Celebrating the Life and Legacy of David Finn, The Last of the ‘Greatest Generation in PR’


Fay Shapiro, Publisher, CommPRO

The public relations industry lost a true pioneer on Monday with the passing of David Finn at age 100.   David was part of a group of practitioners that made up the “Greatest Generation in PR” (see accompanying story), which included such luminaries as Harold Burson, Dan Edelman and Al Golin.  They grabbed the reins of the PR industry and guided it into a prosperous, post-war America, blazing the trail for others to follow.  

David will be missed; however, he leaves behind a rich legacy and a great example for those yet to come.

Here are thoughts, stories and heartfelt memories from some of the many people whom David Finn impacted…

Remembering David Finn

David was one of the pioneers in the PR industry. I was amazed to read stories about his 100th birthday earlier this year in PR and Advertising trade publications from all around the world. He was a pioneer in finding ways for business to become involved with the arts. David was also a leader in emphasizing the importance of ethics in business.

I have said on numerous occasions that David was not only my father, but he was my best friend, a great boss, an inspiring mentor, and a terrific business partner. David was the source for so much of what I learned about the PR agency business and about the core values that are the heart and soul of Finn Partners.

Many people who know of David’s reputation as a founder of the PR industry don’t know that he was as well known in the art world as he was in the PR world. Over the course of many decades, David traveled around the world and took photographs of great sculpture in museums and in private collections. He is respected as one of the foremost photographers of great sculpture and over 100 art books have been published based on his photographs.

In David’s private life he spent many hours every evening painting. He started painting as a teenager and continued to paint every day for most of his life.

Most people also don’t know that David loved poetry and created a series of paintings inspired by some of his favorite poems. His all-time favorite poem was Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, and he created more than 40 paintings inspired by Eliot’s 60+ page poem. Most of those paintings are on the walls in our NY office, along with many other works of art that he created.

David’s painting inspired by Four Quartets were published in a book called Evocations of Four Quartets. In the introduction to the book he wrote:

“As I read and re-read the poem … virtually every word carried resounding overtones that reverberated throughout my being. It is a poem of strange and provocative paradoxes which hint at truths beyond our comprehension. Implicit in these enigmatic phrases are virtually indescribable, inexpressible essences of reality. They seemed to me to be magic incantations, and … they drew me with increasing intensity into the haunting rhythm of the poem and its mystical, overwhelmingly compelling statements about human experience.”

For years David carried a paperback copy of Four Quartets in his back pocket and whenever he had a few free minutes he read through parts of the poem. Over time he memorized every word of Four Quartets, which given its length was not an easy task.

I will read Four Quartets regularly for the rest of my life and whenever I do so I will commune with my father through our shared love of that poem.

My father was, and will always be, an inspiration to me and for this special company we are building together. Thank you for allowing me to share this with you, and for taking this time to get to know something about him.

—Peter Finn, Founding Partner, Finn Partners

The last of the Old Lions…with Dan Edelman. Harold Burson. Al Golin.

He brought clients into arts sponsorship 

He brought Japanese clients into the global communications world

He mentored three strong children, each of whom is running a major PR firm

He had a full life…was always magnanimous and warm….decency was his middle name

—Richard Edelman, Chief Executive Officer, Edelman

My first meeting with David Finn was as a client just over 40 years ago in Cleveland. My CEO at the time said to call him because he wanted to change the name of the company to better reflect our business to Wall Street. David did an amazing job, but what I remember most was him asking to come out a day or two early because he wanted to take photographs of the sculptures at the Cleveland Museum of Art. After our business meeting, David said how amazed he was at the art, and thanked me for the opportunity. I asked for any advice as I was beginning my career in public relations, and he said, just be authentic Larry and you’ll do just fine. Just like Harold, Dan and Al, he will be remembered for building a category of business whose impact continues to be enormous! 

—Larry Weber, CEO & Chairman, Racepoint Global

Hello everyone. I’m writing with great sadness to let you know the news that my father David Finn, founder of Ruder Finn and a founding father of the field of public relations, passed on Monday, October 18th  at the age of 100. He had a truly profound impact on the PR industry, and famously said, “our job is to help people define their character and establish their identity, to help them be themselves both privately and publicly” My father’s wisdom, mentorship, and vision lead me every day both personally and professionally.  

My father used to tell me that “time is elastic” and by this he meant, you can do anything. It’s what you want to hear from your father, from your boss, from a leader. He was an unusual person, and I’ll tell you a few stories just to give you a glimpse into his extraordinary life.  

