Harold Burson, one of the most influential figures in public relations history and a resident of Edgemont for more than half a century, died Jan. 10 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 98.
Once a 14-cents-per-column-inch stringer for a Memphis newspaper, Mr. Burson reported the Nuremberg Trial for the Army radio network in Europe. By 1983, his one-man consultancy became the world’s largest public relations firm and he played a leading role in transforming the practice of public relations from a cottage industry to a global business that engaged thousands of employees. Mr. Burson stepped down as chief executive officer of Burson-Marsteller in 1988, but continued in an active capacity for more than a quarter century and came to work nearly every day well into his 90s.
Mr. Burson was married to Bette Foster Burson for one month short of 63 years. The couple lived on Beverly Road in the Edgemont section of Scarsdale for 54 years and traveled extensively visiting Burson-Marsteller offices and clients on five continents.
In 1999, a survey by PRWeek, a leading public relations industry trade publication, named Mr. Burson “the century’s most influential PR figure.” This recognition reflected his role as counselor to and confidant of corporate chief executive officers, government leaders and heads of public sector institutions.
Mr. Burson was a strong proponent of the corporation’s role in society as a social entity, insisting that the mission of a corporation was to deliver a good product at a fair price, treat its employees fairly in terms of compensation and retirement, deal fairly with suppliers, support essential community activities in areas where it operated and reward its stockholders with a fair return on their investment. He also warned that the principal objective of the corporation was to make a profit that enabled it to fund its responsibilities as a social entity.
Born Feb. 15, 1921, in Memphis, the son of emigrants from Leeds, Yorkshire, England, Mr. Burson started school in the third grade and graduated from high school at age 15. He enrolled at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) knowing that his campus correspondent stringer job for the Memphis Commercial Appeal would cover his college tuition and expenses. Six months after graduation, he accepted a public relations position at a large engineering and architectural firm when, as he said, “They doubled my salary from $25 to $50 per week and gave me the use of a car.”
Mr. Burson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and became part of an engineer combat group in Europe. In 1945, he was transferred to the news staff of the American Forces Network a month before the war ended in Europe.
Later in 1945, he was assigned to report on the Nuremberg Trial and was the only reporter to obtain an interview with Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor, during the trial. Although Justice Jackson had vowed not to grant interviews, Mr. Burson argued that his audience, the American GIs who fought the war, were entitled to hear firsthand from the chief American prosecutor. Only 24 years old when the Nuremberg Trial began, Mr. Burson was believed to have been the last living reporter who covered the historic trial.
Following his discharge from the Army in 1946, he opened a public relations firm in New York in “a tiny nook in a client’s office” next to the desk of a part-time executive assistant. Never having heard the word “differentiation” used in a competitive sense, he described his firm as specializing in business-to-business clients. The firm he worked for before his Army service was in that category and he quickly learned that few business-to-business companies employed public relations consultants.
In 1952, his firm had a staff of five when a friend at The New York Times, responding to a query from the owner of a Chicago advertising agency, recommended Mr. Burson for a Pittsburgh-based project. Through this opportunity, he came to meet William A. (Bill) Marsteller, with whom his name would be linked for 65 years. The Burson firm was hired for the project, to publicize the purchase by Rockwell Manufacturing Co. of the first helicopter to be used for executive travel. Rockwell subsequently became a full-fledged client.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Marsteller introduced Mr. Burson to the chief executive officer of another client, Clark Equipment Co., which led to still more business. The affiliation with Mr. Marsteller worked so well that Mr. Burson proposed establishing a new company jointly owned by the two parties. It took the name Burson-Marsteller and opened March 2, 1953, with offices in New York and Chicago and offered “integrated communications services” to business-to-business clients, believed to be the first to do so.
In speeches and articles, Mr. Burson cited two “defining moments” that accounted for the company’s rapid growth. The first was the creation of the European Common Market in the late 1950s. Mr. Burson’s firm was the second to establish an office in Europe — in Geneva, Switzerland in early 1961 — and announced its intention to become a global operation over the next quarter century. Though still a speck on the public relations spectrum in the U.S., Burson-Marsteller became known as “the other international public relations firm.” During the 1960s, its annual revenues surged tenfold, from $410,000 to $4.4 million.
