Oral Histories

Harold Burson

Full Interview

Harold Burson Biography

Harold Burson, described by PR Week as “the century’s most influential PR figure,” began his professional career as a stringer for a daily newspaper, eventually entering the military to become a public information officer for the American Forces Network during World War II.  Burson opened his first PR agency following the War, which developed into Burson-Marsteller in 1953 by joining with Chicago advertising executive Bill Marsteller who needed public relations expertise for his clients.  Their relationship resulted in a unique enterprise with advertising and public relations operating as equals for the good of their clients.  Currently, Burson-Marsteller provides clients with strategic thinking and program execution across a full range of public relations, public affairs, advertising, and web-related services.


Interviewer: What were the most significant events in your early part of years and how did you establish first agency?

Harold Burson: First eventful chapter was that I had a client and was able to start my own business. I have worked for an engineering building company, one of the large engineer building companies during WWII. Today it would have been the equivalent of a Bechtol or a Halliburton. And I worked for the CEO traveling with him while doing publicity for the company. Unfortunately when I was in the service, he died and I did not want to go back to that company as an employee. And I proposed to management that I start my own business in New York and that they become my first client. And I was able to do what I look back on as a very respectable publicity job for a company was in an industry that was really not one of the glamour industries. In fact I was able to get them into Time magazine. I was able to get them into a Reader’s Digest article. And also able to get one of their projects a large coin processing plant into Life Magazine. And so I think my early reputation was based on being a very effective publicist and I still think that the publicity function is one of the most significant in our business and unfortunately I feel that people today in the field are not doing as good as aggressive at the publicity job as we did 20, 30, 40 years ago.

Interviewer: Your first office. How many employees did you have in that office? And how did you separate the responsibilities for them?

Harold Burson: My first office was a desk in my client up in the Gray [inaudible] Building. I had another client who was a different type of engineering business and he gave me desk space in his office and the use of a secretary and a telephone and I started just in that small space for about a year and it was about a year I then had my first office over on Broadway and 57th Street. And my first employee actually was my wife. I got married in October of 1947 and she had been a secretary and so she quit her job and started working for me, and about the same time I hired a young man who was going to Columbia University whom I had met in the Army. And he was getting his college degree. Had been drafted before he finished college. And he worked for me as a part time employee. He left and later became a regional director of news for CBS and NBC on the west coast. So we started with very modest beginnings. By 1952 I had five people including myself. And we all kept fairly busy.

Interviewer: In those days did you imagine what your company would become in later years?

Harold Burson: I could never have imagined that. I thought that if we ever grew to 20 25 people it would be a great success. You must remember that after WWII there were literally dozens probably a couple hundred people here in New York who had started public relations firms after having been public information officers in the armed services. I was one of those. And some of them that are already grown to have 10, 15, 20 people and I was extremely envious of those and wondered if I would ever be able to achieve that kind of success and that kind of growth. The interesting thing is that of that number not only really a handful of PR firms that have maintained and grown and prospered from those days. The first one was Bill Ruden actually and David Finn started back in the very early 50s. I think Dan Edelman came second started shortly after that. And then he was in Chicago of course. I came along started [inaudible] actually my own business started in ’46. I met Bill Marsteller in ’52. We started Burson Marsteller in ’53. [inaudible]  Harris which was in [inaudible] Cooper [inaudible] out in Chicago started about that time also. I think those were probably the only real survivors that made a great success. Of course Fleishman’s started out in St. Louis about that time too. Maybe a little bit earlier in I think they started during the war and maybe a little bit before WWII.

Interviewer: How did your experiences in WWII assist you when you did open your first office?

