Emphasis on comms undermines industry's moral purpose says Harold Burson

Harold Burson, founder of Burson-Marsteller has warned that the public relations industry is in danger of losing its moral purpose because it focuses too much on communication rather than corporate behaviour.

Harold Burson: "Nixon turned PR into a dirty word."
Harold Burson: "Nixon turned PR into a dirty word."

Speaking in an exclusive interview with PRWeek, the 93 year-old argued that PR should be a force for good and that one of its most important roles is to be the conscience of the company.

"I think PR has two components; behaviour and communications. You can have the best communications in the world but if you don’t live up to the promise you will not reach the objectives of your campaign or programme," he said.

He said he is concerned by what he sees as a drift away from the behaviour side of the equation, evidenced by the shift from ‘PR’ to ‘communications’.

"PR started to be called communications in the 70’s after Watergate," he said. "Nixon and his cohorts had repeatedly used the phrase ‘PR’ as a solution to problems they couldn’t otherwise solve, turning it into a dirty word.

"If you look at the titles of people in that role before 1974, 85 per cent of them had PR in it. Four years later most of them used the word communication. But ‘communications’ diminishes the totality of what we do because it indicates that the main function is not behaviour that really matters but messaging."

An aspect that particularly concerns him is the increasing control of the marketing function over PR. "Marketing has an important role to play vis-a-vis manufacture, research and all the operations that require money, but if you give control of PR to anyone but the CEO, you destroy the essence of what the company really is," said Burson.

Read the full interview with Harold Burson from the February issue of PRWeek, or download the latest iPad edition to read on the go.

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