Oral Histories

Harold Burson

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

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 next section of questions I can transition into your opinion regarding ethics.

Burson: One of the things that people wanted to talk to me about

Interviewer: [inaudible] trust you credibility so that I can move into that section of questions the next group. In your professional opinion what constitutes ethical public relations?

Burson: I think ethical public relations is a factor of mainly adhering to what you believe is truthful in presenting your client’s representing your client in a way that shows his interest but only insofar as you can be truthful in what you purport to be. The message, the facts, I think truth is or the closest thing you can come to truth is the essence of ethical public relations. Also, being sensitive to whom you are representing. I believe that every institution every person is entitled to have public relations representation. I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that counsel representation. On the other hand I think that our unpopular causes which are legitimate which I may not agree. I do not think it’s unethical for me to represent that client as long as I can do so in a way that my client is not compromised by my bias or disagreement with what the cause or the purpose. I think that I am an advocate for a client just as a lawyer is an advocate that I am engaged to motivate individuals or groups to take a position or take an action that my client seeks to have taken. I think I should however as a public relations professional make the judgment on whether I represent such a client by asking myself the question,” is what this client wants to do in the public interest?” And I think that is a factor that is very important sometimes overlooked. The fact is I believe that no action can be sustained or successful if in the long run it is not in the public interest.

Interviewer: When when hiring or selecting senior people for your organization, what abilities and characteristics are most important to you?

Burson: It depends on the job. Generally characteristics that we look for in everybody are integrity, an intellectual curiosity, commitment to a good work ethic, broad general knowledge of what is going on in the world around him or her, and particularly so a senior hires today a knowledge base in a field where we need expertise so that we can substantively advise our clients. If we are looking for an environmental specialist we want someone who has had experience with environmental organization with environmental regulations with the enforcement of our environmental regulations. If it’s in the healthcare field we want someone who really knows the pharmaceutical industry. Someone who knows how the FDA works. Increasingly we are a knowledge-based company where we provide counsel on what the decision should be and not alone be the fact that we are communicating that decision. I some years ago made a talk in which I said there has been a maturation of public relations over the last 30 - 40 years. And the progression has been first we had the how do I say it era. And that was probably up until 60s when management would make a decision call in their publicity manager publicity director some call them public relations directors and said we decided to do thus and so. Write it up for us so that we can get it out to the media. And so PR person go down to his typewriter and write the story and then send the release out. And newspapers would public it. The 60s which was a very decisive decade for public relations perhaps the most decisive decade of all where there were so many changes in society in that decade. Women’s rights. Minority rights. Consumer’s right to know, environmental laws. Truth in lending. That public relations really came to the floor. There were a lot of protest marches and really CEOs weren’t prepared for that kind of environment. And hardly any other people in the organization were either. So the logical person who had to deal with them was the public relations person and I think public relations moves from how do I say it to what do I say when these women marched on corporate headquarters and when a protest group from NGO who’s asking about more information on pricing or ingredients or some other subject. So the public relation person escalated I think in importance within the organization. And in more recent years it has advanced even more from what do I say to really what do I do. And today if you look at the organization charts of many of the Fortune 100 and 500 companies you’ll find that the senior public relations communications officer is usually on the management board. Has a title of senior vice president or in some cases executive vice president. And really is part of that decision making process that the CEO has to articulate. And is playing a vital role in the management of the company in addition to the communications function which comes after the decision making and the behavior of the company.