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Coopwood: UM Alumnus Considered the Godfather of the Public Relations Business

I have just finished reading a book by Ole Miss graduate and public relations icon, Harold Burson.

There are four books I have read over the years that have helped me in business: Confessions of an S.O.B, by Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today and the leader who built the Gannett media corporation, I Could Write a Book by my good friend, Roy Reiman, in Wisconsin who sold his publishing company ten years ago for $640 million, and Ogilvy On Advertising by David Ogilvy, who is considered the father of advertising; and now e pluribus unum: The Making of Burson-Marsteller.

Several years ago I had the great fortune of meeting Mr. Burson when I became involved in the Ole Miss journalism school. My first introduction to the school was through faculty member, Samir Husni, who has built their amazing magazine program. Thanks to Samir, I became good friends with the current Dean, Dr. Will Norton who has taken the journalism program to new heights. In fact, over 1,200 students are enrolled in the journalism school today.

I have met several prominent figures from the media world when I have participated in various events at the school who range from Neuharth to Fox New Channel’s Shepherd Smith (I attended Ole Miss with Shep), and others. While all were impressive, one in particular stood out: Mr. Burson. Now 92, Mr. Burson is the founder of the powerful public relations firm in New York, Burson-Marsteller. During his 35 year position as the firm’s leader, he opened offices all over the world.

“This is someone you really should know,” former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat said to me once as we were walking into the Overby Center for an event. Khayat was referring to Burson.

I had heard the name, but couldn’t place him. Then, a few minutes later it hit me – Burson is the one who Khayat charged to eliminate the thousands of rebel flags fans waved in Vaught-Hemmingway stadium during football games. Those were the early days when Khayat began his mission of taking the school out of the past and moving it into the future. In order to do this, he felt dropping some of the school’s old symbols was the key. Those who supported Khayat felt removing the Confederate battle flags from the stadium was going to be next to impossible.

Burson laid out a plan and in two seasons, the flags disappeared. Now, during nationally televised football games, millions across the country tuning in don’t see the vast sea of rebel flags being waved in the background. After the flag elimination and some other changes, Ole Miss received a Phi Beta Kappa designation, fundraising and enrollment increased dramatically. Several other important things started to take place at Ole Miss as well.

Burson grew up in Memphis and paid his way while attending Ole Miss as a freelance writer for newspapers. In his book, he talks extensively about the valuable lessons and experiences he received while attending Ole Miss and how those formative years in Oxford prepared him to build a worldwide business.

Today, Burson-Marsteller is a global public relations and communications firm that operates “…67 wholly owned offices and 71 affiliate offices in 98 countries in six continents,” according to their website. A survey by the magazine PRWeek described Mr. Burson as “the century’s most influential PR figure.”

Burson’s career is nothing short of spectacular. And, any major American entrepreneur who can pay gratitude to Mississippi for helping them reach the top, gets my attention quickly.

Regardless if you are in the media business, Burson’s e pluribus unum: The Making of Burson-Marsteller, is full of valuable advice on how to build and run a successful business.

scott coopwood

Scott Coopwood, a seventh generation Deltan, lives in Cleveland, Mississippi, with his wife Cindy and their three children. Scott is the publisher and owner of Delta Magazine, one of the South’s leading lifestyle publications, the Delta Business Journal, the first business publication in the Mississippi Delta; and Cleveland’s weekly newspaper, The Cleveland Current . Scott’s company also publishes two weekly e-newsletters. Coopwood publishing concerns now reach 250,000 people. Scott is also a 1984 graduate of the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at scott@coopwood.net

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