Pam Edstrom, the sharp-witted communications pro who shaped the world’s impression of Microsoft for more than three decades as its first public relations director and then as a leader of its longtime PR agency, passed away Tuesday after a four-month battle with cancer.
Edstrom, 71, was a pioneer of modern technology communications — blending a no-nonsense, get-it-done approach with flexibility, a “golden heart,” an epic sense of humor and a natural gift for mentoring others, said Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Edstrom’s longtime business partner in WE Communications, the agency formerly known as Waggener Edstrom.
That combination of traits allowed Edstrom to match wits with the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer in the company’s early years, while later helping to grow the agency into a global firm with a roster of clients that now extends well beyond the Redmond technology giant.
“She leaves this indelible imprint on our people,” Waggener Zorkin said. “So many of our people, she mentored. She cared so much about that. She would do both the big things and the small things — whatever it took to make people have confidence, to show them she believed in them, and they could do anything.”
Pamela Newsome Edstrom was born in Minneapolis, Minn., in February 1946. She studied criminology at Portland State University and the University of Minnesota, before landing her first job in technology PR with Tektronix Inc.
Given her background in criminology, Edstrom would sometimes stop mid-sentence, reacting almost gleefully to whatever public relations mess she was dealing with at the time, ready to apply her forensic skills, Waggener Zorkin recalled.
“To her, it was all one big crime scene,” she said.
At 5-feet-tall, Edstrom was “a little force of nature,” said Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft’s vice president of corporate communications, a former Waggener Edstrom president who worked with Edstrom for many years at the agency before joining the tech company.
“Ideas dripped behind her where she walked,” Shaw said. “She always had an idea. She was unbelievably curious about everything.”
But they weren’t just ideas. One of Edstrom’s hallmarks, Shaw said, was her ability to connect public relations and storytelling to business objectives and goals, often stopping colleagues in their tracks by asking them which business problem they were actually trying to solve.
Shaw recalled working on the Windows XP launch when he was at the agency, and expressing frustration to Edstrom that things weren’t going as well as they should. She told him, “Why don’t you stop complaining and just write down what people should do?” He followed her advice, came up with a plan and presented it to their clients at Microsoft, which turned out to be a turning point in that critical launch.
“I think the thing about Pam is that she believed in you so hard that you believed in yourself,” he said.
Edstrom’s influence has extended much further into the industry, especially as veterans of the agency have taken high-ranking communications positions at major companies such as Expedia, Apptio, T-Mobile, Starbucks, Lenovo and many others.
“I saw so much genuine warmth between her and Melissa over the years – their partnership is almost marriage-level in terms of two people whose strengths really complemented the other,” said Corey duBrowa, a former Waggener Edstrom president who is now Starbucks’ senior vice president of global communications. “I don’t think that either of those women get the credit they deserve for having built such an amazing global business, for the culture that gave birth to what I call the ‘WE diaspora.'”
DuBrowa added, “Her role on the Microsoft business was legendary – the sheer scope and scale of what she accomplished in her years at the agency, and as Microsoft’s first in-house PR executive, really speaks for itself: the Windows 95 launch alone has probably served as a case study in excellence for most college-level journalism or communications programs.”
Edstrom recalled her early days at Microsoft in a 2016 commencement speech to the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts, reminding the audience that there was a time when Microsoft “was just a scrappy little start-up that no one expected to last. And Bill Gates was just 26 years old. The business media had NO awareness of or INTEREST in Microsoft,” she said, according to a transcript:
The problem I had to solve: how can a smaller company be seen and make an impact?
Undaunted, I called the New York Times technology editor. His crisp reply was: “I do not talk to PR people. Drop the material off.”
I really had to dredge up my courage after that disastrous call, and I managed to wrangle meetings with the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Time, and Business Week.
In the meantime, my next big project was Comdex, the major computer show of the time. 200,000 people were going to descend on Las Vegas. From the moment attendees stepped off the plane to the time the show ended, we were determined that all they would see was Microsoft Windows. So keychains on rental cars: Windows! Cocktail napkins in bars: Windows! Pillow cases in 10,000 hotel rooms: Windows!
We were the little company that could.
Six months later, Bill Gates graced the cover of Time. And a few days later, the technology editor at the New York Times called ME.
So if you know where you want to go. And the problem you’re trying to solve. Then think creatively and courageously…and maybe a little bit outrageously. And you will increase your odds of getting to success.
In addition to her husband, Joseph Lamberton, Edstrom is survived by her daughter Jennifer Edstrom, stepchildren Suzanne Goodman, Bryan Lamberton, Todd Lamberton and Greg Lamberton, and seven grandchildren.