Harold Burson: In a very unusual way. I was I went into the Army relatively late. I went in very early 1944. I could have stayed out of the war because I was working for a defense essential industry. I felt that I should go into the Army before the war ended. And I was put into an engineer combat group which went to Europe. We were in Normandy about seven or eight weeks after the invasion. And I learned very little that helped me directly in my business during the time that the war was going on. I suppose the greatest lesson I had was that I was living with people that different backgrounds, different socio-economic structures than I had grown up in. Well actually a bunch of people from Appalachia and who were great soldiers and great people and I learned a lot about people and how they reacted from them because you live so closely with people when you are in the Army and particularly when you are under fire. I got a great break after the war. I was able to get into the news staff of American Forces Network, which was the Army radio network in Europe. Arguably one of the greatest radio networks ever because we were able to use all the programming of all the radio networks in the United States at that time and so we had a great lineup of programs. And after the war I was assigned to cover the Nuremburg Trial. I was at the trial from the day that it started on November 20, 1945. I stayed until the end of March 1946 the trial continued through most of the summer. And this is the 60th anniversary of the close of the trial and just recently I was in this studio being photographed being taped by BBC which is doing a three hour documentary. But I I covered the trial. I was in the courtroom day after day after day and when I got back one of the things that people wanted to talk to me about was the Nuremburg Trial and so I had a lot of entrée that I possibly would not have had if I had not been at Nuremburg. And that’s probably what I got most out of the Army that had effect on my business.

Interviewer: You watched history in the making.

Harold Burson: History in the making.

Interviewer: The next section of questions I can transition into your opinion regarding ethics.

Harold Burson: One of the things that people wanted to talk to me about

Interviewer: [inaudible] trust you credibility so that I can move into that section of questions the next group. In your professional opinion what constitutes ethical public relations?

Harold Burson: I think ethical public relations is a factor of mainly adhering to what you believe is truthful in presenting your client’s representing your client in a way that shows his interest but only insofar as you can be truthful in what you purport to be. The message, the facts, I think truth is or the closest thing you can come to truth is the essence of ethical public relations. Also, being sensitive to whom you are representing. I believe that every institution every person is entitled to have public relations representation. I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that counsel representation. On the other hand I think that our unpopular causes which are legitimate which I may not agree. I do not think it’s unethical for me to represent that client as long as I can do so in a way that my client is not compromised by my bias or disagreement with what the cause or the purpose. I think that I am an advocate for a client just as a lawyer is an advocate that I am engaged to motivate individuals or groups to take a position or take an action that my client seeks to have taken. I think I should however as a public relations professional make the judgment on whether I represent such a client by asking myself the question,” is what this client wants to do in the public interest?” And I think that is a factor that is very important sometimes overlooked. The fact is I believe that no action can be sustained or successful if in the long run it is not in the public interest.

Interviewer: Is it important therefore for a corporation to have an ethical mission statement or credo to help guide t hem in their decision making process?

Harold Burson: I think symbolically it is. It’s something to fall back on. And it also is a guideline for corporations to give to employees so employees really have an idea of what the company’s mission is what its expectations of behavior are so yes I would strongly subscribe to a mission statement or a credo.

Interviewer: Would you support any sort of ethical training for staff members upon being hired at either an agency like yours or a corporation?

Harold Burson: I think it should be part of the indoctrination program for any employee and also any follow up supplementary training that employees have. I think that I would go to the having every year perhaps a reminder this is the kind of company we are. I don’t think that you can overdo telling your employees that we’re we do this with honor. We respect the law. We respect the norms of society. I fully believe that and I think the good companies do that.

Interviewer: When when hiring or selecting senior people for your organization, what abilities and characteristics are most important to you?

Harold Burson: It depends on the job. Generally characteristics that we look for in everybody are integrity, an intellectual curiosity, commitment to a good work ethic, broad general knowledge of what is going on in the world around him or her, and particularly so a senior hires today a knowledge base in a field where we need expertise so that we can substantively advise our clients. If we are looking for an environmental specialist we want someone who has had experience with environmental organization with environmental regulations with the enforcement of our environmental regulations. If it’s in the healthcare field we want someone who really knows the pharmaceutical industry. Someone who knows how the FDA works. Increasingly we are a knowledge-based company where we provide counsel on what the decision should be and not alone be the fact that we are communicating that decision. I some years ago made a talk in which I said there has been a maturation of public relations over the last 30 - 40 years. And the progression has been first we had the how do I say it era. And that was probably up until 60s when management would make a decision call in their publicity manager publicity director some call them public relations directors and said we decided to do thus and so. Write it up for us so that we can get it out to the media. And so PR person go down to his typewriter and write the story and then send the release out. And newspapers would public it. The 60s which was a very decisive decade for public relations perhaps the most decisive decade of all where there were so many changes in society in that decade. Women’s rights. Minority rights. Consumer’s right to know, environmental laws. Truth in lending. That public relations really came to the floor. There were a lot of protest marches and really CEOs weren’t prepared for that kind of environment. And hardly any other people in the organization were either. So the logical person who had to deal with them was the public relations person and I think public relations moves from how do I say it to what do I say when these women marched on corporate headquarters and when a protest group from NGO who’s asking about more information on pricing or ingredients or some other subject. So the public relation person escalated I think in importance within the organization. And in more recent years it has advanced even more from what do I say to really what do I do. And today if you look at the organization charts of many of the Fortune 100 and 500 companies you’ll find that the senior public relations communications officer is usually on the management board. Has a title of senior vice president or in some cases executive vice president. And really is part of that decision making process that the CEO has to articulate. And is playing a vital role in the management of the company in addition to the communications function which comes after the decision making and the behavior of the company.

