Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Harold Burson (1921-2020), the PR giant!

Updated 15 Feb, 2024 10:21am
"He saw the potential for PR to be a global enterprise, and he did more than anyone to professionalize the discipline."

The passing away of ‘the most influential PR person of the 20th century’ is critical to this time and age (the 21st century) in terms of finding someone with his foresight and calibre and able to wear that mantle responsibly - as did Harold Burson.

They don’t come like him anymore and it would probably take courage and leadership for successors to reinvent the prerequisites of PR in a global space that is becoming more disruptive with every passing day.

Burson played that distinguished and critical role to make the world he lived, worked and indulged in, a better place for the generations that are in his boots today. Therefore, we, as practitioners of multiple mediums of communications, have a solemn responsibility to use this management tool of bridging relationships – national, corporate and personal – effectively.

To understand that “he saw the potential for public relations to be a global enterprise…” speaks volumes of a man who, coming back from reporting World War II in 1946, tried to figure out why it was necessary to have a good communications handle on how nations and industry wanted to move on. To turn a new page and be perceived in a world that was rushing towards new inventions and business models.

IBM were experimenting with their first computers during this period; there were no Twitter handles then and neither the notion of ‘fake news’ exist. Everything that stemmed from the minds and pens of great wordsmiths like Burson and his contemporaries were the last word. In the true sense, his persuasive pen, which churned out strategic messaging, was mightier than the sword! No wonder, he went on to be recognised as the most influential PR person of the 20th century.

The world at that time, with the US in the limelight, was on the threshold of development and industrialisation. It was a time of high economic growth and prosperity for America during the period 1945 to 1964 - and Burson was at the centre of all that was evolving. He saw the opportunity, for the US and for the profession of public relations, took decisive measures, invested in people and in a countrywide infrastructure and achieved his goals with conviction and success.

Burson opened his PR business in 1953 and found himself immersed in everything that was occurring at that time. He identified opportunities and took up challenges that were critical to the country, economy and businesses. He nurtured talents and built a team of people with exceptional skills. He formalised the research function and used data to develop strategies to measure the impact of campaigns.

“As a living legend in the business of public relations Harold Burson was always accessible, he was always surrounded by throngs of people, mainly young professionals from various agencies at industry events. He was humble, modest and gracious but always precise and forever one to offer a suggestion with a smile,” writes John Graham of Fleishman Hillard.

Burson was a thinker, emphasising the importance of ethical practice and of treating PR as a management discipline. The critical part of that definition is that “there are two components that comprise public relations: one is behaviour, the other is communications.” Of the two, he clearly saw corporate behaviour as the most important: “Our job as public relations professionals is two-fold. It is to help our clients or employers fashion and implement policies and actions that accord with the public interest.”

This humble PR giant was often called upon during crisis situations, developing a reputation for deft crisis management that made him a favourite of embattled corporations and foreign governments. From advising Johnson & Johnson in the aftermath of the cyanide-laced-Tylenol murders in 1982 to representing Union Carbide in 1984, after the gas-leak that killed 2000 people in a pesticide plant in Bhopal, Burson was the go-to-man for deliverance.

He told New York Times, “We are in the business of changing and moulding attitudes and we aren’t successful unless we move the needle, get people to do something. But we are also a client’s conscience, and we have to do what is in the public interest.”

In a speech to the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education in October 2004, he offered his definition of PR as the “discipline that helps reconcile institutional or individual behaviour in a manner that accords with the public interest and, when effectively communicated, creates opinions or attitudes that motivate target audiences to specific courses of action.”

He founded Burson-Marsteller in 1953 via a partnership with ad executive Bill Marsteller and then built the firm into an industry powerhouse with $4.4 million in revenue by 1969 and then $64 million, with 2,500 employees in 50 offices, a decade and a half later. In 1979, Burson sold the firm to Young & Rubicam, which was in turn bought by WPP in 2000. He stepped down as Burson’s CEO in 1988. Burson-Marsteller was merged with Cohn & Wolfe into BCW in early 2018.

Before starting Burson-Marsteller, he had already planted the seed of his future empire by establishing the Harold Burson Public Relations firm in 1946, soon after the war had ended.

According to Donna Imperato, global CEO of Burson Cohn & Wolfe: “He was the wisest person I knew, with the highest level of integrity, humility and kindness. Harold inspired tens of thousands of public relations and communications professionals around the world. His values and affinity for life will always be the core DNA of Burson Cohn & Wolfe. It has been my extraordinary privilege to have known Harold Burson as a colleague, a mentor and a friend.”

Burson was born in Memphis on February 15, 1921, the son of English immigrants, Maurice and Esther (Bach) Burson. He graduated from high school at 15 and worked his way through the University of Mississippi writing articles (at 14 cents per column inch) for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.

In addition to his career in PR, Burson made many contributions to society, serving as a presidential appointee to the Fine Arts Commission, founder of the Kennedy Centre Corporate Fund, a board member of the World Wildlife Fund, and an executive council member for the Centre for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, his alma mater.

Menin Rodrigues is a corporate communication consultant, writer and