My father was an incredibly passionate person: when JFK was assassinated, I remember he packed my siblings and I into the car and we drove to Washington for the funeral. He believed being present meant something, and I’ve carried that lesson with me.   

My father had an amazing sensitivity and expertise for art: I can recall him climbing to the top of a ladder in the Sistine Chapel to advise the Vatican on their restoration of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.  

My father loved to learn and grow even into his old age: he convinced his friend who was an Italian professor at Columbia, to have weekly sessions with him reading and talking about Dante’s Inferno in its original language, because he felt reading it in English wasn’t enough.  

My father was not only gifted as a photographer but also as someone who brings people together: when  he walked the streets downtown after 9/11 and was inspired to take photographs for a new book, which became Lamentation 9/11, he decided to call acclaimed author E. L. Doctorow out of the blue and ask him if he’d write the captions for his photos, and E.L. Doctorow not only gave David an audience the very next day, but also did indeed work with him on that book which my father’s very close friend Kofi Annan, at the time UN Secretary General wrote the foreword for.  

My father was a pioneer: he built Ruder Finn from a beginning renting out what used to be a linen closet at the Lombardy Hotel in 1948. He maintained that independence was important and today Ruder Finn remains one of the largest independently owned, global communications and creative agencies and we are proud to carry on his legacy. 

My father was 100 years old. He lived a full life. Throughout his life, my father’s PR work, his contribution as a photographer and author of more than 100 books, his foresight on the importance of ethics in PR and in business, his reputation and portfolio of life’s work – including the counsel he provided to three presidential administrations, major organizations and governments – will all be well remembered. He was a PR legend and a renowned artist whose early influence in shaping the communications landscape ultimately helped lay the groundwork for authentic leadership and stakeholder capitalism, cementing the role of communications in the C-suite and elevating Ruder Finn’s position as a global communications leader.  

I hope that you will join me in commemorating my father’s prolific legacy by visiting the website we have created in celebration of his achievements over the past century: https://www.rememberingdavidfinn.com/   

I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of my father’s, by Ralph Waldo Emerson: 

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

— Dr. Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO, Ruder Finn, Inc.

David Finn is last among the post-war PR pioneers–Dan Edelman, Al Golin, Harold Burson– who learned the PR trade in the service and eventually built global agencies which stand til this day. What distinguished David, though, was his passion for the arts, particularly for sculpture, which he used to photograph around the world. In fact, David was the first of the modern PR pioneers to use the arts on behalf of his clients. When you walked into his office– whose door always seemed to be open to employees– you’d feel as if you were inside an art gallery: framed b/w photos he would take of ancient sculptures, and dozens of books featuring these photos which he himself authored.  Also on the shelves there were these whimsical paper clip sculptures he had constructed. On his desk were always enough paperclips for you and he to “play with” as you brainstormed together about new ideas for clients or new business.  He made everyone feel warm and welcomed in that office, and underneath all that genius and brilliance he exuded, was such humanity and good nature.  He was a true pioneer, for sure. But mostly, I’ll remember him as a real mensch.

—Shelley Spector, Founder, The Museum of Public Relations

David Finn’s passing is truly the end of an era.  I did not know him well, but I was touched when he invited me to lunch a few years after I co-founded my first employee-owned, PR agency, PT&Co., in 1990 with 12 colleagues.  David took me on a tour of the Ruder Finn offices and I saw his prodigious output of art, including photography, paintings and sculptures. Over lunch, we talked about the “soul of business” and our shared belief that businesses could be “a catalyst for positive social change.”

David Finn was a heroic figure in the PR industry who wanted to create positive change in the world and help business leaders do the same.  He viewed corporations as the central institutions in American life and believed that their public service was integral to commercial success.  In doing so, he laid the foundation for stakeholder capitalism long before that concept was broadly embraced.

In his book, The Corporate Oligarch, published by Simon & Shuster in 1969, David presciently predicted that corporate leaders would one day “officially declare money-making subordinate to community welfare in setting the goals of their corporate power.”

He explained in a 1998 interview that, “Our purpose is not to make a lot of money, it is to do something useful with our lives.”  I loved that he wanted Ruder Finn to remain independent so they would have total freedom to work for clients and causes they believed in, including doing pro bono work for them.  And I loved that he openly described himself as an “idealist.”

David’s influence extended far beyond public relations to so many realms – the arts, business, politics, religion, even global peace-keeping in Ruder Finn’s work for Kofi Annan and the United Nations.  Working in all these realms as an elder statesman of the PR world, David elevated the PR profession and set an example for practitioners, then and now.

RIP David Finn.  Thank you for your long and inspired service to the PR profession and your commitment to creating a healthier, happier and more humane world.  Your legacy lives on in your children, employees and former employees who carry forward your timeless values.

