Pam Edstrom: voice behind Microsoft
WE in the News
by Rachel Lerman
Pam Edstrom, a leading public-relations executive who helped shape Microsoft’s image for more than 30 years, died Tuesday after a four-month battle with cancer. She was 71.
Edstrom was one-half of the name behind one of the largest independent public-relations firms in the world: Bellevue-based WE Communications, previously known as Waggener Edstrom Communications.
She served as Microsoft’s first PR director before helping to launch Waggener Edstrom, where she was the commanding voice behind Microsoft’s story as the software firm grew from a small technology company to the powerhouse it is now.
She was the ultimate truth-teller, her colleagues said, and an inspiring mentor for countless young public-relations professionals.
She was also hysterically funny, said Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Edstrom’s longtime business partner and CEO of WE.
“We would laugh until we cried all the time,” Waggener Zorkin said. “Sometimes in public.”
She remembers a time when she and Edstrom met with their general manager, who also oversaw human resources. He was reading off statistics on the company, and told them the firm had 86 people.
Edstrom promptly stood up from her chair and flopped on the floor.
“She landed on the floor and she didn’t even try to break her fall,” Waggener Zorkin said. “She said, ‘I can’t believe we have 86 people! You’re kidding me!’ ”
The pair had set a goal of reaching 50 people, and had been so busy they didn’t realize how much the company had grown.
It took Waggener Zorkin three attempts to persuade Edstrom to join her small public-relations venture in the early 1980s. The two knew of each other when they both worked at Portland technology company Tektronix but had never worked directly together.
When Waggener Zorkin first approached Edstrom to join her firm, Edstrom declined. She had just taken the job as director of PR at Microsoft and wasn’t looking for another opportunity. Not one to back down easily, Waggener Zorkin drove to Edstrom’s home in Seattle to try again. No luck.
It wasn’t until Waggener Zorkin and her four-person team made a presentation to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and company President Jon Shirley — which Edstrom sat in on — that she was impressed.
“She said yes,” Waggener Zorkin said. “It was almost like, ‘I don’t really know you, but I heard your vision and what you want to do, and let’s make it happen.’ ”
They certainly made it happen. WE Communications now has 700 employees and continues to handle a significant portion of Microsoft’s communications work, as well as public relations for technology companies across the world.
From WE’s early days, Edstrom led the firm in a way that was not typical of PR strategy at the time. She called it the “full embrace” strategy, said John Markoff, a longtime New York Times technology reporter.
Markoff first met Edstrom when he was just starting out as a tech reporter, and he traveled to Bellevue to meet with a small technology company — Microsoft — to write a story for InfoWorld. The two would go on to work together for more than 30 years.
“She was the architect, she created the image for Microsoft,” Markoff said.
Edstrom believed in bringing reporters in and giving them a sense of the company and its executives, rather than the typical Silicon Valley PR strategy of the time, which was to keep a polite distance. She saw reporters as her customers, he said.
Markoff remembers when Edstrom once hosted a “pajama party” with about 20 members of the national media. They all traveled to Bill Gates’ family retreat near Hood Canal and spent a weekend with the executive, learning about Microsoft.
“That was absolutely a Pam show,” Markoff said.
It gave reporters a chance to understand the company at a deeper level, he said, a valuable trait for Microsoft as it grew.
Edstrom was always thinking one step ahead, always seeking out what would come next, said Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s vice president of corporate communications and the former president of WE Communications.
“Pam was just a really creative, energetic, idea machine,” he said.
When blogs and social media started to emerge in the early 2000s, Edstrom immediately jumped on the trend. She started asking, “What’s our point of view on this? How do we train people for it?” Shaw said. She knew it would change the way the firm acted, and she wanted to be ready.
As Microsoft continued to grow, WE started to realize it couldn’t easily deal with the volume of phone calls from reporters that rolled in, especially when news broke. That’s when Edstrom’s staff created the Rapid Response team, which still exists today, Shaw said.
That team operates under a single email address and has its own phone number for reporters — often those who are unfamiliar with Microsoft — to reach out to when news broke.
Even after Shaw left WE to join Microsoft, Edstrom continued to serve as his mentor.
“Every single time I met with her, she asked, ‘What could we be doing better? What are we not doing enough of? Where can we improve?’ ” he said. “She was always pushing to be better.”
She made everyone around her better, Waggener Zorkin said, and she made the firm better.
Edstrom and Waggener Zorkin took countless long walks together to chat and talk through ideas, or to discuss the books they read at the same time. They would walk up and down the streets of Portland, Edstrom racewalking — her normal pace.
“No one could keep up with Pam, really, in an airport,” she said.
Edstrom cherished time with her family, including her grandkids, whom she and her husband would happily take on vacations to Disneyland.
Her compassion stretched to colleagues and friends as well. She would send cards or small gifts or leave quick phone messages to let people know she was thinking of them.
Waggener Zorkin estimates she must have 3,000 cards from Edstrom.
“When you build a company, you need to be able to wear a lot of hats,” Waggener Zorkin said. “Mine was the relentless pursuit of possibility. Pam would see that, too, but she was pragmatic about how you would make that happen. … We are very, very different. But we always had 100 percent alignment on where we were going.”
Edstrom is survived by her husband, Joseph Lamberton, daughter Jennifer Edstrom, stepchildren Suzanne Goodman, Todd Lamberton, Bryan Lamberton, Greg Lamberton and their spouses, and her seven grandchildren. Cards can be sent to the family at WE Communications, 225 108th Ave. N.E., Suite 600, Bellevue, WA, 98004.