Oral Histories

Harold Burson

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: 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.

Interviewer: So in other words that person is being trusted with contributing more than just their input about the communications.

Burson: Oh absolutely.

Interviewer: They are looking at the bigger picture.

Burson: And I think sometimes that the work that public relations people do is trivialized by the descriptor that is taking the place of public relations which is communications. I think I said before that I think that was one of the worst disservices that ever happened to public relations when communications became the label that describes what we do because communications is only part of our function and arguably the least important part.

Interviewer: The last section of questions I would like to transition to will be dealing primarily with education and what you feel the next generation of workers can do in order to become successful public relations executives? Are younger workers today fully prepared for a successful career in public relations. Do you feel that they are getting appropriate education and work experience for example internship for the younger workers entering the marketplace today. Are they prepared?

Burson: I think it’s very difficult to generalize. I think some are and some are not. And I think it depends on the teaching quality, the advice that these young people have had. The good luck or fortune that some of them that they expose to. Getting good internships. The majority of course have not. I find that you get some very very bright people coming into the business very very well prepared. And you get a lot of people who just do not have some of the basic skills. And the one basic skill that’s lacking in most of the younger people coming into the business today is their writing ability is not nearly as good as it was some years ago. And I think that is a major deficiency. The I think that most of the people who come into public relations really start getting their real training after they get on the job and I think those of us who are in agencies or running public relations departments have got to realize that as we take on new people training them and development of those people is a major part of our responsibility if we want them to be good capable employees. It’s very difficult for me to really tell you what I think is the ideal training for a public relations person. All of us have a tendency particularly those of us who have achieved some degree of success to look at how we got where we were and say that’s the way you got to do it. I belong to the school as does some of those my age who are have had successful careers my generation. We started mostly on newspapers or with press associations. And were reporters and writers for two, three, four, five years before we went into the business. I still think that newspaper experience or journalism experience doesn’t necessarily have to be newspapers. But I would say if I had my choice I would prefer hiring some person who had been on a small town newspaper for a couple of years. Or work with the press association. Because those are people who really have to write it themselves. They don’t get a lot of rewriting and when you see their byline you know it’s their story. On the other hand you know we have a need for so many specialists today that we look for people who have had experience working in the government, working in politics, we look for people who have experience who with MBAs no business particularly in the finance area. We look for people who in consumer publicity if you work on food accounts. If they’ve had food experience nutritional experience particularly is getting more and more important today as we start at looking at every ingredient in a product. So there is no real I think road map. You have to create your set of skills and based on what you feel you want to do with your life, what field you want to work in and get experience in that particular area whether it be a government, a science, or business. I think the time may come within the next decade that agencies like Burson and Marsteller will be looking for people who have the equivalent of an MBA degree before we hire them. I think these integrated programs at some school Northwestern particularly is an example where they have interdisciplinary programs where you study public relations in addition to a science. You study public relations in addition to health care or in addition to political science politics or business I think those programs are probably will increase in number.