Burson on the business of persuasion

Harold Burson's latest book contains some fascinating reflections on his seven-decade career in PR and lots of useful takeaways for those wanting to improve their professional practice.

Burson on the business of persuasion

Regular readers will know I’m a great fan of PR legend Harold Burson, who PRWeek included in the inaugural group of six individuals who were inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2013.

So I was excited to find out that the great man has finished his latest book, The Business of Persuasion, and it is due to hit the streets in early October.

I haven’t read all of it yet, but can already attest to the fact that it’s well worth any PR pro getting hold of a copy.

Mr. Burson bills the book as a personal story, but also the story of Burson-Marsteller, and his "best effort to define public relations and to demonstrate its pervasive role in our daily lives."

Burson’s definition of PR is contained in the title of the book: persuasion – the discipline of convincing people to do what my employer or client wanted them to do or "Public relations [is] doing good and getting credit for it."

Building on that, Burson explains that PR includes changing opinions and attitudes, reinforcing them, or creating them where none existed.

Burson’s PR activities always included a call to action: "Merely informing the public was not public relations – that was journalism, a worthy endeavor as well."

Always a voracious networker, especially with his competitors, which he continues to this day even into his mid-90s, Burson’s mentors included people such as George Hammond, CEO of Carl Byoir Associates; Farley Manning of Manning Selvage & Lee; independent consultant G. Edward Pendray; and John Hill, founder of Hill & Knowlton.

Hill called him after losing a pitch to his agency and said: "Are you Harold Burson? I’m John Hill and if you’re going to take business away from us, I’d like to see what you look like. Come over and have lunch with me." It was the first of a series of lunches that forged a strong friendship between the two business rivals, whose firms would both eventually end up as part of the WPP empire.

There are many excellent takeaways from this book, but the following are particularly worth highlighting:

  • Authenticity - communications and behavior go hand in hand. How you act always trumps what you say.
  • Crisis – don’t speculate to the media before verifying the facts, tell them you don’t have an answer and will get back to them once you have the facts. When you do go back, tell them all the facts and it is more likely to remain a one-day story.
  • Networking – seek out professionals who think deeply about PR as an applied social science and meet them regularly.
  • Practice - PR is a problem-solving discipline. Always define the right problem to be solved, otherwise you may deliver an elegant solution to the wrong problem.
  • Research – successful PR programs start with baseline research, which facilitates measuring the results of future initiatives.
  • Content – content marketing may be new for today’s generation, but it’s old hat for most PR pros.

In this week particularly, when British PR firm Bell Pottinger is on the brink of self-destruction following poor choices and even worse practice, it’s worth examining what Burson has to say about choosing which clients to work with.

Burson believes every entity in our society deserves to be heard, either in a court of justice or the court of public opinion. He says even the most unpopular or destructive organization, as long as – importantly - its objective is legal and its message incites no violence, should be free to employ professional PR counsel. But he also says he "never felt an obligation to represent such clients when they knock on my door."

The criteria for choosing clients were to represent no one who would make existing clients or staff members uncomfortable, or those whose issues were so divisive that their presence would upset existing clients or agency employees.

He eschewed opportunities to represent countries with questionable human rights policies or other autocratic policies. They resigned clients with questionable financial reporting, usually small start-ups but on one occasion a large listed company whose CEO is now in prison for dodgy accounting.

For Burson, it is more a business than ethical decision: "Will this particular client or assignment be good for our business over the long term?" He concedes Burson has handled its share of controversial clients, including ones faced with fatal industrial accidents, protests by NGOs and other groups, or products alleged to cause harm, which led MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to dub his firm "the public relations agency from hell."

Controversial work included the Argentine government, the Nicholae Ceausescu-led Romania, Union Carbide after the Bhopal plant explosion, and the Saudi Arabian response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

His key questions are: "Does the institution operate in the public interest?" and "Does it subscribe to the principle that its behavior counts more than its communication in its public approval rating?"

Also in light of recent events, it's interesting to review Burson's work 20 years ago on removing Confederate imagery from his alma mater Ole Miss. The campaign was framed around a choice between attracting the best athletes to the university, who were principally African-American and were put off by the Rebel flags, and retaining the symbolic relics of a bygone past.

Coach Tom Tuberville was enlisted to give a press conference saying Ole Miss would not field a winning football team as long as Confederate flags flew freely on campus. His statement had an immediate effect and a more progressive era quickly emerged.

Burson’s 35 years as CEO of his eponymous firm ended in 1988 and one of the most fascinating sections of the book is his assessment of those that followed him in the CEO chair. He notes that continuity of management is a primary requisite for long-term success, especially in a service business, and bemoans the fact that the seven men who succeeded him have spent an average of fewer than five years in post.

Burson passes no comment on Mark Penn’s near-six-year tenure, only saying that when Don Baer succeeded him in 2012 "B-M professional staff around the world warmly greeted the news of his appointment to CEO."

As he observes, "the greatest adverse impact of CEO turnover on Burson-Marsteller is that it has lost its once commanding position as the world’s largest public relations firm, a position it occupied for the better part of two decades – from 1983 until 2003, not counting a couple of years in the mid-1980s after Hill & Knowlton acquired Carl Byoir Associates."

It's a timely reminder of a not-so-distant era when Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton were the two large agency beasts bestriding the PR world, rather than today's two 800-pound (or $m) gorillas: Edelman and Weber Shandwick.

These are just a few reflections on a fascinating book that every PR pro should read - and we look forward to the great man’s next magnum opus!

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in