Public relations giant Edelman advised senior University officials on communications strategy related to the Israel-Hamas war after Harvard’s initial response provoked a wave of backlash, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, the University’s public relations arm, engaged Edelman — the largest global communications firm by revenue — to provide HPAC with external support on PR work and communications strategy.
In particular, Edelman assisted HPAC with its messaging about the fighting in Israel and Gaza, according to the source. The University faced fierce criticism over its initial statement about Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that failed to directly condemn Hamas and did not address a viral and controversial student statement.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain did not deny Edelman’s account with Harvard in response to a request for comment but declined to comment on any relationships with external vendors.
Richard W. Edelman ’76, the CEO of Edelman, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the firm’s work for Harvard.
Harvard was engulfed in crisis after its first statement on the fighting in Israel and Gaza led some prominent donors to end their relationships with the University and one prominent member of Congress to publicly call on Harvard President Claudine Gay to resign.
University administrators, including Gay, have worked overtime over the past two months to contain the backlash and ease tensions on a bitterly divided campus, releasing eight additional “messages to the community” related to the Israel-Hamas war and its impact on Harvard.
Gay’s subsequent statements have announced new efforts to tackle antisemitism on campus, condemned Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry, reaffirmed freedom of speech, and, controversially, censured the pro-Palestine slogan “from the river to the sea.”
HPAC’s relationship with Edelman offers some insight into how the University’s public relations team has sought to ease tensions on a divided campus and repair relationships with prominent Harvard affiliates that have strongly criticized the University over its initial messaging.
Edelman is not the only external PR firm to work with HPAC this year. Stephanie Cutter, a leading Democratic political strategist, has served as a public relations consultant to Gay since her selection as the University’s 30th president in December 2022.
While Richard Edelman did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article, he wrote about Gay’s response to the controversy in an Oct. 20 blog post on Edelman’s website titled “Why Leaders Must Speak Up.”
Edelman wrote in the blog post that the initial statement from the University was “lampooned as weak and ambivalent,” before Gay issued a follow-up statement that “clarified her views” by directly condemning Hamas and distancing the University from the controversial student statement.
“In this case, it was important to establish the yellow lines for debate, then to create a context for discussion that put humanity at the core instead of politics,” Edelman wrote.
“Leaders need to move quickly, be clear, provide supporting facts, and avoid having to make multiple statements,” Edelman added. “The coming months will be trying for business and academic leaders alike as the Middle East descends into armed conflict.”