“The Business of PeRsuasion”

Harold Burson

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?

28 thoughts on ““The Business of PeRsuasion”

  1. Daniella Opabajo

    I agree with Burson’s point that PR is way more than just creating publicity for your client. I still think that PR is a growing field and not too many people understand the role that public relations partitioners play. Burson does a good job of explaining how PR is more about problem solving than anything. The amounted years that Burson has been in the field shows how important and true his advice would be for anyone going into the field.

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  2. Owen Lewis

    I think Harold Burson’s advice would be invaluable given his longevity and perspective. I’m sure he understands the industry from an angle that few other practitioners do. Outside advice should be a no brainer and always welcome. It doesn’t have to be taken, but at least hearing it out should be a given.

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  3. czackarypenn

    Harold Burson’s expertise and experience is invaluable in the PR world. Still spry and giving advice at 96 years old is one thing, but given the worldly experience that he has ascertained, anyone in the PR industry should be grateful to hear his opinion. I thought his reference to the 1960s as the greatest period for PR completely makes sense and I would never have thought of that otherwise.

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  4. John Grillea

    Harold Burson is a prominent individual in the PR world and I will definitely take a further look into his work. Not to mention, he is 96 years old and still going! He has seen the industry change and adapt to new things that most have not experienced. His opinion and advice would be important for any organization! It would be difficult to find someone as influential and experienced as he is within our field.

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  5. Amina Antoury

    Burson sounds like a very wise man who knows what he is talking about when it comes to PR. I think any business owner would benefit from seeking his wisdom and knowledge. It is our job to seek the wisdom of those who are skilled in the craft.

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  6. Shayla Sales

    Harold Burson seems legitimately experienced in the field of PR; not only for his many years of experience but because of his expertise and ability to share what he learned to others. To ensure the longevity of certain fields, passing down knowledge to others in forms of books or any other text is a good way to progress PR. To have met Harold must have been an honor.

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  7. Megan Pohlman

    As most people would, I would want Burson’s advice and perspective if I owned my own company. He clearly knows what he is talking about and has had a ton of experience. Also, I agree that perspective from the outside would benefit companies a lot more. The more perspectives you have on something, the better understanding you will have on what to improve. Many people could learn from the wise Harold Burson.

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  8. Matt Howard

    Burson sounds like a wise man. Having outside advice from a source that has best interests at heart seems like it would be valuable to any organization. When thinking about starting my own business, I’m reminded of how many times I would have liked to have the luxury of credible, outside opinions. I would think having an agency represent an organization would be good because of the relationship they would have with the organization. An agency has good intentions for helping the organization succeed, but they are also able to remove themselves from deep emotional ties that owners of the organization might have. Business decisions that come from an emotional place are often misguided and can ruin a reputation. Influence from a strong but removed source seems like a great thing to have.

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  9. Paula Chirinos

    Being a fellow for the CCE gave me the opportunity to work with professionals in the field of activism and learn about raising advocacy for various social issues. A lot of the lectures I attended for the fellowship used the examples of activism in the 60s and historical context to identify effective strategies in getting communities to organize to raise awareness for different causes. I liked connecting these strategies to the PR strategies we learned in class since both relate to reaching out to target audiences and getting a key message across a community.

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  10. Ian Budding

    While Burson describes the 60’s as one of the best eras in public relations, that was his interpretation of his context of the times. Now more than ever, public relations as an even more important role in the in this crazy, twisted world of politics and the media. He’s most likely witnessing a media frenzy that would topple any competition of what he would call “a significant period in public relations.”

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  11. Greg Liodice

    I’d certainly want Burson’s advice as well. A man with that much experience, there is absolutely no negative to come out of that. If you’re not learning, then you’re becoming content, and being content is purgatory for anyone. Of course, any advice from anyone with that kind of experience is beneficial, but Burson is someone who’s experience is something you can’t teach.

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    1. Summer

      I think Burson makes an excellent point. These internal PR agencies have become too consumed with internal content that they lose sight of external factors that affect the information disseminated to its stakeholders and how its received by them. Diversity within PR is truly important, having different types of PR professionals from different backgrounds eliminates slip-ups. Outside perspective shouldn’t only include outside PR professionals but also the consumers you provide services too. They should also have a seat at the table.

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  12. Haley Nemeth

    I would definitely want Burson’s opinion. He points out an interesting and valid point that organizations should take outside advice to have a new perspective. At the same time, I can understand the shift to inside advice because those individuals are familiar with the company and how it operates. I think a balance between the inside and outside advice would be ideal to get all perspectives. Burson is an invaluable source for advice due to his amazing and long career in PR. Current PR professionals should look up to Burson for his passion and knowledge of the industry.

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  13. Justin Ayala

    I agree that if I had owned a company I would want Harold Burson’s perspectives and opinions. He is evidently a prominent figure in the practice of public relations. His experience as a journalist is what gives him even more knowledge and strategy with mass communication. I also find it very admirable how he brought the practice of journalism to his pr career and even what he said about news people being good pr people because journalists know what problems are going on in the world and pr people are the ones to find solutions to the problems.

