Pam Edstrom, who helped drive Microsoft to great heights starting in the company’s early days, passed away Wednesday after a four-month battle with lung cancer. She was 71.
To call Edstrom a force of nature—which many have—does not do her justice. She was very small in stature, but had an outsized personality, a raspy voice, great wit, and a knack for putting stories into perspective. This was the case not only for clients and her staff, but also for reporters, who by and large trusted her judgement.
She joined Microsoft (MSFT) in 1982 as director of public relations just as the PC revolution was gearing up. Two years later, she left to co-found Waggener Edstrom (now WE Communications) with Melissa Waggener Zorkin. That company has guided most of Microsoft’s PR efforts ever since. Zorkin paid tribute to Edstrom in a blog post.
Edstrom coached reporters before meetings with then Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, sometimes gently suggesting ways to reword a question that might elicit a fuller answer—or at least not shut the interview down.
In a scene that was often repeated, a reporter once called Edstrom to confirm a scoop about a senior Microsoft executive who was about to resign. Edstrom noted gently, as she often would, that “a reasonable person” might characterize a 60-something-year-old man leaving a company as more a retirement than a resignation. (Message received.)
She was one of a handful of public relations executives with whom most reporters gladly spent time. She was quote-worthy, although not often quoted. There was a reason for this. Edstrom really seemed to have deep respect for reporters, viewing them as another kind of client. So she always kept in mind what they needed to tell a story.
One lingering memory is a cocktail confab at Comdex, a massive tech fest that took place in Las Vegas every November; As most of the reporters drank white wine or light beer, Edstrom ordered gin and tonics.
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Reached via email, former Microsoft executive Brad Silverberg described Edstrom as a personal hero, who was much more than a communications or PR leader.
She would get me to really deeply understand my business, how to think strategically about it in a disciplined way. Only from that would I then begin to think about how to communicate – whether to employees or the outside world, including the press. She was so smart and insightful, and mentored me to grow as a business person. I really divide my career with a dividing line—before Pam, Marianne Allison, and Claire Lematta, and after.”
Allison and Lematta are other former Waggener Edstrom executives.
Silverberg also noted that Edstrom was keenly aware of the need to understand people—what excites them, scares them, intrigues them—and build communications from that.