From Burson to Mandela: The enduring principles of great communicators

A busy week ended with the sad news of the passing of Nelson Mandela: one of the greatest people - and communicators - of the century.

A busy week of PRWeek Awards judging and our first Influencer Summit ended with the sad news of the passing of Nelson Mandela at age 95: one of the greatest people – and communicators – of the 20th century.

There's no need for me to add to the acres of newsprint and bits and bytes that will be devoted to the great man over the next few days, suffice to say his example is one that can inspire people in all walks of life, not least the communications profession.

But it set me thinking about role models, inspiration, leadership, and fortitude in the face of adversity.

Also this week, on Monday night, we honored our own legends at the inaugural PRWeek Hall of Fame dinner, instigated to coincide with the 15th anniversary of our brand in the US, and the first of what will now be an annual fixture on the PR calendar.

The initial group of industry luminaries to be honored were Harold Burson, Al Golin, Charlotte Otto, Jon Iwata, Marcia Silverman, and, posthumously, Marilyn Laurie.

Burson, the founder of PR agency Burson-Marsteller; Golin, founder of GolinHarris 55 years ago on the back of startup client McDonald's; former Procter & Gamble comms chief Otto; and former Ogilvy PR CEO Silverman accepted their honors in person and then joined me for a discussion about changes in the PR industry over the years, their mentors, and tips to aspiring PR superstars of the future.

There was a real feel-good atmosphere amongst the audience of senior communicators in the room, as normal competitive instincts were set aside for the night to honor the Hall of Fame inductees and the wider profession.

Attendees included agency heads such as Andy Polansky, Renee Wilson, Karen van Bergen, Chris Graves, Donna Imperato, Fred Cook, Robert Dowling, and Pat Ford; and client-side folks including Kelly Vanasse and Paul Fox from Procter & Gamble, Bridget Coffing from McDonald's, Angela Buonocore from Xylem, Paul Hicks from the NFL, and Bill Hughes from Pitney Bowes.

As usual, Harold stole the show without really knowing it. He was fresh from a recent trip to DC where the texts of his reporting from the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes trial in 1945 and 1946 had been published for the first time. Harold is donating the transcripts of his work for the American Forces Network to The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The standing ovation from the whole room that greeted his arrival on stage was heartfelt and meaningful – he is truly an icon of our industry, and what he has to say about communications and business still resonates completely. And he admitted to me that, for him, the evening was the equivalent of being awarded a Nobel Prize.

Just as Mandela lays serious claim to being one of the most influential people of the 20th century, Harold more than lives up to the “most influential PR person in the 20th century” tag bestowed on him by PRWeek in 1999 – and he is still going strong well into the 21st century.

Another highlight for me was when former AT&T comms head and founder of Earth Day Marilyn Laurie's daughters Amy and Lisa accepted the Hall of Fame honor on their mother's behalf. Each honoree was featured in a two-minute video summing up their career and achievements and there were more than a few teary eyes in the house as these were relayed on the big screens in the room, especially during the segment on Marilyn.

She too was a real pioneer in more than one field. She invented Earth Day in 1970 when environmentalism was not an issue and, one year later, began her journey in the communications department at AT&T that would involve transitioning from being a “little Jewish girl from the Bronx” to being part of the management executive committee with an EVP title “trying to help row the boat.”

In her video, Marilyn said she “started as far from the center of power as you could get in a company of that size,” but she and her colleagues “believed they could change the world – and we did.” She added that she hoped “I caused some people who do what we do to think you can do it with integrity and with courage – and you won't get killed along the way.”

When facing difficult decisions, Laurie's associates and co-workers would often ask “What Would Marilyn Do.” She said she liked to think “she changed a few things along the way,” and she sure did.

The same can be said of Harold Burson, Al Golin, and the other honorees – and at the end of a sad but still uplifting week, it's a great time to reflect on the timeless values, humility, and founding principles that define great communicators - from our inaugural Hall of Famers through to Nelson Mandela himself.

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