In the pantheon of 20th century public relations figures, few loom larger than Harold Burson. Now 96 years old, Burson and Bill Marsteller first joined forces in 1953 in Manhattan, and by the 1980s Burson-Marsteller was one of the largest PR firms on the planet. In 1979, the company became a part of Young & Rubicam Group, a subsidiary of WPP, a world leader in communications services. Today the company consists of 67 offices and 85 affiliate offices in 110 countries across six continents and, according to its website, “provides clients with strategic thinking and program execution across a full range of public relations, public affairs, reputation and crisis management, advertising and digital strategies.”
I had the opportunity to meet Harold Burson at a recent event hosted by the Museum of Public Relations at which he promoted his new book, The Business of Persuasion, and spoke to an audience about his beginnings as a journalist and evolution as an agency head. He was asked why journalists often become good PR people. “PR is a problem solving business,” Burson suggested. “Newspaper people are good at figuring out what the problem is. News people know what’s going on the world, which is why they become good PR people who provide solutions.”
Burson noted that during his tenure, public relations became more than just creating publicity for clients. He talked about the substantial growth of the industry in the second half of the 20th century, pointing to the tumultuous 1960s as its high point. “The ’60s was the greatest period for PR because of social awareness and change. We were the go-to place for planning for crises. And there was a major change in the psychology of the public,” he observed. “Ultimately, PR is a combination of communication and behavior.”
In discussing the industry’s future, Burson expressed concern about the smaller role PR agencies are playing in decision-making. He believes external advice is invaluable to businesses. “A lot of strategic planning is being done internally, but companies should have a lot more outside perspective than they have.”
If I owned a company, I’d sure want Harold Burson’s perspectives. Your thoughts?