VIEW FROM THE TOP: 'Do not call PR communications' - PR legend Harold Burson gives his surprising take on the industry to Gidon Freeman

Whoever first used the term communications as a descriptor of the

PR world owes Harold Burson an apology. The founder of global agency

Burson-Marsteller sets himself against the prevailing wisdom in the

industry and insists that calling PR communications - usually a device

to inflate its worth - devalues it.

Oddly, Burson names the 1974 Watergate scandal as having hastened a

process by which PR lost its shine. That episode, in which US President

Richard Nixon was seen to collude with his staff in covering up a

burglary on the opposition democrat HQ, casts a long shadow on the

country's body politic. But to blame it for damaging a multi-billion

pound industry employing millions worldwide? An explanation is


'The term communications has become synonymous with PR but this does a

disservice to our profession by making it tactical,' he says. 'The term

"perception management" (a B-M invention, of course) was contrived. The

best term for what we do is public relations. And yet on the Watergate

tapes Nixon would get himself into a situation and say "shall we PR

it?," meaning to conceal, obfuscate or deny.'

We meet in late September, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New

York and Washington, and the subsequent international crisis. As befits

an agency born, raised and based in New York City, B-M - and its

subsidiary Marsteller Advertising - has been heavily involved in

promoting the disaster relief fund, but Burson himself remains sanguine:

'There has already been trauma in the industry because of the

collapse and downturn, then this. I would hope it is relatively


The misnaming of PR as communications is clearly of great regret to a

man who, more than any other, has come to embody the spirit of the PR

industry. The phrase industry veteran is sometimes used in a flip way,

but it could have been coined for Burson. The bust of him in the foyer

at B-M's Bloomsbury offices establishes that fact, and his avuncular

manner rams it home. It is difficult to imagine many PR figures

conducting an auction of major New York publishers to get the best price

for the Story of My Life, but Burson is one.

Burson was born 80 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee to English parents.

Throughout a military and business career, he has never lost the

southern edge to his accent. He has, however, picked up a great deal of

things along the way, including more awards and commendations than the

average PRO could even name.

According to his biography by the Association of Distinguished

Americans, he paid his way through the University of Mississippi by

stringing for the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal. Graduating at

19, he worked in non-PR fields for four years before being drafted and

seeing active service in World War II as a combat engineer. At the end

of the war, Burson used his news background to secure a job with the

American Forces Network in Paris. Despite an interesting run covering

world history at close quarters, Burson soon returned to the US and

launched his own PR firm in Manhattan.

The formation of B-M has entered into media folklore. One of Burson's

early clients was Rockwell Corporation chief executive W F Rockwell, who

was egotistical enough to want to appear on the cover of the then

influential Life magazine with his new helicopter. In a turn of phrase

readily familiar to PR consultants everywhere, he was, Burson is fond of

saying, 'the client from hell'. By the sort of coincidence on which

corporations are made, Burson heard - five years after starting off as a

consultant on his own - of a Chicago ad man named Bill Marsteller, who

was said by a journalist friend to need PR advice for a tricky client.

Inevitably, the client turned out to be Rockwell, who was still fighting

for his helicopter-linked cover shot on Life.

When Burson and Marsteller got together, it led to the creation of an

agency which today turns over more than £200m and employs 2,000

consultants worldwide. The firm was acquired by ad agency Young &

Rubicam in 1979 and has gone through long periods of major change,

including last year's takeover of Y&R by rival marketing group WPP.

But Burson, and his precise manner, remain unaltered. He still shows up

for work every day on Park Avenue and he still counsels CEOs on

corporate positions and message management. He has been around in the

industry so long, it is difficult to shock him. He forms a wry smile as

he tries to count the number of times he has read in this or any

marketing services title that such and such an event constitutes the

first time something has ever happened: 'Let me tell you,' he cautions

calmly, 'it is never the first time something like this has


Perhaps because of his long teeth, Burson is unperturbed by the

long-term implications for the industry of the current global crisis.

Burson's enduring faith in the value of the PR skill set leaves him

cautiously optimistic in the face of overwhelming evidence of an

industry recession spreading around the world.

This is not to say that he is blase about the impact of the troubles on

the PR business. 'There was already a mode for reducing budgets long

before September. These reductions were made in the hope of an early

2002 recovery. But with the enormity of what has happened in New York,

those actions may have been deferred for several months. In truth, the

timing is bad, because companies are in the budgeting phase for next

year so we are going into a period that does not look very good for us,'

he says.

