Goodbye to a PR legend

Harold Burson's contribution to the PR industry was immeasurable in so many ways, but most of all he was a genuinely nice person and a great mentor who inspired thousands of PR pros around the world.

PR legend Harold Burson with PRWeek editorial director Steve Barrett at the 2019 PRWeek Awards. (Pic: Erica Berger.)
PR legend Harold Burson with PRWeek editorial director Steve Barrett at the 2019 PRWeek Awards. (Pic: Erica Berger.)

We knew this day would come eventually and in many ways we were expecting it, but it still comes as a shock to hear about the death of Harold Burson, one of the true greats of the PR industry.

I last saw him at the PRWeek US 20th anniversary awards ceremony in New York last March. As always, people flocked around him to get selfies and a word with the legend. He talked about future plans and maybe writing another book.

Every event was made more special by Burson’s presence and it spoke to his never-ending enthusiasm for the industry he pioneered that you would still see him everywhere up until recent years, even if he had to leave a little early in the latter days.

His lunches with people in the industry were cherished by everyone from a new intern at Burson-Marsteller up to the CEOs of top-five PR agencies, all of whom would hang on his every word. The handwritten notes he sent to Burson people are much-valued mementoes for thousands of them.

When he sat at the top table at the PRWeek Awards there would be a constant stream of people lining up to take pictures with him and say they had met him. The attention kept him young and it seemed like he would go on forever.

Burson passed away this morning at the age of 98, one month shy of his 99th birthday. His journey encompassed more than seven decades in the industry, having linked up with ad man Bill Marsteller in 1953 to form Burson-Marsteller and grown it into the largest PR firm in the world by 1983.

His career stretched back to World War II, when he reported on the Nuremberg war crimes trials that followed the conflict, a defining time for him. He was named PRWeek’s most influential PR person of the 20th century and included in the inaugural group of six individuals inducted into our Hall of Fame in 2013.

Burson moved back to Memphis last July to be closer to his family, returning to the city where he was born and raised.

"There are a lot of Bursons in Memphis," he told PRWeek at the time. "The family has done very well. I plan to live with my favorite niece."

In true Harold fashion, when he moved to Tennessee he said he would still go into BCW’s Memphis office three days a week and he had already made an impact on the local PR scene by speaking to students at the School of Journalism and New Media about business and public relations.

"I never expected to reach this age, but I have this yearning to go back home again," he added. "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."

Just a reminder that this was a 98-year-old speaking, and his quotes at the time gave an insight into the wry sense of humor he retained until the end: "The other two days will be devoted to physical therapy, which has pretty much been my routine for the past two years in New York."

He was sanguine about the passing of time and said he would most miss the people in New York City, though he noted: "I was usually the youngest person around the table, and suddenly I became the oldest."

On PR as an industry and a profession, he reflected: "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."

My colleague Gideon Fidelzeid, who has been walking the halls of PRWeek U.S. longer than anyone, pays the following tribute:

"Harold was a pioneer on so many levels, but, to me, what stands out was how important diversity and inclusion was to him long before it was more broadly adopted. He was also a champion of women ascending to the highest levels of business and organizations - again, before most others.

"I was always so impressed with how intently he listened to everyone he spoke with, from the youngest professional (or even student) to the most senior-level leader. If the smartest people in the world are good listeners, Harold Burson was a genius."

He was indeed a pioneer, championing integration, globalization, PR getting a seat at the C-suite table, diversity, purpose, gender equality and sustainable business and capitalism. He decried the trend toward shareholder value taking precedence over every other business criteria and would have welcomed the Business Roundtable’s pronouncement about this last year – while also pointing out it was not before time.

Most of all, Burson still cared passionately about PR, the industry he helped build and about which he still held strong beliefs, some of which he expounded in a book called The Business of Persuasion published in 2017.

It's also fair to say that Burson coped with the ethical and difficult crisis-related aspects of PR and reputation, such as working for cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, for which there was no playbook at the time - indeed, he helped write the playbook.

The lessons he reinforced in the book bear repeating now and I believe they will always be relevant to those wanting to understand the PR profession and prosper within it:

  • 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 2008, PRWeek published a print supplement to mark its 10th anniversary in the U.S. It featured a great article called "PR’s forefathers," in which we gathered together Burson, GolinHarris founder Al Golin, Edelman founder Dan Edelman and Ruder Finn cofounder David Finn at a dinner to reflect on their PR roots.

"I started out with $1,250 a month. I was 25 years old, and I thought I was rich," said Burson.

Eleven years on, and only Finn is still with us and he is not in good health. The next chapter of the PR industry is set to be written and that narrative will be shaped by a much more diverse group of individuals.

But let’s never forget the pioneers who helped establish the nascent PR industry in the 40s, 50s and 60s and built a foundation and principles that still underpin the profession today.

From a personal point of view, I’ve never made any secret of my admiration for a man who was a great support to me personally and to PRWeek as a brand. I loved hearing his stories about how he helped get Confederate flags out of the Ole Miss football stadium, his alma mater.

As well as being the right thing to do, pragmatic Burson realized it was also hindering the school from attracting the most talented players, so it was an early example of prioritizing good strategy and backing it up with solid measurement and effectiveness analytics.

When PRWeek inducted him into our inaugural Hall of Fame in 2013 we did a panel discussion on stage including Burson and Al Golin. I thought I'd ask Harold a cheeky question about whether, in retrospect, he regretted Burson-Marsteller becoming part of WPP in 2000.

Without skipping a beat, he said: "Well, as I was saying to [former WPP CEO] Martin [Sorrell] at breakfast this morning..." and went on to make a pertinent point that diverted me off my topic. Even at the age of 92 and semi-retired, Burson was still the consummate PR operator and networker.

A year earlier, when Burson was presented with the 2012 PRSA Foundation Paladin Award at a reception in New York City in front of the great and good from the in-house and agency worlds, I wrote a blog about his inspiring speech.

I still treasure the humble email he sent me after he’d read it: "I am overwhelmed by your blog. You set a high target for me to try to live up to! But despite my predictably low batting average, I will keep trying."

In the speech he told a great story about Ty Cobb that resonated with me for its comparisons with Burson.

The legendary baseball great was celebrating his 75th birthday and the Larry King of the day was interviewing him.

"Ty," he asked, "if you were playing baseball today what would you be hitting?"

"Oh, about .225 or .230," Cobb responded. The early Larry King was dumb-founded.

"But Ty," he countered, "your lifetime batting average was .367 and you had two .400 seasons. What would be different now? Would it be that you never had to travel west of St. Louis? Or would it be that you never had to play night baseball? Or maybe that you always played on green turf?"

"None of them, none of them," Cobb responded, "you gotta remember, I’m 75 years old!"

Well Harold, you certainly did keep trying and you retained your Hall of Famer batting average right to the end. As well as your amazing sense of humor and capacity for connecting with people.

The PR world is a poorer place with his passing. Our thoughts go out to his family, friends and all the thousands of Burson persons around the world whose careers were in some way shaped by their interactions with the great man and who will be mourning today.

RIP sir.

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