Oral Histories

Harold Burson

Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor

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: A moment ago, we were speaking about the importance of naming positions whether it be public relations, communications, marketing, or advertising. In recent years, those terms have become muddled together and especially advertising in public relations and also on the agency side. A lot of mergers. And what not. Now what do you feel that has impacted the industry overall of public relations.

Harold Burson: I think it’s a result of a certain amount of confusion I think that public relations is not really a definition of public relations is really not clear even to many if not most public relations practitioners. Many public relations people equate public relations with communications. And only communications. I think communication is only one half of the overall process. I think the other half is counseling, consulting, with management on strategies on behavior patterns, on decisions, and then communicating one of those most simplistic definitions of public relations that I know of is public relations is doing good and getting credit for it. First you have to do good. I don’t think all the communications in the world can accomplish any real good or lasting good unless it is based on good conduct good behavior. Providing a satisfactory service providing a satisfactory product. I think that the big mistake is when people say shall we use advertising or public relations to help support a product sale or an issue or whatever. Actually public relations is really more of an umbrella term even in advertising. Advertising can be a subset of public relations and is in many kinds of programs. Basically I equate the term publicity with advertising. Getting material to the potential consumer or the person you want to motivate through all of media and doing it in a way other than buying paid advertising space or paying for time on television or radio or the internet.

Interviewer: What do you believe is the single greatest challenge facing public relation executives in today’s business climate?

Harold Burson: In being, in having a knowledge base that qualifies them to be a counselor to the senior management; the CEOs. To be a to have the knowledge base in the business that qualifies him to be a peer of those people they serve with on a management committee.