Interviewer: So in other words that person is being trusted with contributing more than just their input about the communications.

Harold Burson: Oh absolutely.

Interviewer: They are looking at the bigger picture.

Harold Burson: And I think sometimes that the work that public relations people do is trivialized by the descriptor that is taking the place of public relations which is communications. I think I said before that I think that was one of the worst disservices that ever happened to public relations when communications became the label that describes what we do because communications is only part of our function and arguably the least important part.

Interviewer: So how you label a position therefore is very important to you.

Harold Burson: I think it’s extremely important.

Interviewer: How that position is defined both inside the organization as well as outside.

Harold Burson: As outside.

Interviewer: Well given that last explanation that you just described. What therefore is the role of the economic bottom line in decision making for an organization and what role in your opinion should it play?

Harold Burson: Well I think you’ve got to distinguish between doing public relations for a corporation or some other institution profit or not for profit. And for a public relations firm like ours of course economics play a part in you know decisions of all kinds. You know you weigh the economic impact of any decision you make whether it’s corporate or other. But in running a business like this you’ve got to be very conscious of much more conscious of the economics of it than you do when you are managing the budget for a corporation. I don’t really understand the impact of your question frankly.

Interviewer: I was speaking economics broadly in terms of

Harold Burson: Well economics affect every decision that a corporation makes. You have to [inaudible] you know what is it going to cost. What is it going to bring us back. What does it cost us if we don’t do something. What does it cost if we do and to what extent do we want to do it? So I think economics is just a major part of being in a business management. Managing a business.

Interviewer: A moment ago, we were speaking about the importance of naming positions whether it be public relations, communications, marketing, or advertising. In recent years, those terms have become muddled together and especially advertising in public relations and also on the agency side. A lot of mergers. And what not. Now what do you feel that has impacted the industry overall of public relations.

Harold Burson: I think it’s a result of a certain amount of confusion I think that public relations is not really a definition of public relations is really not clear even to many if not most public relations practitioners. Many public relations people equate public relations with communications. And only communications. I think communication is only one half of the overall process. I think the other half is counseling, consulting, with management on strategies on behavior patterns, on decisions, and then communicating one of those most simplistic definitions of public relations that I know of is public relations is doing good and getting credit for it. First you have to do good. I don’t think all the communications in the world can accomplish any real good or lasting good unless it is based on good conduct good behavior. Providing a satisfactory service providing a satisfactory product. I think that the big mistake is when people say shall we use advertising or public relations to help support a product sale or an issue or whatever. Actually public relations is really more of an umbrella term even in advertising. Advertising can be a subset of public relations and is in many kinds of programs. Basically I equate the term publicity with advertising. Getting material to the potential consumer or the person you want to motivate through all of media and doing it in a way other than buying paid advertising space or paying for time on television or radio or the internet.

Interviewer: You write in your book that opening your first international office was a major turning point in the evolution of your agency. Could you please explain why this expansion was important to you and in addition explain what do you feel the role of an international presence is in today’s public relations industry?

