Harold Burson through the years: A timeline of the PR legend's life

Burson's career spanned from the Nuremberg Trials to coming to the office nearly every day well into his 90s.

Harold Burson in 1937. Taken at Olan Mills portrait studio in Tuscaloosa, AL.
Harold Burson in 1937. Taken at Olan Mills portrait studio in Tuscaloosa, AL.

February 15, 1921
Harold Burson is born in Memphis, Tennessee. He started school in the third grade and graduated from high school at age 15. 

Burson enrolls at the University of Mississippi knowing that his campus correspondent stringer job for the Memphis Commercial Appeal would cover his college tuition and expenses. Six months after graduation, he accepted a PR position at a large engineering and architectural firm, where, as he said, "they doubled my salary from $25 to $50 per week and gave me the use of a car." 

Burson enlists in the U.S. Army and becomes part of an engineer combat group in Europe.

Burson transfers to the news staff of the American Forces Network a month before the war ends in Europe. Later that year, he is assigned to report on the Nuremberg Trial and is the only reporter to obtain an interview during the trial with Associate Justice Robert Jackson, the chief American prosecutor. Although Jackson vows not to grant interviews, Burson argued that his audience, the American GIs who fought the war, are entitled to hear first-hand from the chief American prosecutor. 

Following his discharge from the Army, Burson opens a PR firm in New York in "a tiny nook in a client’s office" next to the desk of a part-time executive assistant. He describes his firm as specializing in B2B clients. 

Burson’s firm has a staff of five when a friend at The New York Times, responding to a query from the owner of a Chicago advertising agency, recommends Burson for a Pittsburgh-based project. Through this opportunity, Burson meets William Marsteller. The Burson firm is hired for the project: to publicize the purchase by Rockwell Manufacturing Company of the first helicopter to be used for executive travel. Rockwell subsequently becomes a client.

The affiliation with Marsteller works so well that Burson proposes establishing a company jointly owned by the two parties. It takes the name Burson-Marsteller and opens March 2, 1953, with offices in New York and Chicago and offers "integrated communications services" to B2B clients.

Burson’s firm is the second to establish an office in Europe, in Geneva, Switzerland. It announces its intention to become a global operation over the next quarter-century. During the 1960s, Burson-Marsteller’s annual revenue surges 10-fold, from $410,000 to $4.4 million. 

General Motors brings on Burson-Marsteller as its sole PR partner in response to allegations that GM hired private investigators to follow Ralph Nader, after his scathing book questioning the safety of GM’s highly touted Chevrolet Corvair. 

During the 1970s, the firm’s revenue increases from $5.2 million to $28.3 million. It adds about a dozen offices in Europe, including London, Paris, Brussels and Frankfurt, and in Asia, in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. Its clients include both American multinationals and local businesses.

Burson engineers the merger of Burson-Marsteller and Marsteller Advertising with the global advertising giant Young & Rubicam, becoming a member of its seven-person executive committee. At the time of the merger, Burson-Marsteller has revenue of $28.3 million and 16 offices. Four years later, when Burson-Marsteller becomes the world’s largest PR firm, it has revenue of $63.8 million and 30 offices, including branches in Latin America, Australia and the Middle East. 

The firm works on Tylenol’s recalls in 1982 and 1985, introduced New Coke and reintroduced Coca-Cola Classic. Burson-Marsteller also represents Union Carbide in the aftermath of the discharge of toxic chemicals at its plant in Bhopal, India; Pan Am Airways after the Lockerbie, Scotland, crash; and Dow Corning following the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s decision to ban silicone breast implants. Burson-Marsteller also had a long-time active role in representing the Olympic Games and its corporate sponsors.

Burson steps down as CEO of Burson-Marsteller, but continues in an active capacity for more than a quarter-century and comes to work nearly every day well into his 90s. 

Boston University’s College of Communications establishes its first academic chair in the field of PR, named for Burson.

Burson is inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame.

At age of 96, Burson publishes his memoir, The Business of Persuasion: Harold Burson on Public Relations.

Source: BCW

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