Harold Burson, often heralded as the “Father of Public Relations,” has died at the age of 98. A Memphis native, Burson has been described by PRWeek as the 20th century’s “most influential PR figure.” He founded the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller with Bill Marsteller in 1953. The firm, which employs about 4,000, created the concept of total communication strategies that became the industry standard for integrated communications. PRWeek’s summary of his career described him as follows:
“The architect of the largest public relations agency in the world today, Burson-Marsteller chairman Harold Burson’s contribution is immense in many other ways besides. He started practicing the concept of integrated marketing decades before the term was even invented. He brought PR into the advertising business at Young & Rubicam as an equal (it’s arguably never been achieved again). His development of training programs set the benchmark that other agencies have only recently caught up with. He has personally sponsored and supported programs, industry bodies, universities and charities to improve the profession. His mentoring of talent has spawned a whole wave of ex-Burson PR agency start-ups. He created a unique Burson culture that still unites former employees. And last but certainly not least, his personal counsel has enlightened the thinking of boardrooms at many Fortune 100 companies and across the globe.”
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. Robin Street, University of Mississippi senior lecturer in journalism, said that one of the joys of her career involved spending time with Burson and having him speak to her classes on several occasions.
“His name and significance in the PR world are some of the first things I teach my students in the Introduction to Public Relations class,” Street said. “I tell them that what Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n’ roll, Burson was to PR. He truly helped the profession evolve, change and grow.
In 1983, Burson-Marsteller officially became the world’s largest PR firm, with regional headquarters in New York, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong and London. His firm handled a number of major accounts. Burson’s firm helped Johnson & Johnson with its response to the deaths of eight people who had taken tainted Tylenol in 1982. The company was not faulted, but it assumed responsibility and took the product off the market, which cost $100 million, and halted advertising. Representatives showed complete transparency and openness and made themselves available at all times to answer questions. The response to the Johnson & Johnson case led to Burson being credited with creating the template for crisis management.
“A quote from him is even included in the textbook I use,” Street said. “It says, ‘In the beginning, top management (at the client company) used to say to us, “Here’s the message. Deliver it.” Then it became “What should we say?” Now, in smart organizations, it’s “What should we do?”‘”
Street had used the Tylenol case as a classic example in her classes for several years, unaware that Burson was the PR expert behind the response.
The British government called on Burson-Marsteller’s help during an epidemic of mad cow disease. He also counseled Union Carbide, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant after a famous meltdown in 1979 and BP after its Torrey Canyon oil tanker sank. Burson-Marsteller merged with global communications firm Cohn & Wolfe in 2018. The public relations giant, Burson Cohn & Wolfe, employs about 4,000 people worldwide.
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