Harold was presented with the 2012 PRSA Foundation Paladin Award last night at a reception in New York City in front of many of the great and good from the in-house and agency worlds.
Prior to handing over the award, last year's recipient Jon Iwata, SVP of marketing and communications at IBM, wondered why it had taken so long to get round to presenting Harold with this honor. He likened the presentation as being akin to Laurence Olivier receiving an Academy Award from Jonah Hill.
Iwata referred to Harold's position as the most influential PR person of the century, but then mused “Which century?” as it is clear the great man is still a monumental figure. He added that the second century of the profession is being shaped most centrally by insights from the first.
It takes a lot to hold the attention of a roomful of PR pros for upwards of 30 minutes, but Mr Burson kept young and old spellbound in his acceptance speech. The only mobile phone interruption was the nonagenarian's own, which went off three times.
“The truth is, I don't know how to turn this damn thing off,” he said. Then, second time, “If it's a lady, she's got very low expectations.” On the third ring Harold handed the phone to a member of the audience and asked: “Can someone take care of this.” Problem solved.
He regaled the room with lessons learned from counseling former president Ronald Reagan over negative publicity around a $2 million fee he was receiving for doing a speech in Japan, and advising his alma mater Mississippi University on the benefits of removing the Confederate flag from its branding for the long-term benefit of recruiting better players to its football team.
There was a serious message to Harold's speech as well, one that may have made some in the audience squirm in their seats a little. He highlighted a failure in business that had its roots in the 1980s and has seen corporate mission move from revolving around a reasonable return on investment and a stake in communities to focusing solely on maximizing shareholder return.
He noted that business should be about social responsibility, not just shareholder value, and that in the long term nothing comes without a price. “Wall Street analysts became the ones who set companies' earnings goals,” he said. “But CEOs need to return to the goal of serving the greater good of our people and our country.” He believes that public trust in business – now at an all-time low – will return when that happens.
He does see signs of optimism in this regard, and sent out a message to CCOs to up their game. Harold believes most CEOs increasingly “get” the message that doing good is good business in the long run – even suggesting they “get it" better than their CCOs. “PR is no longer the corporate stepchild and some [CEOs] get it better than their chief public relations officers," he said. "Our collective challenge is to develop people with the qualifications that match their counterparts at the management table."
He further advised that CCOs must be the corporate conscience of the business, playing a corporate monitor or ombudsman role. And that internal communications may be more important than external.
Even now he is into his 90s, Harold famously still goes in to work at Burson-Marsteller every day. He is set to embark on trips to Hong Kong and other parts of the Burson empire. As his speech drew to a close, he thanked CEO Mark Penn and other senior execs at the WPP agency for “letting me continue to hang around the premises.”
But his counsel is still so wise and relevant that I'm sure the people at Burson are only too delighted to see him every day. Long may it continue.