Robert Leaf, international PR pioneer, dies at 89

The former international chairman of Burson-Marsteller is often credited with introducing the U.S. discipline of PR to the rest of the world.

The late Burson-Marsteller executive Robert Leaf.
The late Burson-Marsteller executive Robert Leaf.

NEW YORK: Robert Leaf, former international chairman of Burson-Marsteller and founder of the Public Relations Communications Association in the U.K., died last week from cancer at age 89.  

Born in New York on August 9, 1931, Leaf graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri with intentions to work in sports journalism. After serving as an information and education specialist in the U.S. Army for two years, Leaf spent a short time as a publicist in show business, with clients including Milton Berle and Tony Bennett. 

But Leaf's foray into PR began in earnest when Harold Burson's business partner, Elias “Buck” Buchwald hired him as Burson-Marsteller's first trainee in 1957. 

One of just six employees at the firm, he quickly rose through the ranks, and his interest in international affairs put him at the helm of the firm’s overseas expansion. In 1967, he became international chairman.

Leaf marked many firsts throughout his career. He set up China's first PR agency in 1986 after impressing the country’s officials with his knowledge of the five styles of Mandarin cooking and helped to create the first PR agency in the Soviet Union.

Leaf also launched the first international PR firm in the Middle East and opened Burson offices across Europe, Asia, South America and Australia.

Former Burson-Marsteller CEO Chris Komisarjevsky noted that Burson described Leaf as “smart, brash and the author of the most humorous business letters I ever received.”

“He was a force in the business, both intellectually and personally. He was sharp and quick, ready with a comeback if challenged,” Komisarjevsky recalled. “And when he entered a room, you know he had something thoughtful and cogent to say.”

Leaf is often credited with introducing the U.S. discipline of PR to the rest of the world. 

"When I went into the business, press relations was 90% of the job," he told PRWeek in 2007. "Nowadays, it has moved much more towards perception management, and press relations is at a minimum."

He was also known for being open to new ideas, inviting recruits to share their thoughts with him at "Lunch with Leaf" and offering advice to those climbing the corporate ladder. 

Retiring from Burson in 1997, Leaf stayed in London and launched his own consulting business.  He remained a director at Burson and continued to work in a consulting and advising capacity, particularly on international PR.

In 2000, he was given the inaugural Alan Campbell Award by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations for outstanding contribution to international public relations, and in 2011 he was awarded the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism. 

In 2012, Leaf published his memoir, “The Art of Perception: Memoirs of a Life in PR,” which chronicles his life experiences and showcases why "the need to manage perceptions has never been more essential for corporations and individuals."

Komisarjevsky noted that Leaf didn't always agree with Harold Burson - and that was fine: "In a telling subtlety, he used 'Perception' in the title of his book while Harold used the word 'Persuasion.' Bob's contributions to the growth of the firm are legendary."

In the last few years, Leaf's health declined. He had heart valve replacement and melanoma surgery, and also suffered from liver cancer. 

Leaf is survived by his wife, Adele; son, Stuart; and two grandchildren. 

In lieu of contributions, the family suggests donations to the Globe Theater in Leaf's memory. 

This story was updated with comment from Komisarjevsky. 

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