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‘Father of Public Relations’ Imparts Wisdom to UM Students

UM alumnus and public relations pioneer Harold Burson shares experiences and career advice with Ole Miss students at the Overby Center Auditorium. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Harold Burson, a 1940 University of Mississippi graduate known as the “Father of Public Relations,” visited his alma mater Wednesday (Oct. 3), imparting to students what he’s learned over his remarkable career as a confidante to some of the nation’s most powerful people. 

A Memphis native, Burson was an exceptional student, so much so that he entered Ole Miss at age 15. When he was 19, he served as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army, and in 1945, he worked as a reporter for the American Forces Network and was assigned to cover the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

Burson, who has been described by PRWeek as the 20th century’s “most influential PR figure,” founded the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller with Bill Marsteller in 1953. The firm created the concept of total communication strategies that became the industry standard for decades. 

He told the room full of future marketing and communications professionals at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics that writing remains essential to success, and that working for a newspaper is still the best training one can have for public relations.

“Public relations can do three things that deal with opinion,” Burson said. “You can create an opinion that does not exist now. You can also use public relations to change an opinion. The third thing it can it do is reinforce an opinion. 

“You use language to get those thoughts across. I think writing is absolutely basic to this process.” 

Besides good verbal communication, writing ability is crucial for getting your message to appear in journalistic platforms, which is one of the main goals for anyone in the publicity business, he said.

“You have a message and you want someone in the communications field, either newspapers, TV or digital platforms, to deliver that message,” Burson said. “For them to want to do that, they are more likely to use a well-written statement than a statement that is not well-written.

“Everyone going into the field should strive to be the best writer he or she can be.”

Burson said teamwork is also extremely important, and the results of one of his company’s internal surveys of those who had been “involuntarily terminated” gave strong evidence to support this. 

“It wasn’t because they weren’t good writers, or good speakers; it was, like, 70 percent of those were because they couldn’t work as part of a team,” Burson said. “They wanted to be a star and be in the spotlight, but they would not share responsibility with other people who had more talent or more information than they did on a specific subject.

“One of our CEO’s (Jim Dowling) came up with a tagline we used for several years: ‘We prize the individual, but we celebrate the team.’ Being able to work as a member of a team is the most essential quality we are looking for in people.”

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. 

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 resulting public relations giant, Burson Cohn & Wolfe employs about 4,000 people worldwide.

His son, Mark Burson, is an instructional assistant professor of integrated marketing communications in the School of Journalism and New Media.

Harold Burson still works, spending three days a week in a Memphis office. He also works from home a great deal. He doesn’t see any reason to retire. 

“No one has told me I have to stop,” Burson said. 

Robin Street, senior lecturer in journalism who teaches public relations classes, led the discussion at the Overby Center. Her students filled the room and afterward said they were delighted to engage with Burson and hear his stories, and were struck by his wisdom, humility and relatability.

Naiome L. Young, a junior integrated marketing communications major from Ocean Springs, feverishly took notes during the talk. 

“I thought it was cool how he said he didn’t know what else he would do,” Young said. “It’s obviously something he loves, and it is not just a paycheck. It’s obviously something he is passionate about. He is always keeping the ball rolling.”

Calla Basil, a senior broadcast journalism major from Blue Springs, was fascinated by Burson’s philosophy on relationships with clients. 

“You can tell in the way that he talked about his clients and employees, he has a very humble kind of personality,” Basil said. “Mrs. Street has talked about it, having a kind of counselor-type of personality with the client. You can definitely tell he is there for people and to help them. He was very open. 

“For someone to be as big as he is, he didn’t even make himself out to be someone so big, but instead highlighted the people under.”

Lainey Stevens, a senior integrated marketing communications major from Booneville, took away the importance of written skills. 

“For a profession that depends on earned media, no one is going to pay attention to writing that is bad,” Stevens said. “Language is absolutely crucial to public relations.”

Aly Card, a senior integrated marketing communications major from Oxford, said she enjoyed hearing the lessons from decades of work in the industry. 

“It’s so cool that everything Mrs. Street talks about in our class, he reiterated,” Card said. “Even billable hours is what we are learning now. She was just telling us that when (Burson) first started in PR, it was more of bosses hiring him and telling him what to do, but now, bosses are hiring you and consulting with you about what they should do with their company.

“It’s cool for him to talk to us about how PR has transformed and that he still loves it enough to go into work.”

By Michael Newsom

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