The firm’s second defining moment was its selection in 1970 by General Motors to be its sole public relations counsel, a response to allegations that GM hired private investigators to follow the self-appointed public watchdog, Ralph Nader, after his scathing book questioning the safety of GM’s highly touted Chevrolet Corvair. After GM’s CEO was called to testify before a congressional committee, the company, on instructions from its board of directors, hired an outside public relations firm to consult with management. Competing against the two largest U.S. firms, Burson-Marsteller was chosen for the assignment, which continued for more than a decade.
During the 1970s, the firm’s revenues increased from $5.2 million to $28.3 million. It added about a dozen new offices in Europe, including London, Paris, Brussels and Frankfurt, and in Asia, in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. Clients included both American multinationals and local businesses.
In 1979, Mr. Burson engineered the merger of Burson-Marsteller and Marsteller Advertising with the global advertising giant Young & Rubicam, becoming a member of its seven-person executive committee. At the time of the merger, Burson-Marsteller had revenues of $28.3 million and 16 offices. Four years later, when Burson-Marsteller became the world’s largest public relations firm, it had revenues of $63.8 million and 30 offices, including branches in Latin America, Australia and the Middle East.
One of the firm’s specialties was crisis management, ranging from the major Tylenol recalls in 1982 and 1985, which were often referred to as models for corporate management in times of crisis, to the celebrated introduction of “New Coke” and the reintroduction of Coca-Cola Classic in 1985, an undertaking in which Mr. Burson himself was a prime participant. After the “New Coke” debacle and the reintroduction of Coca-Cola Classic, he summarized the exercise as “[w]e got a hole-in-one after the ball hit the tree.”
The firm also represented Union Carbide in the aftermath of the discharge of toxic chemicals at its plant in Bhopal, India; Pan Am Airways after the Lockerbie, Scotland crash; and Dow Corning following the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s decision to ban silicone breast implants. Burson-Marsteller also had a longtime active role in representing the Olympic Games and its corporate sponsors.
Mr. Burson received numerous awards from public relations organizations including Hall of Fame designations by the Public Relations Society of America, the Arthur W. Page Society, PRWeek, PR News, the Institute of Public Relations, the Alan Campbell Johnson Award (England), as well as numerous citations by colleges and universities in the United States, Europe and China. He was awarded an honorary degree by Boston University in 1988, and a chair in public relations was established in his name in 1995. He is also in the Hall of Fame at his alma mater, Ole Miss, and shares a place in the Humes High School Hall of Fame in Memphis with Elvis Presley.
He was active in numerous public service organizations, principally the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. As a board member of Kennedy Center Productions, he negotiated Japan’s $3 million bicentennial gift in 1976 to construct the Terrace Theater. He also was instrumental in establishing the Kennedy Center Corporate Fund in 1977.
Another of his interests was economic education. He was chairman of the Council on Economic Education in the early 1990s and was an active member of the Economic Club of New York since 1979, including serving as chairman of the organization’s centennial dinner in 2007. In conjunction with the dinner, he proposed the creation of a Centennial Society composed of members who contribute at least $10,000 to the establishment of a club endowment fund.
Mr. Burson was a presidential appointee to the Commission of Fine Arts in Washington and was a member during the deliberations that led to building the Vietnam War Memorial and the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1980s. He also chaired the Public Relations Advisory Committee of the U.S. Information Agency during the second Reagan administration and under President George H.W. Bush.
In more recent years, Mr. Burson was a member of the board of trustees of the Museum of the American Revolution. He was also a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s advisory committee.
Although never engaged in partisan politics, Mr. Burson served as public relations adviser to President Ronald Reagan after he left the White House. He did so on the basis that his services were offered pro bono.
In 2017, at the age of 96, Mr. Burson published his memoir, “The Business of Persuasion: Harold Burson on Public Relations” (RosettaBooks).
Mr. Burson’s wife Bette predeceased him in 2010. He is survived by two sons, Scott F. Burson (Wendy Liebow Burson) of Lexington, Massachusetts, and Mark Burson (Ellen Jones Burson) of Westlake Village, California, and five grandchildren: Allison Burson, Esther Burson, Wynn F. Burson (Steven Cateron), Holly Burson and Kelly Burson.