Harold Burson: When we made the decision to open our first office in Europe and that decision was made in 1960 and we actually opened the office in February of ’61 it differentiated Burson Marsteller from the pack of smaller agencies which we were at the time and really made us “the other international PR firm.” The only other firm that really was seriously involved in international who had overseas operation was Hill & Knowlton. Hill & Knowlton at that time was probably ten - twelve times the size of Burson and Marsteller was. And by opening that office we attracted a lot of attention to ourselves which we would not have had and I feel that it was a differentiation that has actually served this firm until the present that it differentiated us as a in those words terms we used the term international. Today we use global in the interim we had used multi-national. But it really separated us and had people talking about us and I think resulted in much more rapid growth than we would have had otherwise. And as I look back on that decision which was made now almost 60 years ago 55 years ago it I think was really a very farsighted decision. And frankly I had not thought it thoroughly through but I had thought it through to the point that I felt that we would be opening offices as we went along in Asia and Latin America and Australia. In 1959, my associates and I gathered together over a weekend and developed what we called a long range plan and that long range plan visualized public relations as a global business which it has become. As you may know for about 25 or 30 years actually Burson Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton were the only significant global public relations firms. In the 90s late 80s and 90s w hen the large advertising agencies started buying the large public relations firms that’s when they started going overseas. But we had had we and H & K had the national global market pretty much to ourselves for the better part of a quarter century. Today of course it’s much more competitive because there are eight or ten major firms that have offices in practically every city and every country that we do now.

Interviewer: The Tylenol crisis in the early 1980s has subsequently been written about in many public relations textbooks as being an excellent example of crisis management. Would you please explain the evolution of that term crisis management and specifically the role your agency played in that event?

Harold Burson: I really don’t know the evolution of the term crisis management. I think that very likely preceded Tylenol but I’m not sure. I think however we as a public relations firm as much as any other helped make crisis management part of the common industry vernacular. We were brought into the Tylenol situation for two reasons. First we had them as a client when for some years after they went over the counter back in the 70s. The first crisis was 1982. And also as part of Young and Rubicam which we became part of in 1979 Ed Knay who was the CEO of Young and Rubicam when it first broke suggested that to Jim Burke the CEO that perhaps Burson and Marsteller could help them. I at the time happened to be in Europe I was in Paris. My associate Jim Dowling who was our number two person at the time started talking with Jim Burke and also with Larry Foster and the hero of Tylenol was basically Jim Burke and I was pretty sure that Larry Foster would agree with me on this. That Jim really managed that crisis. Several weeks he spent full time managing it and also he played a very major part in the communications and the decision making part leading up to the communications for that crisis. We had the privilege of supporting Jim and supporting Larry in that crisis. One of the things that we did that I think helped in the resolution and restoration of the product regaining market share was the fact that we suggested that instead of having one big press conference in New York to re-introduce the repackaged tamper resistant Tylenol packages. That instead of having one big press conference in New York that we have about 30 downlinks to local markets and make it a local story. At that time it actually made it two local stories because it was so early in the phase of the use of satellite transmission that the fact that we were doing a satellite press conference not only showed the importance of how important Tylenol felt it was to inform the public about this. That but it also was really reported as a technological achievement when people said gee whiz they are able to have those conferences. The Waldorf up in New York and we got the local presses invited to a local hotel here a local venue to see the press conference. And instead of being buried some place back in the paper we dominated a lot of front pages in the major markets for the product. We got a lot of credit for participating in that. But I would say I think the real drivers of that program were Jim Burke who was the CEO, Larry Foster was his chief public relations person. We were very privileged to work along side him. When the second Tylenol crisis came on 1985 I actually participated very deeply personally in that one. And again same pattern was followed. Jim Burke ran the program. He set up more or less a wall room one of the conference rooms and for days and days and days he just devoted full time to trying to get that situation resolved.

Interviewer: Could you please explain what was the second crisis in 1985.

Harold Burson: Second crisis was in Bronxville same type thing. Somebody was able to penetrate the package and put toxic material in the product. I believe three people died.

Interviewer: Do you recall which city?

Harold Burson: Bronxville, New York. Not very far from here.

Interviewer: The last section of questions I would like to transition to will be dealing primarily with education and what you feel the next generation of workers can do in order to become successful public relations executives? Are younger workers today fully prepared for a successful career in public relations. Do you feel that they are getting appropriate education and work experience for example internship for the younger workers entering the marketplace today. Are they prepared?