—With Love and Gratitude,
Patrice Tanaka, Founder & Chief Joy Officer
Joyful Planet LLC

I first met David Finn in 1985.  Before that I had venerated Ruder Finn as one of the classy and great PR agencies in the world.  But in 1985, RF was going through some turmoil with some employees who had plotted to leave the agency and abscond with a major account. 

I had just published my first book “The Persuasion Explosion” in which I made the case for a greater degree of ethics in the practice of public relations.  When I heard about the turmoil within RF I wrote David a letter expressing my empathy and vowing to do something about ethics in PR.  David immediately responded to my letter, thanked me and opened up the arms of RF to me. 

During the years that followed, we remained in close touch and as a fellow alumnus of the City College of New York, I attended his induction dinner into the CCNY Communications Alumni Hall of Fame. David had me meet his children and I in turn became active in the PRSA Counselors Academy and created an ethics committee — all because of David.  

David Finn was the epitome of ethics and honesty in public relations.  He was a giant and will never be forgotten.

—Art Stevens, Managing Partner, The Stevens Group

I’m sad to learn of the passing of David Finn. I’m sure my experience working for David at RuderFinn wasn’t exceptional but the four years I worked for him and the rest of the team at RF were in many ways transformative and changed both my insides and outsides. David was generous and kind to me and so many others. He was a different kind of leader — curious, always looking at things from a different angle, a point of view not considered. He taught me through his commitment to his art, his books and his travel that to be the best version of me that I should nurture all of me.  

So many memories but here’s one that sticks in my brain. David lived in Westchester and we would often head to Boston to visit clients and would fly little puddle-jumpers from the Westchester Airport, which in the mid-90’s, was one tiny building. One time we were flying and David, sitting in the window seat he always wanted, pointed to the ground and said something like this me, “can you believe how beautiful this is? How magical?” I have carried that moment with me all these years later and every time I sit at the window and look down, I remember David’s words. “Can you believe how beautiful?”

I have had the privilege of working for three great leaders in our industry — David, Dan Edelman and Harold Burson. And I am the better for it in all ways.

—Elliot Sloane, Managing Partner at ThroughCo Communications LLC

I met David Finn when I had just started my first job in PR. I was very green. Ruder Finn was a major force in the PR profession and David was very busy. Yet he made time to counsel  me with kindness and patience. Over the years I would turn to him occasionally and, as busy as he was, he always made time for me. I’m sure I was just one of many eager young professionals who David helped during the decades.

But most of all, as I followed  his career, I admired him for his sense of integrity. He epitomized the best in our profession – excellence, integrity and kindness.

—Leslie Gottlieb, 2019 President PRSA-NY, LG Strategic Communications

NOTE:  When I was Jack O’Dwyer’s publisher, I was fortunate to be part of the ‘Greatest Generation in PR’ event.  It is a treasured memory.  Much appreciation to my friends at ODwyerpr.com for sharing this feature with the CommPRO community.  We welcome your comments and memories about David Finn.  Please email to fays@commpro.biz 


May. 18, 2005

“It’s the best of times and, in some cases, the worst of times,” said Harold Burson, the octogenarian chairman and co-founder of WPP Group’s Burson-Marsteller who was part of the O’Dwyer Company’s “Greatest Generation in PR” event on May 17 at the Yale Club in New York.

Al Golin and Harold Burson at the O’Dwyer’s event.
Photos: Thomas Johnson, Camera One

Burson said that at industry gatherings in previous years, the PR industry would lament its fight for respect within an organization. “People would say, ‘Management doesn’t appreciate us,’” said Burson. “I don’t think that’s happening anymore.”

Burson was among featured panelists including Al Golin, chairman/co-founder of GolinHarris, Margery Kraus, founder/president/CEO, APCO Worldwide, Daniel Edelman, founder/chairman Daniel J. Edelman Inc., and David Finn, chairman/co-founder of the Ruder Finn Group.

The panelists regaled the audience with stories of their beginnings, some accidental, into the PR field and discussed past, present and future issues in PR.

Dan Edelman and David Finn

Edelman acknowledged recent controversies surrounding the industry while calling on PR to fill the void left by the diminishing importance of 30-second ad spots.

“We can’t have a meeting like this without realizing that we’ve been hit,” Edelman said in reference to recent PR controversies in the media. He also called on the industry to find “common ground” on video news releases.

He noted recent advertising cuts by pharmaceutical companies led to only slight sales drops, one of several signs that indicates “mass marketing is over.”