He admits some areas are inured to the wilder ramifications of the

creeping recession but is loathe to prophesy much beyond the stock claim

that crisis PR and blue-chip client work should emerge unscathed. This

is because the important factor for Burson is not which areas are likely

to hurt more in six months time, but how the industry as a whole

comports itself during a time of jittery capital markets.

'It's time to get back to basics,' he says - removing any obstacle that

might prevent the photographer from getting a clear snap. 'Basics as I

know it is that PR is a relationship business.

Instead of hiring PR firms for projects as clients increasingly do,

companies should see PR as an ongoing process. They take that approach

in hiring their own staff but not in having agencies of record. This is

partly because they emphasise the in-house function but also because

they feel they're not getting from agencies. They still go to boutiques

but they feel they don't get quality from the big agencies.'

Burson blames this trend on the fact that too many agencies promote

their best PR staff into management roles and leave the client work to

those who are left behind lower down the ladder of seniority. 'Once a

company gets to a certain size it needs good managers but it needs

superb professionals as well and that should not be neglected.'

In Burson's vision of the future, this conundrum would be resolved and

agencies would be invigorated with a fresh confidence, allowing their

role as corporate advisers to be expanded: 'PR should extend itself into

the business of business rather than the presentation of business.

Customer satisfaction programmes, for example, are really PR programmes

and it should be PR people suggesting them. If the PR sector shies away

from getting involved in that it will be missing out,' he cautions.

When he expounds his theories on the industry, it is difficult to focus

on his role as a practising day to day PR consultant. But the agency he

founded 50 years ago is, despite management changes and job cuts, in

decent shape. It remains fundamentally healthy and profitable.

Were that not the case, the famously prudent WPP chief executive Sir

Martin Sorrell would surely have taken corrective action since acquiring

the firm along with last year's takeover of parent Y&R. It is more than

20 years since Burson sold his outfit to Y&R - he has long since been

resigned to having a quoted parent to please. But he remains stoical

about B-M's prospects and protective of his taskmaster's reputation:

'Sorrell applies the same control as our previous owner. As long as the

financial goals are met he pretty much leaves us alone.'

As for the industry rumours at the time of the WPP/Y&R deal - that with

B-M, Hill & Knowlton, Cohn & Wolfe, Ogilvy, Buchanan and later Finsbury

all selling PR advice for WPP, Sorrell would wish to consolidate -

Burson is dismissive: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I see a major

disadvantage to bigness beyond a certain size. And if I owned Hill &

Knowlton and B-M, I wouldn't merge them.'

As is evidently his way, Burson is clear as day on this matter, the mark

of a communicator of great heritage. Irrespective of whether you call

his talents PR or communications, they cannot be ignored.


Harold Burson last month returned to Leeds, the city of his ancestors,

and gave a lecture to students of PR on the history of the trade he has

done as much as anybody to shape. He said:

'PR is assumed to be a 20th century phenomenon, even a post-World War II

creation. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the first PR

consulting business - the Publicity Bureau - was established in 1900,

public relations as a societal force dates back to antiquity.

'Persuasion - and that's what PR is really about - has for all recorded

history been a driving force in the human experience. All manner of

leaders have employed PR techniques to achieve their goals.

'Intuitively, they have known how to gain the confidence and support of

their contemporaries and turn them into followers. Intuitively, they

have known that changing attitudes or opinions is only the first stage

of the process and intuitively, they have known that changing behaviour

is the real key to achieving objectives - be they political, social or


'What is relatively new, dating back only a century, is the

identification of PR as an organised professional discipline available

on a commercial basis. The credit for codifying a PR methodology belongs

largely to the late Edward L Bernays, whose Crystallising Public Opinion

set forth a well-reasoned rationale and modus operandi for PR.

'Bernays coined the term "public relations counsel". He was saying that

the job of PR counsel was to help a client or an employer establish a

good reputation, or a good name, through the PR counsel being the

"corporate conscience". But behaviour alone cannot always be trusted to

translate as good reputation.

'Step two, therefore, is making people aware of the decision and actions

that accord with the public interest. As Bernays put it in 1923: "The PR

counsel is the pleader to the public of a point of view. He acts as a

consultant both in interpreting the public to his client and helping to

interpret his client to the public".

'Nowadays, I am asked a lot of questions about PR. It has been - and

will continue to be - a growth industry. More people are now employed in

public relations than ever before. But we PR people do a poor job

explaining what we do. Contrary to how we counsel clients or employers,

we have allowed ourselves to be defined by the media.

'Those segments of the public that are most important to us

differentiate the reality presented by PR professionals from the

obnoxious and conniving characters portrayed in a PR context in TV

serials and movies. This is my personal hypothesis, but I am bullish on

the future of PR.'

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