Harold Burson: I think it’s very difficult to generalize. I think some are and some are not. And I think it depends on the teaching quality, the advice that these young people have had. The good luck or fortune that some of them that they expose to. Getting good internships. The majority of course have not. I find that you get some very very bright people coming into the business very very well prepared. And you get a lot of people who just do not have some of the basic skills. And the one basic skill that’s lacking in most of the younger people coming into the business today is their writing ability is not nearly as good as it was some years ago. And I think that is a major deficiency. The I think that most of the people who come into public relations really start getting their real training after they get on the job and I think those of us who are in agencies or running public relations departments have got to realize that as we take on new people training them and development of those people is a major part of our responsibility if we want them to be good capable employees. It’s very difficult for me to really tell you what I think is the ideal training for a public relations person. All of us have a tendency particularly those of us who have achieved some degree of success to look at how we got where we were and say that’s the way you got to do it. I belong to the school as does some of those my age who are have had successful careers my generation. We started mostly on newspapers or with press associations. And were reporters and writers for two, three, four, five years before we went into the business. I still think that newspaper experience or journalism experience doesn’t necessarily have to be newspapers. But I would say if I had my choice I would prefer hiring some person who had been on a small town newspaper for a couple of years. Or work with the press association. Because those are people who really have to write it themselves. They don’t get a lot of rewriting and when you see their byline you know it’s their story. On the other hand you know we have a need for so many specialists today that we look for people who have had experience working in the government, working in politics, we look for people who have experience who with MBAs no business particularly in the finance area. We look for people who in consumer publicity if you work on food accounts. If they’ve had food experience nutritional experience particularly is getting more and more important today as we start at looking at every ingredient in a product. So there is no real I think road map. You have to create your set of skills and based on what you feel you want to do with your life, what field you want to work in and get experience in that particular area whether it be a government, a science, or business. I think the time may come within the next decade that agencies like Burson and Marsteller will be looking for people who have the equivalent of an MBA degree before we hire them. I think these integrated programs at some school Northwestern particularly is an example where they have interdisciplinary programs where you study public relations in addition to a science. You study public relations in addition to health care or in addition to political science politics or business I think those programs are probably will increase in number.

Interviewer: How important is mentoring in the workplace?

Harold Burson: Oh it’s essential I think. I think if you for every successful person and I’m talking about ranges of success you usually find they have had someone in their careers or some few people in their careers who have early on identified them that person helped them in their careers, steered them, served as advice as inspiration and very frankly that’s one of the things I’m proudest of is how many people I’ve worked with have done it so well. We really encourage our senior people to do as much mentoring as they possibly can with their younger people.

Interviewer: Is professional accreditation necessary in your profession of public relations similar to a law degree or a medical degree accounting?

Harold Burson: Idealistically it is. Unfortunately it has not really had much impact in our business. And I think one reason is that it is very difficult to define a public relations person. The range of what public relations people do is extremely broad and some people serve merely as advisors never have anything to do with implementation public relations people. Some people working in entertainment. Some people are working in food and fashion and other in corporations and not for profits. The field is so broad and diverse that I think it is very difficult to do a proper accrediting job. Anyone can call himself a public relations person. Edward [inaudible] who had a tremendous impact on this business with a very strong proponent of licensing; felt that public relations people should be licensed like chartered public accountants or lawyers. All the time he was doing in fact I was against it. I just didn’t feel [tape turned over] all the time he was doing it I was against it I just didn’t’ feel that the government should have a role in deciding who was a public relations person and who wasn’t. I guess I think about it more now. I’m not so sure I was right. I think he may have been right. But the field would be much more identifiable and have stature if it were licensed.

Interviewer: In many undergraduate public relations program including Penn State women students far outnumber men in the undergraduate ranks. Are there particular components of a public relations profession that you feel attract more women and why do you think there is such a disparity between men and women in this field at least at the level there is.

