On January 10, the public relations industry lost a true pioneer with the passing of Harold Burson at the age of 98. Harold – as nearly everyone called him – was the co-founder of Burson-Marsteller, the world’s first truly global public relations agency. He is widely acknowledged as the chief architect of the modern public relations industry. In 1999, a PRWeek survey named him the most influential figure of the 20th century.
From Harold’s beginnings as a newspaper copy boy in the 1940s through a celebrated career that spanned decades, the industry has undergone substantial change: new tools, the 24-hour news cycle, citizen journalists, integrated instead of siloed communications functions – just to name a few. Through it all, the principles by which Harold conducted his business – and himself – remained unchanged and played a significant role in his legacy.
What can we learn from Harold? Turns out, a lot.
- Data tells the story. Harold believed data was key to developing strategy and measuring the impact of campaigns and other outreach. Under his leadership, Burson-Marsteller became one of the first agencies to formalize the research function.
- Behavior over message. While the message is important, an organization’s behavior is even more so. “What should we do?” is the question Harold thought smart organizations should be asking.
- Invest in your people. From early on, Harold understood the importance of recruiting, nurturing and retaining top talent. He invested in professional development before it was considered table stakes, paving the way for attracting some of the top talent in the industry.
- Integrity rules. Harold didn’t deny the job at hand: telling the client’s story. But he didn’t see it as his only responsibility. He once told the New York Times, “We are in the business of changing and molding attitudes, and we aren’t successful unless we move the needle, get people to do something. But we are also a client’s conscience, and we have to do what is in the public interest.” For Harold, that also meant turning down clients when he had ethical concerns.
- Reputation is everything. Harold had a reputation for treating people at all levels with an equal amount of respect. He was regarded as one of the most accessible executives in the business. And, his clients trusted him implicitly: he kept client information confidential, despite working on a number of very high-profile cases that would have offered good storytelling opportunities once the work was completed. At the end of the day, Harold understood that clients – and employees – want to work with people they respect and trust.
Of course, these are only a few of the many ways in which Harold set the standard for professionalism and excellence in public relations – and, I would argue, in any related field. Paul Holmes, editor of The Holmes Report, encapsulates his legacy well in his memoriam to Harold Burson: “He was a first-rate public relations counselor, who understood that corporate reputation was the result of corporate behavior, not communications, and who consistently advised his clients to do the right thing, not just say the smart thing.”
To learn more about Harold Burson, check out Celebrating Harold Burson, a tribute created by Burson Cohn & Wolfe to honor Harold’s legacy.