Harold Burson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am


TRIAL PERIOD During the second world war, I was in the army, and I went overseas [from the United States] in mid-1944 in a combat engineer group. I was with them until about two weeks before the war ended in Germany, when I got transferred to the American Forces Network, which was the only radio network in Europe then. I got sent to Paris - which was a good place to be for a young man. The man who was running the American Forces Network asked me if I'd like to go to Nuremberg and cover the trial [of the major Nazi war criminals] that was happening there. The court was in session for five months, and I wrote the script for a 15-minute news show every day. It was a great experience: I was one of very few American correspondents whose output could be heard live. It was very gratifying when some of the really top correspondents would say: 'I heard your broadcast last night.' It gave me a lot of confidence.

SETTING UP SHOP It was a heady experience, being at Nuremberg, but I wanted to get home and get on with my life. I had arranged to set up my own PR shop, and I had a client. I'd done work for an engineering company when it had a labour problem, but when I came back out of the army, the head of the company who'd hired me had died. I wrote a letter to the [new] people, offering to work as their PR agency, and they said yes. I was lucky to get that first client straight away - I can't tell you about days of not being able to pay the rent; I had understanding clients who even paid me in advance. The other thing was, ever since the age of 10, I'd wanted to go to New York [from his hometown of Memphis]. If you were interested in writing in those days, that was where you went. For the first five years the company steadily grew; by 1952 I had five employees. Then in 1952 I met Bill Marsteller, who had an advertising agency. I heard from a friend who worked at The New York Times that this fellow, Marsteller, was enquiring about recruiting a small PR firm in New York. He had a new client: Rockwell. We found we were pretty much on the same wavelength temperamentally and philosophically. I proposed to him that we start a new business together. I felt at the time that I and my associates could do the work, but we just didn't have the connections. We'd known each other for five months when we did the deal.

ANYONE'S GAME The first PR firm was formed in the US in 1900, so when we launched most businesspeople had a comprehension of what we did. People often say to me: 'You must not have had much competition when you went into the business.' So I went and found the New York Yellow Pages for that year. I looked under PR - and there were 700 companies. Most were started by former news people who went into the army and then didn't want to go back to the Podunk Beagle - and the PR industry in those days was a bit more remunerative. In the early days, the main consideration was dealing with the media - telling our clients' side of the story. Now it's moved in different directions: finding your way through different government agencies or working with Wall Street. Today, one of the biggest aspects is internal communications: everyone who works for a company, at whatever level, is in some way an expert on that company, so everyone who interfaces with customers has to know the true and accurate story - particularly now, when you have Twitter and Facebook, and everyone can be a reporter.

UNWISE COUNSEL When I started out, and for probably 20 years afterwards, PR was the most institutionalised of jobs. The chief public relations officer [CPRO] would be a former newsman who served as the company's institutional memory, rarely involved in policymaking, just carrying out orders from on high. Now chief executives are working more closely with their CPROs than ever before. And these days, especially in crisis management, there's frequently a difference of opinion between the PR department and the legal department. Often the legal department advises staying silent and not saying anything that might come back to haunt the company, but that does nothing to help the company state its position. Our objective is always to make it a one-day story. The last thing we want to do is dribble out the major facts. And you're treated better by the media if you admit [something] than if they discover [it].

MONEY MONEY MONEY There's too much emphasis now on the bottom line. It came about when financial institutions started to figure out ways to improve their revenue in the early 80s. Prior to that, most companies felt that they were social entities, with a responsibility to make a quality product, treat employees well, work with suppliers on a fair basis and support education, health care and culture. Then came the notion that we're going to maximise shareowner investment. Before, the aim was to deliver a fair return. The difference between them has to come from someplace, and other stakeholder groups have suffered from it. It's constraining - the financial community expects continuously increasing returns. So you have to squeeze your suppliers, or cut employee benefits or charitable work. The PR industry can't drag it back; it's going to take CEOs. Not many CEOs want to upset the financial industry, so it would need action by a group of them.

NEVER TOO OLD When I got to retirement age, I'd never planned what to do with my life, and my successor asked me to stay around. I don't think anyone - me included - expected me to do this for so long. I said I'd do it for as long as the management wanted me around and I was still making a contribution [Burson often visits Burson-Marsteller outfits around the world and dropped into the Hong Kong office in May]. So far no one has indicated they don't want me there. I get e-mails from all over the world: 'Have we ever worked for X?' I mentor young people and I still work for a couple of clients. I'm always busy. I've seen too many cases of people who go hard until they're 65, move to Florida or Arizona, start drinking too much, and five years later you're reading their obituary. I don't want to move to some retirement community with other people my age.