Burson The Father Of Public Relations

Harold Burson, often described as the “Father of Public Relations,” has died at the age of 98. A Memphis native, Burson has been described by PRWeek as the 20th century’s most influential PR figure. He founded the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller with Bill Marsteller in 1953. The firm, which employs about 4,000, created the concept of total communication strategies that became the industry standard for integrated communications. PRWeek’s summary of his career described him as follows:

“The architect of the largest public relations agency in the world today, Burson-Marsteller chairman Harold Burson’s contribution is immense in many other ways besides. He started practicing the concept of integrated marketing decades before the term was even invented. He brought PR into the advertising business at Young & Rubicam as an equal (it’s arguably never been achieved again). His development of training programs set the benchmark that other agencies have only recently caught up with. He has personally sponsored and supported programs, industry bodies, universities and charities to improve the profession. His mentoring of talent has spawned a whole wave of ex-Burson PR agency startups. He created a unique Burson culture that still unites former employees. And last but certainly not least, his personal counsel has enlightened the thinking of boardrooms at many Fortune 100 companies and across the globe.”

Burson received numerous awards from public relations organizations including Hall of Fame designations by the Public Relations Society of America, the Arthur W. Page Society, PRWeek, PR News, the Institute of Public Relations, the Alan Campbell Johnson Award (England), as well as numerous citations by colleges and universities in the United States, Europe and China. 

Robin Street, University of Mississippi senior lecturer in journalism, said that one of the joys of her career involved spending time with Burson and having him speak to her classes on several occasions.

PR professional and leader

“His name and significance in the PR world are some of the first things I teach my students in the Introduction to Public Relations class,” Street said. “I tell them that what Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n’ roll, Burson was to PR. He truly helped the profession evolve, change and grow.

In 1983, Burson-Marsteller officially became the world’s largest PR firm, with regional headquarters in New York, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong and London. His firm handled a number of major accounts. ​Burson’s firm helped Johnson & Johnson with its response to the deaths of eight people who had taken tainted Tylenol in 1982. The company was not faulted, but it assumed responsibility and took the product off the market, which cost $100 million, and halted advertising. Representatives showed complete transparency and openness and made themselves available at all times to answer questions. The response to the ​Johnson & Johnson case led to Burson being credited with creating the template for crisis management.

“A quote from him is even included in the textbook I use,” Street said. “It says, ‘In the beginning, top management (at the client company) used to say to us, “Here’s the message. Deliver it.” Then it became “What should we say?” Now, in smart organizations, it’s “What should we do?”‘”

Street had used the Tylenol case as a classic example in her classes for several years, unaware that Burson was the PR expert behind the response.

The British government called on Burson-Marsteller​’s​ help ​during​ an epidemic of mad cow disease. He also counseled Union Carbide, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant after a famous meltdown in 1979 and BP after its Torrey Canyon oil tanker sank.​ Burson-Marsteller merged with global communications firm Cohn & Wolfe in 2018. The public relations giant, Burson Cohn & Wolfe, employs about 4,000 people worldwide.

“For the more than 34,000 people who worked for Burson-Marsteller over its 65 years, for the many clients and partners of the firm, and for generations of public relations professionals around the world, Harold has represented the highest standard possible – the absolute ideal in wisdom, integrity, professionalism and basic human kindness and dignity,” said Donna Imperato Global CEO, Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW). “Harold was so much more than the heart and soul of Burson-Marsteller. He stood for decades at the top of our profession and inspired everyone in the PR industry to be like Harold. His values and contributions will always be at the heart of BCW. His presence, which will not fade, will always remind us to work harder and smarter for our clients, to push for excellence in everything we do, to have each other’s backs and always to strive for greatness. Every one of us who had the opportunity knows what a tremendous privilege it was to have worked with Harold.”

“Harold was an advocate for action before words,” said Barri Friedman Rafferty, Chief Executive Officer & President, Ketchum. “He is the star that guides our industry and serves as an important inspiration and model.”

“Harold Burson did more than anyone to make public relations a true and respectable profession,” said Jon Iwata, Former SVP, Chief Brand Officer, IBM. “For him, public relations was a social science — understanding the intricate mechanism connecting what people believe and how they behave. Harold believed that reputations of companies and public figures were products of their actions more than their words. This is why he constantly counseled the importance of values — both personal and institutional. Long before social media came into existence, Harold reminded his clients and colleagues that transparency was the friend of authentic behavior and the enemy of hypocrisy. When a company got itself into a “PR” problem and thought they could “message” their way out of it, Harold would be the first to say that no amount of public relations can offset what never should have happened, and he counseled his clients and colleagues to boldly address the root cause: poor behavior. He repudiated the short-term thinking that has come to dominate business and he long advocated that companies have responsibilities, not only to their investors, but to their employees and communities. I hope that all of us in public relations demonstrate our appreciation for Harold not only by remembering what a great and decent man he was, but what the profession he helped create and cared so deeply about is and is not.”

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