Harold Burson

The legendary co-founder of Burson-Marsteller

What was the idea behind founding Burson-Marsteller in 1953?

After I graduated from college, I went to work for a large engineering firm, where I did publicity for the company. Then, after leaving the army, I got the idea that I wanted to start a public relations firm and have the engineering company as my first client. And that is what I did, in August 1946. In February 1952, I received a telephone call from a man at the New York Times, said that he’d run into someone who owned an advertising agency in Pittsburgh who was looking for a public relations firm to do work for one of his clients. And that person was William Marsteller. I had five people working for me at that time. My problem was we were good at what we did but we didn’t get very many chances because we were not very well connected. Marsteller was much better connected than I was at that time, so we decided to form a new public relations firm.

Would you like to see Burson-Marsteller expand even more, with an office in every country?

What we have strived to do through the years is to be where our clients are, and we’ve tried to be with them – or in many cases before them: we were before them in Russia and in China. Our latest is that we’ve established ourselves in Africa, because I feel that Africa is the next frontier for communications. I think there’s going to be tremendous growth in some of those African countries, and consumer product companies are beginning to pay much more attention to Africa than before.

Burson-Marsteller has been criticised in the past in some cases as non-transparent.

I fully subscribe to the idea that we should be prepared to identify any entity that we are working for if we’re talking to a third party about that. If it’s purely consultation with a client I can see that would be a confidential relationship, but if I talk to you about that client you should have a truthful response about who I am speaking for. And if it is a third party organisation that we have set up, you should know who has contributed to it.

Where is the line: for whom would you generally not work?

We were asked to work for Libya when Gaddafi was making overtures that he was a changed person, and we would not do it. We don’t take on issues that are so divisive and so personal that it would disturb our employees or our present clients. For example, we would not work for either side of the right-to-life or pro-choice debate. What we have said through the years is that we work with some of the top names in the global economy, and we won’t work for anybody that those companies would be embarrassed to be on a list with, or where large sectors of our employees would be embarrassed to work for. 

Do you have a vision for the future of public affairs and public relations?

I think it is going to play a greater part in the decision-making process as time goes on and as people get more information about what is around them. I also think that, with the proliferation of information, it is going to be harder and harder to get your message recognised. So there will be an increased role for public relations. The other aspect is that there are various other disciplines that are trying to move onto our turf. For example, the management consulting firms are taking over branding programmes, the human resources consultants are trying to muscle in on internal communications. Even the accounting firms are trying to take over financial public relations, which I think is a conflict of interest.

So what do firms such as Burson-Marsteller have to do to survive?

We have to provide clients with expert service, people who are much more adept at it than they are. We have track records that some of these would-be competitors don’t have. But they have a lot of resources to hire good people. The larger agencies are getting more competition from small boutiques, with two or three people who are experts in a certain area. Some companies are hiring six or eight of those boutiques, and I think they are much more difficult to manage and they don’t have the resources to serve a global firm. If something was to happen to Siemens in Malaysia, the whole world know about it within seconds, so if you don’t have anybody out in Malaysia that can bring to bear their expertise in real time, hopefully in the same news cycle, you’re at a disadvantaged. Firms like ours can do that.

Could you sum up the most important experience you’ve had in your life?

It’s going to surprise you. I played a significant role in removing the Confederate flags from the football stadium of the University of Mississippi, which was a very emotional issue for a lot of people. The fact that it helped correct a racial problem was a great source of pride for me. But I’ve had a great deal of satisfaction from working on a lot of other corporate problems. I was involved in the Tylenol crises in 1982 and 1985. And one of the greatest marketing debacles, which turned out to be a real saviour for the company, was the introduction of new Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola would not be the successful company it is today had it not done that.

Is there anything you wish you could have done differently?

You can always do things better, but next March we will have been in business for 60 years, and we’re regarded as one of the most professional and effective companies in the field. I am very proud of that. There are situation where there were people I wish we could have hired or kept, but life’s not perfect. Some people ask me what I am proudest of. Basically it is that I created 25,000 jobs, and in my field I guess there’s nothing more that you can do for other people than create jobs for them. I take a great deal of satisfaction that people have been able to live lives that have been productive or better than they would have been otherwise if I hadn’t come along.