“The future is PR as the center,” Edelman said. “It’s the holding company. It’s not advertising. It’s not an adjunct.”

PR’s formative years

Burson said the evolution of PR from its formative years in the 1930s and ’40s hit a peak during the ’60s amid sweeping social change in the U.S. Calling the ’60s PR’s “most vibrant period,” he marked the ascendance of PR executives in corporations as a testament to its acceptance in the upper levels of companies.

David Finn jokes with the audience.

Burson noted PR directors eventually rose to be senior VPs during the ’80s, later becoming executive VPs and part of companies’ executive committees today. “I think that’s a tremendous recognition of the function of PR,” he said.

He said the advent of legislation like civil rights, consumers’ right to know and environmental regulations, all of which fostered sweeping social change, also evolved the question generally posed to a PR person from “What do I say?” to today’s “What do I do?”

David Finn said the practice of PR “really hasn’t changed that much” in the last 45 years as he read from a book about PR he wrote while in his 30s, which he said still applies to the field today.

Finn called on PR to own up to its ethical responsibilities in the face of pressure from clients or other forces. He called on PR pros to do their “homework,” to “come closer to the kind of research a lawyer does when he takes on a case.”

Golin urged PR pros not to listen to the ‘naysayers.’

“For the most part we’re in a difficult position,” he said of decisions sometimes faced when clients put pressure on a firm to perform. “We have to find a way to advocate the positions that we ourselves respect in the bottom of our minds.”

Golin channeled author John Naisbitt (Megatrends) in telling PR pros to balance high-tech with “high-touch.” Golin quipped about a colleague who was e-mailing and leaving voicemails from an office 30 feet away.

On the recent PR controversies, Golin warned: “We’re now becoming more of the problem than the solution.” But he said the industry has to be careful not to overreact.

“We can’t listen to the naysayers and we have to take some chances and keep taking risks,” he said. “We need to focus on reading the public mind, and not manipulating it.”

Margery Kraus sees significant growth potential for PR in Asia.

Burson lamented that CEOs today are under tremendous pressure to produce strong earnings results, pressure which he said has caused ethical lapses and some of the corporate scandals in recent years. He noted that earnings goals are no longer set by companies, but by outside entities. “Too many corporations are not going to be able to sustain investor confidence,” he said.

Kraus discussed the growth potential for PR overseas. “The world is shifting East,” Kraus said, in reference to the region where she thinks PR will show the most growth in coming years. She said growth in the Chinese market is obvious, but India could be second down the road and other areas like Malaysia and Indonesia could be surprises.

Asked how corporate social responsibility can benefit a company and be quantified, she said: “Many companies overseas are raising the standard of living in the areas in which they operate.” She also warned, “There are dangers now of not being a good citizen.”

Few regrets

The panelists were also asked about their best and worst moves during their decades at the helm of some of PR’s largest firms.

Jack O’Dwyer, editor-in-chief for O’Dwyer publications, at the May 17 event.

Burson, who said he got into PR for $50 week and a car (double his newspaper salary in Memphis), said his best decision in 45 years was to open an international office in Geneva in 1961 to give the company a global presence, even though B-M had not yet reached $1 million in revenue and only had about 25 people on staff. “That differentiated Burson-Marsteller,” he said. He also joked that he regretting becoming an “international expert” a year later.

Burson also said deciding not to grow the firm through acquisition whenever possible to create a consistent culture throughout the world was another good move.

Finn said his worst decision was opening offices all over Europe and in Japan, losing money, then closing them all and retreating to the U.S. He said it took awhile for the firm to build back.

Kevin McCauley, editor of O’Dwyer’s, introduced the ‘greatest generation’ panel.

His best decision was to focus on ethics from an early stage and to create an ethics advisory board 40 years ago, a move which came out of hiring a PR executive and a New York Times reporter who pled the 5th during the McCarthy communism hearings. After more 5th amendment “pleaders” came looking to Ruder Finn for jobs, Finn was prompted to seek advice from an ethicist and that led to the firm’s first ethics board, which is still in place and usually includes a priest, rabbi and other academics.

Mort Kaplan, professor of marketing communication, Columbia College Chicago, moderated the panel.

Edelman said his best move was bringing aboard his son Richard and let him lead the company. His worst move was to “assume that everybody you hire is honest.” Edelman said that the company dealt with a handful of people who were “as Richard would call them, ‘crooks’” over the years.

Pointing out the age of his fellow panelists, Edelman joked: “PR is supposed to be a great pressure business … but it’s a good field for longevity.”

Golin said he and his firm are at their best when they “follow our gut.” He said bad decisions have arisen “when we listen to the naysayers.”