Harold Burson: Well at all levels. It’s interesting. We have 50 offices or there about and I would say the ratio in those 50 0ffices is at least two thirds female one third male. Some as high as 80 percent female 20 percent male but the average probably is 2/3 1/3. I have pondered that and tried to figure it out and talked with academics about why are men eluding public relations. I think the women who go into it are very good. But even the women certainly those who have been around for a while feel that the last thing they want is for public relations to be known as a place where women do that work. First place the college attendance today is now more female than it is male. So you start out with that. And it’s not great. It’s not it’s probably like 53/47 or 54/46 or something like that but growing. And of course as you say if you go into almost any college of communications journalism school. My observation is it’s about 80/20 and I do two or three or four college talks a year. And it’s all the same. And one reason I think that males are separating themselves away particularly the more capable male is basically financial rewards. I think that they feel it is more lucrative to go into law. It’s more lucrative to go into a business school marketing finance. And it’s just primarily a money decision that they’ve made. Now some people on campuses tell me I give too much credit to those young people. They’re not thinking that far ahead. I feel that we would get more males into this business if the starting salaries were entry level salaries were higher than they are. on the other hand I think women are attracted to it because its’ something they do well and also and I’m also told that women at that age don’t think this far ahead but public relations is one of the few careers a women can enter, work for five six seven years, starting having a family, take off for four or five years, and re enter without a significant penalty to her career. Can’t do that with law. Can’t do that with medicine. Can’t do that in business generally. But you can do it particularly if you’ve established a good record and you’ve networked properly. These women come back after their kids are in school and they do extremely well and their careers just move on as though they had stayed. So I think that’s why. That’s a positive reason for the women coming in but it doesn’t answer why the men stay out.

Interviewer: What do you believe is the single greatest challenge facing public relation executives in today’s business climate?

Harold Burson: In being, in having a knowledge base that qualifies them to be a counselor to the senior management; the CEOs. To be a to have the knowledge base in the business that qualifies him to be a peer of those people they serve with on a management committee.

Interviewer: How would you like to be remembered? What legacy would you like to leave? Both personally and professionally?

Harold Burson: They let me put it another way. The thing that I am proudest of as I look back over the 55 years of Burson and Marsteller, and my own total of 60 years in the business, is that I created job opportunities for a lot of people who either has succeeded at Burson and Marsteller or who have gone elsewhere and succeeded and about 25,000 of them and I like to think that if I had not come along they may not have had those opportunities to get the experience that enabled them to do as well as they did. I take a lot of great deal of personal satisfaction in the emails and letters that I get on a really regular basis telling me how important their years at Burson and Marsteller were to them. That it gives me a real sense of pride and accomplishment.

Interviewer: And what do you feel is the future of your industry. If you could look ahead ten, twenty, thirty years ahead into the future where do you think the public relations industry will be situated at that time?

Harold Burson: I think it will be increasingly important and I think there will be a role for both agencies. I think the importance of the position internally will continue to accelerate. I think the global firms will play an increasingly important role because I think companies now are beginning to recognize that you have to speak with one voice around the world. It’s your one company around the world and that you have to have people who help submit your organization and I think that the big public relations firms are capable of doing that. That’s not to say that there’s not always going to be a place for the mid size and the smaller boutique firms but I think when you have global businesses you’re going to have large global organizations to serve them whether it be in the accounting field or the legal field. All these service industries.

Interviewer: That's all I have unless there is something specific that I didn’t cover that you would like to address. I know that we’re about 11:15 right now.

Harold Burson: The one differentiation of Burson and Marsteller from its eight or ten major competitors is that we more than anybody else are one company around the world. We have a single culture that I think most people in other agencies would recognize as probably the standard against which to measure and the way that came about is that we were able to grow organically around the world as opposed to going out and buying up a lot of different agencies and trying to clobber them together. We were able to do this over a 40-year period and we would usually send our own people into a country. hire local people, train them, and our objective being to have local management as quickly as we possibly could in the various countries around the world. I’m very proud today that it’s hardly an office outside the United States that’s not managed by a local national. Some of them are managed by third country nationals but there are very few Americans who are managing offices in countries outside the United States. And we have a communications system that we have developed, a computer allowing us to do this that’s really tied our company together. We have the largest data bank of case histories largest data bank of programs of in the agency around and that not only keeps us from reinventing the wheel every time we do a new type of project but also establishes a uniformity if you go to one Burson and Marsteller offices solution to the problem is likely to be comparable to what other offices have done because we have these cases on databases that people can see what we’ve done before. And we work very hard at being what we call a seamless company around the world.

Interviewer: Anything else that you would like to address? Is that it?

Harold Burson: Nope that’s it.

Interviewer: Excellent.

Harold Burson: Good.

Interviewer: Thank you so much.