Do you recognise public relations today from what it was 60 years ago?

I think the function is essentially the same. You would use the same definition back then as you would use now. Although it was not offered as a commercial service until 1900, people were practicing public relations from the time they first started communicating. I equate public relations with persuasion. It is one party trying to get another party to do something, to motivate them to one specific action or adapt one specific attitude or opinion, and that’s a process which has being going on from the time people first started using language. Rome didn’t have those wide boulevards because they had traffic jams, they wanted to show the rest of the empire the grandeur of Rome, and as legions marched down them, they wanted to show the power of Rome. To me, that’s public relations. Moses didn’t write the ten commandments on the back of an envelope, he carved them into stone. Martin Luther didn’t put his 99 theses on the bulletin board, he nailed them to the cathedral door.

And what has changed since 1953?

What has happened is a greater recognition and appreciation of the methodology that can be employed to carry through this action of persuasion, whether it’s to buy a product, or vote for a candidate or an issue, or select Greece instead of Turkey for your vacation. I think there is much more of a welcome for what we do from the people who employ us than there was back then. Back then, we regarded chief executives who supported us as really far-sighted, visionary people, but today most chief executives appreciate their public persona and the persona of their company as a major factor in influencing individuals, whether stockholders or customers or suppliers. Another big difference is that it is a lot easier to deliver messages today, which is both beneficial but also presents a problem, because it means that there are so many messages and so it is more difficult to differentiate and break through.

So would you say that the development of media also changed the development of public relations for the better?

The betterment was not necessarily in a new attitude towards whoever used public relations, because the new media can be either good or bad. But what new media did, and especially digital, was they created new opportunities, especially for us because our clients needed more professional help in navigating their way through this new labyrinth. It is still a work in progress. We really don’t know in the long term whether social media is going to be a positive or negative. Just like with newspapers – the tabloids are regarded as sensational, and you can’t believe what you read. Some social media are the same way, and then some of them are going to break through and be record-type news outlets. But that’s going to take some time to work out. And a lot of issues aren’t really resolved yet – there’s privacy, how far can you go, reliability, there is no editor between the writer and the recipient, and so on.

How do you see your own role in public affairs – do you think you are more of a salesman, a counselor, or a negotiator?

I have always felt that I have been more of a counselor, and also see a strong part of my role is not merely communicating messages but also helping develop what the policy or the action is and whether or not it’s something that will be in the public interest.

You have witnessed many political campaigns in the course of your life. How has political campaigning changed in recent decades in the United States?

It’s gotten worse. Money is corrupting the process – it costs so much money to run for election. We should have publically funded elections, and do as some European countries do, and that is to set aside a limited period in which campaigning will be done. Also I think here should be limitations on private and particularly corporate gifts.

What do you think are the main difference between Obama and Romney?

I think this is the most vapid election I have lived through; it has less substance and is more personalised than any campaign that I know. And I think both parties have been guilty of that. One impact of the increased scrutiny of candidates brought about by the proliferation of social media is causing a lot of really qualified people to say, “I do not want any part of this, I do not want my life and my family to be exposed to this.” I hope that at some point there is a major overhaul of the election process in the United States.

In your experience, which is easier: political or corporate public relations?

I think that when you are doing public relations for a corporate or private sector entity, or even public sector philanthropy, it is extremely vital for you to deliver on the promise, because if you do not, they will buy your product or service once but the won’t do it again. In the political field, you do your research and find out what people want to hear and you tell it to them, and there’s very remote accountability between what politicians promise and what they deliver. So a politician is not nearly as accountable as a corporation.

Interview: Marie-Luise Klose

Harold Burson

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 15 1921, Harold Burson has been described by PRWeek as “the century’s most influential PR figure”. He has spent more than 50 years serving as counsellor to and confidante of corporate chief executives, government leaders and heads of public sector institutions. In 1953, he co-founded Burson-Marsteller with Bill Marsteller, which is the largest public relations agency in the world today, and ushered in the concept of integrated marketing which became an industry standard. As an army news correspondent for American Forces Network, he covered the Nuremberg Trial of leading Nazi war criminals. Among many other honours, a chair in public relations at Boston University bears his name.