My favorite part of a very busy week this week was interviewing Harold Burson live at the PRWeek NEXT Conference on Tuesday.
And, judging by the number of people who stayed until the end of a very busy and thought-provoking program, it was many delegates' favorite part of an excellent day as well.
Eighty-nine years young, Harold doesn't need assistants or minders; he simply had his driver drop him off at the venue and made his way to the third floor where NEXT was taking place.
Harold still checks in at Burson-Marsteller HQ every day, though he says it's more “coming into the office” than “coming into work,” but it is clear he is still held in high esteem by everyone at the now WPP-owned agency he founded in 1953 and many people seek his counsel.
He estimates he has worked with over 100 chief executive officers in his career, and still actively works on one account: the United States Postal Service.
In conversation with me and Burson alum Bill Hughes, he spelt out some practical advice to the audience of senior client-side and agency professionals that is just as relevant now as it was when he started his first PR agency in 1946, on leaving the armed forces after serving in the Second World War:
- Learn how to write – this was a constant theme of the NEXT conference, but had particular resonance coming from one of the founding fathers of public relations
- Constantly network – good communications is not generated by sitting passively at a desk. You have to get out and meet people, have lunch, talk to them regularly - even become their friend - to maintain effective business relationships
- Be in the know – make sure you know what you are talking about and don't be a bluffer: clients will quickly see through it. You need to know the mechanics and inner workings of communications and business.
- Bring more than PR to the table – have a knowledge of a specialty field and extend your reach beyond your core day job
Harold certainly represents those skills in spades and it is a tribute to him that over 35,000 people continue to participate in the Burson alumni network - and that's part of a fantastic legacy.
Sometimes in the hurly burly of daily business and new-fangled strategies it is easy to forget that communications is actually a pretty simple process – but sometimes doing the simple things well is one of life's toughest challenges.