But Cohn was unique in his vision of what public relations could do for clients, and he eventually launched one of the biggest international PR firms in the world, known today as Burson, Cohn & Wolfe.
In one memorable campaign, members of the Men’s U.S. Olympic Basketball team gave out Cabbage Patch dolls made in their likeness to children at hospitals. The donations garnered outsized press akin to what would be a social media bonanza today, said Rob Baskin, a longtime friend and colleague.
Cohn died Tuesday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he lived with his wife June in a retirement community near the University of Alabama. He was 88.
Credit: Family of Bob Cohn
Credit: Family of Bob Cohn
Born in Brooklyn, Cohn and his brother Paul lost their parents as young children within a year of each other and went to live with relatives. The tragic loss had a profound impact on her father, Cohn’s daughter Terri Justice said.
“He was an incredible father,” she said. “And I think he was an incredible father because he didn’t grow up with one, he didn’t grow up with a mom. He always wanted to have a family. It was very important to him.”
In 1952, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served for four years in Texas, Alaska and Montgomery, Alabama. During that period, he edited base newspapers, launching his career in journalism. He later covered the civil rights movement, where he had a front seat to the racism that permeated the South at the time.
“He was a Brooklyn Jew in segregated Alabama,” Justice said. “That’s a big step from where he grew up.”
Cohn later partnered in Atlanta with Norman Wolfe to create Cohn & Wolfe, a name that would become legendary in public relations. Their clients included some of the nation’s biggest corporations, including Kodak, Marriott, Federal Express, Hasbro, Haynes and an upstart, ambitious local chicken chain calling itself Chick-fil-A.
“When we started with Chick-fil-A, they had eight stores,” said Jim Overstreet, who was Cohn’s sounding board and arguably worked closest to him. “Their headquarters were a series of house trailers all hooked together with little walkways down there in Hapeville. You had to walk through what seemed like a maze to get to marketing. Look at them now.”
Steve Robinson, Chick-fil-A’s former chief marketing officer, said Cohn was never short on ideas, including convincing a reluctant Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s founder, to make appearances from time to time at store openings to create memories for fans. Cohn even came up with a unique way to publicizes the company’s groundbreaking on their headquarters in South Fulton.
“One of Bob’s hair-brained ideas, which turned out to be really fun, was a chicken race out at the job site,” he said. “He was not only a good friend, but a good mentor. I grew to love Bob as a person.”
But it was one of their biggest clients, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, that would put the company and Cohn on the map. Among his campaigns for the beverage giant was convincing Coke during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid to set up Olympic pins exchanges for fans to trade the keepsakes, a strategy that proved salient and remains popular.
Cohn was such a fan of the Olympics that his office and home became a museum of sorts for all things associated with the Games, including a formidable set of Olympic torches. Many of the torches were later donated to the Atlanta History Center as part of its Olympics collection, friends and family said.
“He truly was a pioneer in this industry in Atlanta,” fellow Atlanta PR legend Bob Hope said. “Public relations was very much New York-focused, Chicago-focused, when he started. Bob brought it to the South.”
As his company grew, so did the talent that worked there, many of whom would later go on to launch their own businesses or become titans in the field, including Baskin, Overstreet and Fleishman.
“Bob Cohn was a creative genius who brought out the best in the people who worked for him,” said former employee Mitch Leff, who now operates his own firm Mitch Leff & Associates. “His legacy is the hundreds of incredible PR professionals who went through the doors of his agency and then went on to work at corporations or who started their own agencies.”
A celebration of Cohn’s life will be held in Barge Commons at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta on Saturday, Aug. 5 at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, please direct donations to Hospice of West Alabama, 3851 Loop Road, Tuscaloosa, AL 35404 or you can donate online at www.hospiceofwestal.com.
Cohn is survived by his wife of more than six decades, June Hubbard Cohn; daughter Terri Justice (David); son Greg Cohn (Amy) and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter Susan Cohn Polay.