Plank Legends & Leaders: Harold Burson


Described by PRWeek as the century’s most influential PR figure, Harold Burson is the architect of the largest public relations agency in the world today, Burson-Marsteller. He started practicing integrated marketing decades before the term was even invented and brought PR into the advertising business at Young and Rubicam as an equal.

Burson has continued to enlighten the thinking of boardrooms at many Fortune 100 companies and across the globe. Burson has contributed to the industry and worldwide community as a leader of several organizations that include Presidential Appointee to the Fine Arts Commission, Chairman of the National Council of Economic Education, Trustee of the Economics Club of New York, Chairman of the USIA Public Relations Advisory Committee, and board member of the World Wildlife Fund.

Burson’s dedication to his career and love of public relations has not gone unrecognized. He was elected to the Arthur W Page Society Hall of Fame in 1991 and named Public Relations Professional of the year by Public Relations News in 1977 and 1989. He also received the Alexander Hamilton Medal from the Institute of Public Relations in 1999.

Boston University honored him with a Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1988 and a chair in public relations was established in his name in 2002. Burson is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and a veteran of World War II.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> It’s a lot like Justice Potter said in his Supreme Court decision. It’s hard to define pornography, but I know it when I see it. I think leadership is a lot in that category. To some extent, it’s very intangible. It’s the way a person projects himself or herself. It’s a charismatic quality that one, I think, must have, although many leaders did not have great charisma. It’s a person who has a vision, it’s a person who is assertive in a way that is non-threatening. It’s sort of a magnetism that causes people to want to follow that individual.

What are the three or four most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> I think a broad knowledge base is one of the first. Perhaps even more important is an ability to get along with all kinds of people, and an adaptability to all kinds of situations. I think one must be intuitive, one must be curious, one must be committed. I think a person must be energetic, entrepreneurial. All of those qualities.

As a recognized leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your personal success? 

>> Luck, I suppose. And I’m serious about that. I think that I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I think that’s not enough, however. I think that one must also be able to recognize that one is in the right place at the right time. And that one also must know how to capitalize on being in that situation. And there were three or four episodes in my life where I think that worked for me.

What’s the most powerful learning experience you encountered with respect to leadership in the field?

>> I think the two years that I spent in the Army in Europe during World War II. I saw instances of people who were willing to follow other people. And it was an extremely interesting experience for me to see that. I was in a unit that was consisted of college graduates and people from Appalachia. And interestingly enough, it was more the people of Appalachia who were the real leaders in that kind of a situation. Some of them, I suspect hardly got through high school, but they were the people you wanted to be with when you got into trouble.

Name one individual whom you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today. What makes this individual such an outstanding leader? 

>> I think Howard Pastor is one of the really strongest leaders that I know in the field. He headed Hill+Knowlton, it was in trouble when he got there. It was on the way to being a very successful agency. When he left, he is now in charge of all public relations operations at WPP. I think Marilyn Laurie is one of the great leaders in this field. I think Jon Iwata at IBM, who’s somewhat younger than either Howard or Marilyn, is perhaps the outstanding person coming up, I think, in the field today.

In your view, is there a historical figure who exemplified outstanding leadership in the field? Why?

>> Many of them, I think Winston Churchill probably is the one who really knew how to use public relations as well as any person in my lifetime. I think that in history I think Abraham Lincoln had a strong sense of public relations. I think Theodore Roosevelt had a very strong sense of public relations. Generally, the very successful political leaders by the nature of how they get into office, and how they stay in office, and how they lead people, how they get their programs accepted, they must have a strong sense of public relations.

Do you think that leadership skills and values in PR are different in any way from those in other professions? 

>> Leaders in different fields could be interchangeable if they had the knowledge base in that other field. Leaders in one industry, one field of endeavor usually have the same characteristics as leaders in other fields.

Do the requirements of PR leadership vary by type of organization, i.e., corporate vs. agency vs. nonprofit?

>> Well, you have two different tracks between when you’re comparing working for a corporation or a not-for-profit. And when you’re talking about an agency. The one thing that’s common to all of them is that there has to be a professional knowledge base. In an agency, you not only have to have the professional knowledge base, but you have to have management know-how and the experience for running a business, for managing a business and hopefully making a profit. I think the two are not inconsistent. I think that some people who were very successful as leaders in public relations firms could go into the corporate world and also be a leader there. I think vice versa, but some people in the corporate not-for-profit world I think may not have the entrepreneurial drive that some people in the agency field has.

Some have argued that there is a shortage of outstanding leaders in PR today. What can the profession do to help new practitioners, or those with experience in the field, develop greater leadership skills? How can we address this leadership deficit if, indeed, it exists?

>> I think there’s a shortage of leaders generally. And, I have the impression that the times make leaders, challenging times make more leaders than times that are not challenging. I think that courage of great prosperity, probably work against making, identifying as many leaders and as many really outstanding leaders as times of adversity. So, I think that people rise to the occasion and that there’s an ebb and a flow of leaders.

Can you give a concrete example or illustration of leadership at work in practice?

>> If you look at college football or professional football, the coaches, head coach usually is the leader. And you get all kinds of people. You can get people like Lou Holtz, who was a screamer. You can get a Bear Bryant, who’s a very calm individual. And both of them turned out a superior product. Leadership is manifest in different ways. And I think leaders have their different styles. Some lead totally by example, the other lead with a carrot and a stick. It depends on the individual.

What’s the one best book on leadership you would recommend to young professionals?

>> The book that was written by David McCulloch on the Lewis and Clark expedition was one of the greatest examples of leadership that I know about. Lewis and Clark, particularly William Meriwether Lewis, took about 55 men and crossed the country that no one had ever been through, no European-type Americans had ever been through, explored it, went all the way to the Pacific Ocean, came back, did not lose a single individual.

And he was able to feed those people, he was able to make peace with the Indians along the way. They got into a number of difficult spots, which he was able to negotiate his way out of. I think that was probably one of the great examples of leadership and it’s told superbly in that book.

What’s your best advice about a career in PR to students who are just entering the work world?

>> I think the two most important things that younger people who are entering the field can do is first, start building a network. That process should begin, in a perfect world, in high school and continue through college. Continue through the various jobs that a person has. And building a network is not really an easy thing to do.

It takes work. Because you have to be in contact with people. But the identification of the people you want to be associated with is a real art because some of those people are going to end up in very influential places that will be able to assist you in your career or supporting you in what you do.

I think the second thing is to acquire as broad a base of knowledge as one can, and the best way I know to do that is to read and to be a voracious reader, not only of newspapers and magazines but of books. I think that it is not enough today to be successful in public relations, to be just highly knowledgeable about public relations and communications.

I think one must have a knowledge base that makes that person, male or female, a specialist in a given field of activity whether it be business or science or medicine, technology. And someone has got to bring more to the table than being a good public relations person using public relation skills. They have to have a basic knowledge of the business in which they are working with.

Recorded: December 2008

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