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 dot.com
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 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.'