The Harold Burson effect

Leaving Edelman for Burson-Marsteller was a pivotal decision for one PR career, says Chris Boehlke, a principal and co-founder at Bospar.

The day I told Dan Edelman that I was leaving Edelman, after seven years, to go work for Harold Burson he was genuinely puzzled. "Why would you go to Burson-Marsteller?" he asked. "You’re really creative and you have some of the most exciting consumer clients that exist. Burson does boring things like trade shows, company meetings and annual reports."

Over the years, both outstanding firms filled out their rosters on all fronts. But back then, Dan was the wildly brilliant inventor of consumer PR and that’s what we did at Edelman. In fact, we did it extremely well, and Burson was hiring me to help it build its own consumer prowess.

My first weeks there were an incredible eye-opener. Driven by Harold’s vision, a typical Burson program was designed to "treat the whole patient", or as we later officially branded it, deliver "The Whole Egg."

Programs were based on extensive research back before there was even an internet, deploying deep issues analysis and influencer relations, and melding political underpinnings into the mix where appropriate. Our marketing programs deployed new technologies like psychographics, by zip code!

Harold was one of the first to deliver "knowledge driven PR", having recruited executives from top level research firms to instill the religion, as well as the skills, in all of us.

He amassed a world-class in-house design group that rivaled the best standalones. Yes, we did do trade shows and corporate meetings and public offerings. But they were eye-popping giant multi-media extravaganzas utilizing the newest technologies.

Knowledge-driven values permeated everything we did. When we started with a new client one of our first activities was to spend a few days "riding with the sales force" to get a first-hand understanding of the products and the customers.

Harold was a pioneer of matrix management. We had a SWAT team of guru-level public affairs, investor relations, internal communications, research, consumer marketing, creative services, crisis communications and creative pros roaming the world helping with new business, client programs and internal training.

I was fortunate to be in management, first as client service manager in the Chicago office, then San Francisco GM and finally West Coast manager through the heady times during Burson’s march to become the world’s largest PR firm. One exhilarating day, there we were; number one.

Even then, Harold never lost his intrinsic humility, his down to earth demeanor and his gentle sense of humor.

He said, "we don’t care about being the biggest — just the best" and "always do the right thing," and he meant it. He truly cared about his people as individuals. There are many hundreds who continued to stay in touch with him, myself included, long after we’d moved on to other firms.

While technology and tactics continued to evolve, Harold contributed immensely to shaping a core mindset of the profession that we can, and should, be involved in every aspect of a client’s being. He pushed us to expand boundaries on all fronts. He taught us that we deserved a seat at the client table, and then showed us how to go about earning it.

I left after nine years to try my hand at building my own firm. But there’s no question that everything I’ve ever done since has at least a little bit of Harold in it. We at Bospar certainly try our best to carry that torch.

I’m honored to tell Harold — one last time — "I’m proud to be a Burson person".

Chris Boehlke is a princial and co-founder of Bospar.

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