'Spiritual leader for the industry': Agency CEOs on Harold Burson's legacy

Rivals turned friends remember the industry's North Star.

Harold Burson and partner Bill Marsteller in 1960, planning their firm's expansion into Europe.
Harold Burson and partner Bill Marsteller in 1960, planning their firm's expansion into Europe.

NEW YORK: Notables of the PR industry offered their thoughts and condolences after hearing that PR giant Harold Burson died on Friday at the age of 98. 

Burson was credited with pioneering the PR business in the years after World War II. He founded Burson-Marsteller with ad executive Bill Marsteller in 1953 and grew the agency into an industry giant. Burson was also instrumental in the careers of scores of PR executives, either playing a direct role in their professional lives, acting as an exemplar of the practice or by expanding the role of PR as an industry. 

On Friday morning, leaders from throughout the sector commented on Burson’s passing and his legacy. 

Donna Imperato, global CEO of BCW, the firm WPP created in 2018 by merging Burson-Marsteller with Cohn & Wolfe, praised Burson as both a legendary PR leader and model professional.

"Harold Burson lived a giant life as a master of influence, a savvy businessman and one of the true pioneers of public relations and strategic communications," she said. "He was the wisest person I knew, with the highest level of integrity, humility and kindness. Harold inspired tens of thousands of public relations and communications professionals around the world. His values and affinity for life will always be the core DNA of Burson Cohn & Wolfe. It has been my extraordinary privilege to have known Harold Burson as a colleague, a mentor and a friend. We will miss him." 

Richard Edelman, CEO of the eponymous agency and son of fellow industry pioneer Daniel J. Edelman, reflected on Burson’s interpersonal skills and the culture he created at Burson-Marsteller.

"First, he was just incredible in keeping in touch with all the people who had been at Burson-Marsteller and in saying that they never left the Burson-Marsteller family, and I so admired that," Edelman said before praising Burson for expanding the industry.

"He had the dream of [us] being seen as advisers. Obviously, [there’s] the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol case we have all heard of. But he was the one primarily behind the idea of PR agencies being able to advise on policy and not simply be executioners," Edelman said. "Third, he had the dream of having a global PR firm, which he executed perfectly. I think his legacy is in a certain way all of us, because we all stand on his shoulders."

Edelman added that Burson was also important to him personally.

"In the period after my father passed, he was so incredibly kind so as to be sort of a father figure in a way," Edelman said. "He was incredibly decent about Edelman’s rise and couldn't have been more of a spiritual leader for everybody in the industry."

Don Baer was worldwide chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller from 2012 to 2018 and also served as the firm’s worldwide vice chair. He praised Burson’s ability to advance the field of PR, as well as his humanity.

"As many people will say, Harold was one of the most extraordinary people I ever knew." Baer said. "There will be no shortage of statements about the massive impact he had on the people whose lives he touched, the clients he guided and the communications sector he helped to found and shape. Beyond that, though, what always struck me about Harold was his ceaseless, almost youthful curiosity about the world as he lived in it, the individuals he encountered and the forces shaping our times. He had one of the most generous, thoughtful spirits I have ever known, and he showed it in his enthusiasm and caring for so many of us fortunate to know him."

Stagwell Group president and managing partner Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller from 2006 to 2012, said Burson was "tremendous to work with. It was always his company shaped by his intellect and charm. We were just caretakers who passed through with the privilege of getting to know him and being guided by his kind wisdom."

Donald Wright is the Harold Burson Professor in Public Relations and the chair of the Department of Mass Communication at Boston University. He was also a good friend of Burson’s.

"The only thing I can compare this to is my parents dying and a brother who died as well," he said. "Harold and I were very close and had been close for over 40 years, and I don't think there’s another person anywhere in the world who has done more for the development of our field than Harold."

Leaders of some of the world’s largest PR agencies also reflected on Burson’s importance to the profession.  

Andy Polansky, chairman and CEO of Interpublic Group’s Constituency Management Group and executive chairman of Weber Shandwick, described Burson as "an inspirational figure to me personally and for our industry."  

"He was a true pioneer," Polansky said. "Paving the way in globalizing the PR agency business and in developing sophisticated approaches to reputation management. He was an admired counselor, and a kind and generous person who will be deeply missed."

Rob Flaherty, chairman of Ketchum, said that Burson "set the standard in our industry for the rest of us to follow.  

"When we think very highly of a professional in our field, we say they ‘check all the boxes’ — they are a visionary with a global view; a generous and wise leader and mentor to many; an in-demand counselor to CEOs; a brilliant strategist and they always act with integrity," he explained. "Harold Burson not only checked all of those boxes, in my view he established them, and the rest of us have spent our careers attempting to check most of them off. I have the highest regard for Harold as a professional and as a person."

"They simply don’t make them like Harold Burson anymore," commented John Saunders, president and CEO of FleishmanHillard. "That combination of great entrepreneur and outstanding practitioner is as rare as hen’s teeth. He was a gentleman and much revered by all those from Burson-Marsteller whom I have met. More than just about anyone he brought respectability and credibility to our craft. As we say in Irish, "ar dheis de to raibh a anam" — may his soul be at God’s right hand."

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