Sunday, April 15, 2001

He's Mr. Public Relations

Burson has shaped profession that links business to the public

By Abigail Klingbeil
Gannett News Service

        NEW YORK - For decades, when the corporate sky seems to be falling, the man to call for help holding it up has been Harold Burson.

        Now 80, he stepped down as the chief executive of public relations giant Burson-Marsteller in 1988, the company he co-founded in 1953.

        But he goes to work every weekday and spends much of his time visiting the company's offices worldwide. He still works for many long-term clients, including Philip Morris, Merrill Lynch and Coca-Cola, and he has no retirement plans.

[photo] Harold Burson, 80, looks back on a career that resulted in his being named by a trade magazine as the most influential public relations person of the 20th century.
(Journal News photo)
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        “Most people regard public relations purely as communications,” he said in his corner office at Burson-Marsteller's Park Avenue South offices in Manhattan. “I say public relations starts with behavior, trying to assess what the mood of the public is, what the tolerance of the public is and how they will respond to different patterns of behavior.”

        The company has more than 2,000 employees and offices in 35 countries. In 1999, its fees topped $274 million, making it the largest public relations firm in the world. Burson-Marsteller was purchased in 1979 by Young & Rubicam Inc., which, in turn, was bought by WPP Group PLC in 2000.

        In 1999, PRWeek named Mr. Burson the most influential public relations person of the 20th century.

        “He's been involved in a truckload of crises, and his counsel has been highly valued,” said Adam Leyland, editor-in-chief of PRWeek, who said he is known for his calmness under pressure and soundness of thinking.

        Johnson & Johnson invited Mr. Burson to its New Brunswick, N.J., headquarters in February 1986 when the company was confronted with a second outbreak of cyanide-laced Tylenol.

        In September 1982, seven people in the Chicago area were killed from capsules tainted with cyanide. Three and a half years later, the victim was Diane Elsroth, a 23-year-old Peekskill, N.Y., resident who died after taking Tylenol.

        “The major decision was to take the product off the market because we found we could no longer protect the public,” said Johnson & Johnson's former corporate vice president of public relations, Lawrence G. Foster.

        “Since everyone had respect for Harold's judgment, the fact that he agreed with what we were planning to do was important. He has the ability to analyze a problem in very perceptive ways and come up with solutions that are workable.”

        In addition to helping clients deal with crises, Burson-Marsteller helps them develop contingency plans for potential crises.

        One crisis Mr. Burson failed to foresee was New Coke. He was involved in the introduction of the soft drink in spring 1985.

        “That's one of the most tense situations I ever have been in,” he said. The new soft drink formula was met with immediate protests. “I didn't have the intuition to realize how great a proprietary interest the public felt they had in the product. I wasn't sufficiently perceptive. I was misled by the research as were the other people.”

        The company consulted with Union Carbide after a poison gas disaster at the company's Bhopal, India, plant in 1984 killed an estimated 3,800 people.

        Some detractors criticize the company's willingness to take on challenges like the tragedy at Bhopal, but Mr. Burson defends his company's record.

        “We have sometimes been criticized for, say, working for the Bhopal Union Carbide situation over in India. I have no qualms whatsoever in having worked on that, trying to help Union Carbide work themselves out of that situation. I think Union Carbide worked in a very ethical way. I think these companies are entitled to representation. I think it's part of their First Amendment rights.”

        Mr. Burson said his company has turned down work from companies he felt were not prepared to be forthright.

        In the industry, he is also known for developing the first global public relations company and for leading the industry in integrated services, by offering clients both public relations and advertising services.

        Burson-Marsteller's other co-founder, the now deceased Bill Marsteller, had owned a Chicago-based advertising firm.

        Mr. Burson is admired for the strength of his company's employee training programs and for creating a culture that has nourished thousands of careers and helped start legions of other public relations companies.

        “He's had an influence in every area of PR I can think of,” Mr. Leyland said.

        Mr. Burson said during the length of his career he has seen public relations change from meaning “How do you say it?” to “What do you say?” and now, “What do you do?”

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