Oral Histories

Harold Burson

Interview Segments on Topic: Crisis Management

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: The Tylenol crisis in the early 1980s has subsequently been written about in many public relations textbooks as being an excellent example of crisis management. Would you please explain the evolution of that term crisis management and specifically the role your agency played in that event?

Harold Burson: I really don’t know the evolution of the term crisis management. I think that very likely preceded Tylenol but I’m not sure. I think however we as a public relations firm as much as any other helped make crisis management part of the common industry vernacular. We were brought into the Tylenol situation for two reasons. First we had them as a client when for some years after they went over the counter back in the 70s. The first crisis was 1982. And also as part of Young and Rubicam which we became part of in 1979 Ed Knay who was the CEO of Young and Rubicam when it first broke suggested that to Jim Burke the CEO that perhaps Burson and Marsteller could help them. I at the time happened to be in Europe I was in Paris. My associate Jim Dowling who was our number two person at the time started talking with Jim Burke and also with Larry Foster and the hero of Tylenol was basically Jim Burke and I was pretty sure that Larry Foster would agree with me on this. That Jim really managed that crisis. Several weeks he spent full time managing it and also he played a very major part in the communications and the decision making part leading up to the communications for that crisis. We had the privilege of supporting Jim and supporting Larry in that crisis. One of the things that we did that I think helped in the resolution and restoration of the product regaining market share was the fact that we suggested that instead of having one big press conference in New York to re-introduce the repackaged tamper resistant Tylenol packages. That instead of having one big press conference in New York that we have about 30 downlinks to local markets and make it a local story. At that time it actually made it two local stories because it was so early in the phase of the use of satellite transmission that the fact that we were doing a satellite press conference not only showed the importance of how important Tylenol felt it was to inform the public about this. That but it also was really reported as a technological achievement when people said gee whiz they are able to have those conferences. The Waldorf up in New York and we got the local presses invited to a local hotel here a local venue to see the press conference. And instead of being buried some place back in the paper we dominated a lot of front pages in the major markets for the product. We got a lot of credit for participating in that. But I would say I think the real drivers of that program were Jim Burke who was the CEO, Larry Foster was his chief public relations person. We were very privileged to work along side him. When the second Tylenol crisis came on 1985 I actually participated very deeply personally in that one. And again same pattern was followed. Jim Burke ran the program. He set up more or less a wall room one of the conference rooms and for days and days and days he just devoted full time to trying to get that situation resolved.

Interviewer: Could you please explain what was the second crisis in 1985.

Harold Burson: Second crisis was in Bronxville same type thing. Somebody was able to penetrate the package and put toxic material in the product. I believe three people died.

Interviewer: Do you recall which city?

Harold Burson: Bronxville, New York. Not very far from here.