.m.
by Benjamin Ladrillono.

Image provided by Waggener Edstrom Communications
Image provided by Waggener Edstrom Communications


The phone rings for a second before an ecstatic and energetic voice comes from the other line. Although I have talked to her several times before, I have become starstruck. I am talking to one of the most prominent and enlightening people in the public relations industry, Pam Edstrom.

Pam Edstrom is the co-founder and agency partner of Waggener Edstrom Communications, which has won several awards throughout the years, including the “Top Places to Work in PR” by PR News in 2013. From working with Bill Gates before he was the Bill Gates to establishing one of the most successful PR agencies, Edstrom has many stories to share

However, before the storytelling begins, here are some of Edstrom’s tips to professionals.

  • Find your group of smart people
  • Find your passion
  • Find out if you are a risk-taker

To understand her tips, we must understand her story. Let’s meet Pam Edstrom.

Smart people

Edstrom credits her success to the people with whom she surrounds herself. To her, it is important to be with others who are smart, if not smarter than you. She preaches that if you work with smart people, you become smarter yourself.

“For me, it is a myth that anyone succeeds by themselves,” Edstrom said. “From discussing life and business to having someone to rant to, being with smarter people will enrich your professional life. It will give you the drive to achieve even more.”

One of the people she learned from was the father of computer technology, Bill Gates. Prior to establishing one of the greatest public relations firms, Pam Edstrom worked for Microsoft before it became the tech company that we know today. During her time with Microsoft, Edstrom learned from other influential people, including Jeff Raikes, former president of Microsoft’s Business Divison and curent CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Steve Ballmer, the current CEO of Microsoft. In fact, she told Ballmer that she would take the job if she could give herself her own title. She chose director of public relations.

Edstrom stated that the greatest takeaway she had working at Microsoft was the opportunity to see how businesses were run and set up to grow. Also, she was able to learn some of her leadership techniques from the trio of leaders at Microsoft.

“I had the chance to see how leaders develop to lead,” Edstrom said. “Having the opportunity to watch Bill, Jeff and Steve working on developing Microsoft was an incredibly great learning experience.”

Aside from learning that one’s development comes from being around those who can challenge you, she also learned several other things while working for Microsoft. She learned that leadership is crucial to the success of a company.

“If you have the right kind of leadership, and you have the people around you who will move you to your goal, you can accomplish anything,” Edstrom said.

Search for passion

Edstrom’s second tip is to truly find your passion. The last thing you want to do is to have a job for the rest of your life that you are not passionate about.

“There are days when work is not fun,” Edstrom said. “But if you have that passion, then the days that are not fun are not the ones you remember.”

Edstrom’s love for public relations came with her passion for communication. To her, if you look back at the major events in world history, communication has played the pivotal role.

“Think about World War II,” Edstrom said. “England was the only country that Hitler didn’t conquer. It was because Churchill motivated the people and kept them going through the rough times.”

Edstrom also pointed out the inspiration that communication has provided for America, especially with Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. To her, the public relations field is exciting and can truly make a difference in the world. It’s what gets her going every day.

Taking a risk

How can you get closer to your destination without taking a step forward? It is the same concept with taking a risk.

“You must figure out if you are a risk-taker,” Edstrom said. “If you aren’t, how can you get more comfortable with risk?”

Very early in Edstrom’s career, she realized the importance of taking risks. Whenever she had to do something difficult or convince clients to buy a proposal, she would ask herself, “What is the worse that can happen to me?”

“Honestly, the worse thing that can happen to me is dying,” Edstrom said. “So if I’m not going to die, why is this scary at all?”

The second worse thing that can happen to her is that she might get fired. But in her eyes, if she believes in the risk, that wouldn’t be a problem. And if it was, she could find another job. But to her, if losing her job is the second worse thing that can happen, there is no reason to not take a risk she believes in.

“People don’t take risks because they fear that they will fail or look stupid,” Edstrom said. “Well, who cares if you look stupid? At least you won’t die.”

Once she engrained this message in her mind, she was set free of fear. She realized that some things will fail, but even great ideas that are executed well might not turn out as expected. To her, failing is not bad. In fact, it is necessary.

“With failure, there is so much to learn that you can take forward,” Edstrom said. “With that knowledge, you can become better.”

Thirty years ago to today

On Jan. 16, 2014, Waggener Edstrom Communications celebrated its 30-year anniversary. Most of Waggener Edstrom Communications’ 52 offices and partners from around the world from Portland to Beijing to London celebrated. The hashtag #WE30 trended worldwide in celebration of the agency’s success.

“I can’t believe that 30 years have gone by. It’s really hard to believe,” Edstrom said. “It was really fun.”

The day after the celebration, everyone went back to work, but with Edstrom and Melissa Waggener Zorkin leading the way, the people are ecstatic in returning back to where they love to work. Edstrom noted how they talked about why they stayed at Waggener Edstrom Communication — they stayed because of how the visionary duo have led the company.

Every week, Edstrom sets time aside to meet with her employees. The only way she would miss this employee interaction is if she is sick. It has become a routine that she does religiously.

“To me, it is the number one most important thing for people to say that they love their job,” Edstrom said. “The way to do that is to have a super good relationship with their manager.”

However, Edstrom admits that she couldn’t have done it alone. Waggener Edstrom Communications would not be here today if it wasn’t with her collaboration with Melissa Waggener Zorkin.

“The greatest gift — and my greatest advantage — was to have such a great partner in Melissa,” Edstrom said.

This mindset and leadership have made Waggener Edstrom Communications the best place to work in the public relations industry. For Edstrom, it’s the people from whom she’s learned, her passion for the industry and the risks she has taken that have gotten her to where she is today. She is one of the most successful people in the public relations industry. But most importantly, it is her understanding of leadership illustrated in her three tips to professionals that has molded a company that many adore.

“Leadership is so important in creating an environment of collaboration and innovation. The innovation must have a goal to make an impact,” said Edstrom. “That is as relevant yesterday as it is today as it will be tomorrow.”

As public relations professionals, it is our job to tell stories. I am honored to tell Pam Edstrom’s.

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