When I met Harold Burson

By Tony Bradley, chair of iprovision,

Like many industry veterans I was sad to learn of the death of Harold Burson. The founder of Burson-Marsteller leaves an incomparable legacy within the industry he did so much to shape, leading many to consider him the greatest ever PR practitioner.

I met Burson in 2007 when, as president of the CIPR, I presented him with the Alan Campbell-Johnson medal. At the time I wrote about the influence Burson has had on the industry for PR Voice (a forerunner to Influence), which you can find below.

Time for a War of Independence

I was privileged this week to have lunch with veteran PR practitioner Harold Burson – without doubt one of the most significant figures in the history of our profession.

He was in London to receive the Alan Campbell-Johnson medal which is awarded annually in recognition of outstanding service to international public relations. Alan Campbell-Johnson died in 1998 after a distinguished career in PR which included a spell as Press Attache to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, during the transfer of power in 1946-7.

One of the founders of the then Institute of Public Relations, Alan ran his own consultancy in London for 45 years and counted a number of major international companies among his clients.  It is fitting that the industry’s most important award for international work is named in his honour – and presented each year at a private lunch made possible through a generous grant from the Coca Cola Foundation.

This year’s presentation of the medal, by Alan’s widow Fay, was a historic event – helped in no small part by the venue, the Library of The Travellers Club in Pall Mall, which was a longtime favourite of the Queen Mum when she was hosting private parties.

But what of the great man himself? Harold Burson’s reputation is that of a giant of PR who founded Burson-Marsteller in the middle of last century and went on to advise more captains of industry and heads of state than most of us can ever hope to.  He has been hugely supportive of our industry, has mentored dozens if not hundreds of our brightest young people and is known for his charitable and educational works.

At 85 years old, he still commutes on a daily basis to his office in Manhattan and has a workload which people half his age would find intimidating.  Yet in person he is a small, quietly self-effacing individual who seems more interested in hearing what you have to say than spouting forth himself.

But when he does speak you know he is worth listening to, and I wasn’t the only one of the lunch guests making notes on the back of the menu!

Aside from making history himself, Harold has some interesting views about where our profession came from.  Being of Yorkshire stock – his parents emigrated from Leeds to the USA before he was born – he is also refreshingly forthright in what he has to say.

Many people, myself included, see the roots of modern day PR as either in the Ministry of Information during WW2, or alternatively in the American soap powder manufacturers’ forays into sponsored television in the middle of the 20th century.

Not so, says Harold, who made the point that: “Roman Legionnaires didn’t march up and down those wide boulevards for exercise – it was a PR stunt!”

Likewise, in a subject close to his own heart, and a book he perhaps hopes to write, he quotes the Boston Tea Party as being something which Samuel Adams, PR guru of the American Revolution, came up with to capture column inches. Adams’ setting up of Committees of Correspondence were perhaps the forerunners of focus groups, intended as a mechanism for two-way communication with the colonists and also as a means of generating stories for the fledgling newspaper industry.

But he was most scathing in his criticism of those who are replacing the term ‘public relations’ with other more fashionable tags such as ‘communications’.

Turns out it’s Richard Nixon we have to blame for PR become a perjorative term in many eyes.  During the furore over the release of the ‘Nixon Tapes’ he apparently had a favourite phrase when something came up he couldn’t answer: “We need to PR that – let’s get the flacks in.”

Harold suggests we make it our mission to turn back the clock and make Public Relations something we can be proud of – a campaign another Yorkshireman Stuart Bruce suggested only last week.  Stop turning PR departments into communications departments and reverse the trend in top companies to call their PR advisers by another name.

For after all, if Harold Burson himself tells us that PR is at the absolute top of the pyramid with advertising, marketing, communications, promotions and publicity all subsidiary disciplines perhaps it’s time we stood up to fight our corner.

Mr Burson, Sir, it was an honour to meet you.

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