One of the icons of the PR industry is ending a seven-decade-plus sojourn in New York to return to the Tennessee city where he was born and raised.
Harold Burson will leave town on July 23, having said goodbye to the New York team at BCW’s summer party later this week.
"I never expected to reach this age, but I have this yearning to go back home again," Burson told PRWeek. "I have a great situation that enables me to do this. BCW has an office in Memphis. It’s relatively small compared to NYC, but I will probably welcome the slower pace."
Two major BCW clients are serviced out of the Memphis office: FedEx and the U.S. Navy.
He noted that his family moved to Memphis from England exactly 100 years ago in 1919 and that he was born in 1921.
"There are a lot of Bursons in Memphis," he added. "The family has done very well. I plan to live with my favorite niece."
Now aged 98, Burson will still go into the office three days a week. "The other two days will be devoted to physical therapy," he said, "which has pretty much been my routine for the past two years in New York."
He said the thing he will miss most about NYC is the people, though he noted wryly that "I was usually the youngest person around the table, and suddenly I became the oldest."
Asked about the biggest changes he has seen in the industry, Burson said: "The definition of PR is an area of activity that has expanded greatly, part of which I take responsibility for. Very few people had networks across the U.S. and, particularly, around the world. We were the first to concentrate on international locations."
Burson linked up with ad man Bill Marsteller in 1953 to form Burson-Marsteller.
"We expanded the area of activity, going into more promotional-type work, as well as traditional counseling," said Burson. "He was in advertising and I was in PR. We believed in integration and that’s why we got together in 1953. We were the first combination that really succeeded in making it work."
By 1983, Burson-Marsteller had become the largest PR firm in the world. Last year, holding company WPP merged B-M with sister firm Cohn & Wolfe, with the combined firm renamed BCW.
Burson predicted that the PR function will be much more critical as time goes on, because CEOs are starting to realize behavior is more important than ever.
"You can’t be socially responsible unless you’re profitable," he added. "Business is going to have to work out how to achieve both to share that profit with various constituencies."
A long-standing champion of youth, Burson’s final appeal was to employers to help young people succeed in New York in the same way he was able to.
"There’s great opportunity here, but a lot of young talented people find it very difficult to be able to afford to live in New York City," he noted. "There should be some adjustment in compensation levels."