Oral Histories

Harold Burson

Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career

Harold Burson Biography

Harold Burson, described by PR Week as “the century’s most influential PR figure,” began his professional career as a stringer for a daily newspaper, eventually entering the military to become a public information officer for the American Forces Network during World War II.  Burson opened his first PR agency following the War, which developed into Burson-Marsteller in 1953 by joining with Chicago advertising executive Bill Marsteller who needed public relations expertise for his clients.  Their relationship resulted in a unique enterprise with advertising and public relations operating as equals for the good of their clients.  Currently, Burson-Marsteller provides clients with strategic thinking and program execution across a full range of public relations, public affairs, advertising, and web-related services.


Interviewer: What were the most significant events in your early part of years and how did you establish first agency?

Burson: First eventful chapter was that I had a client and was able to start my own business. I have worked for an engineering building company, one of the large engineer building companies during WWII. Today it would have been the equivalent of a Bechtol or a Halliburton. And I worked for the CEO traveling with him while doing publicity for the company. Unfortunately when I was in the service, he died and I did not want to go back to that company as an employee. And I proposed to management that I start my own business in New York and that they become my first client. And I was able to do what I look back on as a very respectable publicity job for a company was in an industry that was really not one of the glamour industries. In fact I was able to get them into Time magazine. I was able to get them into a Reader’s Digest article. And also able to get one of their projects a large coin processing plant into Life Magazine. And so I think my early reputation was based on being a very effective publicist and I still think that the publicity function is one of the most significant in our business and unfortunately I feel that people today in the field are not doing as good as aggressive at the publicity job as we did 20, 30, 40 years ago.

Interviewer: Your first office. How many employees did you have in that office? And how did you separate the responsibilities for them?

Burson: My first office was a desk in my client up in the Gray [inaudible] Building. I had another client who was a different type of engineering business and he gave me desk space in his office and the use of a secretary and a telephone and I started just in that small space for about a year and it was about a year I then had my first office over on Broadway and 57th Street. And my first employee actually was my wife. I got married in October of 1947 and she had been a secretary and so she quit her job and started working for me, and about the same time I hired a young man who was going to Columbia University whom I had met in the Army. And he was getting his college degree. Had been drafted before he finished college. And he worked for me as a part time employee. He left and later became a regional director of news for CBS and NBC on the west coast. So we started with very modest beginnings. By 1952 I had five people including myself. And we all kept fairly busy.

Interviewer: In those days did you imagine what your company would become in later years?

Burson: I could never have imagined that. I thought that if we ever grew to 20 25 people it would be a great success. You must remember that after WWII there were literally dozens probably a couple hundred people here in New York who had started public relations firms after having been public information officers in the armed services. I was one of those. And some of them that are already grown to have 10, 15, 20 people and I was extremely envious of those and wondered if I would ever be able to achieve that kind of success and that kind of growth. The interesting thing is that of that number not only really a handful of PR firms that have maintained and grown and prospered from those days. The first one was Bill Ruden actually and David Finn started back in the very early 50s. I think Dan Edelman came second started shortly after that. And then he was in Chicago of course. I came along started [inaudible] actually my own business started in ’46. I met Bill Marsteller in ’52. We started Burson Marsteller in ’53. [inaudible]  Harris which was in [inaudible] Cooper [inaudible] out in Chicago started about that time also. I think those were probably the only real survivors that made a great success. Of course Fleishman’s started out in St. Louis about that time too. Maybe a little bit earlier in I think they started during the war and maybe a little bit before WWII.

Interviewer: How did your experiences in WWII assist you when you did open your first office?

Burson: In a very unusual way. I was I went into the Army relatively late. I went in very early 1944. I could have stayed out of the war because I was working for a defense essential industry. I felt that I should go into the Army before the war ended. And I was put into an engineer combat group which went to Europe. We were in Normandy about seven or eight weeks after the invasion. And I learned very little that helped me directly in my business during the time that the war was going on. I suppose the greatest lesson I had was that I was living with people that different backgrounds, different socio-economic structures than I had grown up in. Well actually a bunch of people from Appalachia and who were great soldiers and great people and I learned a lot about people and how they reacted from them because you live so closely with people when you are in the Army and particularly when you are under fire. I got a great break after the war. I was able to get into the news staff of American Forces Network, which was the Army radio network in Europe. Arguably one of the greatest radio networks ever because we were able to use all the programming of all the radio networks in the United States at that time and so we had a great lineup of programs. And after the war I was assigned to cover the Nuremburg Trial. I was at the trial from the day that it started on November 20, 1945. I stayed until the end of March 1946 the trial continued through most of the summer. And this is the 60th anniversary of the close of the trial and just recently I was in this studio being photographed being taped by BBC which is doing a three hour documentary. But I I covered the trial. I was in the courtroom day after day after day and when I got back one of the things that people wanted to talk to me about was the Nuremburg Trial and so I had a lot of entrée that I possibly would not have had if I had not been at Nuremburg. And that’s probably what I got most out of the Army that had effect on my business.

Interviewer: You watched history in the making.

Burson: History in the making.