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  14. Nichole Bingham

    I think that it’s a great idea to listen to other peoples’ opinions because there are a lot of creative individuals that deserve to showcase their visions to the world. PR to me seems like a rapidly changing and diverse environment where anything can happen. As the years go by improvements are being made by companies and organizations all over the world. I think that change is good in the PR department because it helps makes your job interesting everyday. Each day is different and you never know what you’ll expect.

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  15. Jessica Gilmour

    The most interesting concept of PR for me is the fact that it is unpredictable. Public relations is, like Burson said, a problem solving business. It is a business best suited for those who are creative, witty, fast on their feet, and see things from another scope. To be involved in PR for so many years and watch the world evolve and the techniques and problems change is an incredible sight.

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  16. Jeffrey Werner

    I liked his idea that journalists are good at pointing out problems, thus SOME become good PR people. As a journalist, I feel the responsibility to inform the public when I see a problem, but that’s as far involved as I believe I should be in the problem-solving process. Journalists provide the information, but it’s up to the American people to decide what to do with that information. I also liked his idea that PR people need to be part of the problem-solving process. They can provide a perspective that hasn’t been considered by the parties involved.

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  17. Aisha Buchanan

    I think that internal advice is great and more major companies should value it more. Internal is great because the employees knows the company inside and out . External advice is also great because companies can be so swamped in their own bubble and not realize whats going on. Having outside perspectives can provide fresh point of views.

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  18. Unice Kim

    This was very interesting to read about. First of all , the fact that the man is 96 is incredible. But also the fact that created one of the largest PR firm in the world is even more incredible. I think any person in PR should strive to be like Harold Burson or at least look at him as PR goals. I agree, if I owned my own company I would like to get perspective from the great Burson!

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  19. Kristina Barry

    I would also want Harold Burson’s opinion. He has experience and knowledge not many others can say they have. He knows all the ins and outs of PR and would be the right person to go to with any problem or concern. The fact that he is still so active in the PR world today is also impressive he is an extremely hard working man and that is shown still today.

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  20. Delaney Barac

    I believe I would also want advice from Harold Burson. He seems to know A LOT about the history of PR, and history tends to repeat itself so having his advice could be very beneficial. He also knows so much information about how to work within a company and communicate with publics, an essential factor in PR. His advice would be wonderful for anyone starting their own company.

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  21. claudiabarnard

    Harold Burson is a very influential figure in the PR world, and everything he says about the industry should be taken seriously. I really agreed with Burson when he was talking about how journalist often become good PR people because knowing what is going on in the world around you is key when working in PR. No matter if you work for a big PR firm or a small PR firm, Harold Burson advice is valuable.

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  22. Kaitlyn Cusumano

    Harold Burson is a giant in the field of public relations and his words should be taking very seriously and wildly respected by anyone interested in going into this line of work. I think the point he made about how newspaper people often times make excellent public relations practitioners was brilliant. I believe that in order to be a good practitioner you must be able to anticipate or find problems either before they happen or at least before anyone else.

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  23. Rosaria Rielly

    In the field of PR it is very important that one knows about outside perspective so that they can plan how the public eye will see and interpret the messages they are portraying. Bringing this back to our class, this comes from knowing all the random trivia facts, making us well- versed in various subjects. Problem solving and being able to figure out the best plans for targeting their clients is such an important part of PR, and I agree with what Harold Burson’s perspective is on how ‘“Ultimately, PR is a combination of communication and behavior.”’ As professionals we must be able to understand people and their patterns of behavior in order to influence them correctly and successfully.

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  24. Ana G Canahuate Torres

    It is very interesting to see Harold Burson perspective on PR and how he makes the correlation with journalism. I believe that it is an amazing opportunity to listen to such a prominent figure of communication like Mr. Burson who is sharing his experience and knowledge in the field he has been so succesful in. The importance of learning about how my major is a problem solving tool that is used to help those who need a positive image or just a clean slate to start on and that is the true beauty of PR that one is consistantly looking for way to improve an idea or an image for a client.

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  25. Raffaella Tonani

    Its inspiring to read about a person’s beginnings. I see success as nothing but hard work and he clearly did and grew his company step by step. It is even more inspiring how he merged two practices that I am inclined to, journalism and PR. I think he realized the power communication has in society and used it to achieve his purpose.

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  26. Brianna Flynn

    I think it’s important to note that Harold Burson referred to the 60s as “the greatest period for PR because of social awareness and change.” It almost reminds me of our society today. We have so many social, political, race and gender rights movements and advocates that almost mirrors the minds of people living in the 60s. We can make a huge difference in the PR industry by understanding how passionate people are, and mirroring that passion.

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  27. Abby

    Harold Burson is an impressive figure in the PR world. His experience and his awareness of change makes him incredibly special. I also find the fact that he’s still working, writing and thriving at 96 years old amazing. I do think the last statement about listening to people outside a company is very important, you must always remember how you are viewed.

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