I had one of the biggest thrills in my career last week when I got to spend part of my day with Harold Burson, founder of Burson-Marsteller, the world’s largest PR firm. This is a man I have admired since my days as a college student.
Now 90, Mr. Burson still comes to the office each day, blogs occasionally and is still at the top of his game. He joyfully showed me the carefully-curated company archives he is using to fuel content for an upcoming book and talked to me about his experience covering the Nuremberg Trials as a young reporter.
In this rare interview, a man named “PR Professional of the Century” discusses life lessons, cutting through PR chaos, his upcoming memoir, and the role of social media in society.
Mark: One of the things we talk about on my blog a lot is the new media — social media and the revolutionary ways that people can now communicate. Some people say, “well, this changes everything.” Do you think so? Or are some things still the same in the world of public relations?
Mr. Burson: Social Media is part of a continuum that started really with the printing press, with moveable type.
Back in the 1870’s there was a marvelous new social medium — it was called a telephone! The telephone enabled people to do something they’d never been able to do — talk to somebody over a wire from a long distance. If you saw the newspapers at the time, one of the first things everybody thought was going to happen is that the railroads would go out of business because they thought people would not go to the trouble to see one another when they could talk over the telephone. Of course that didn’t happen but the telephone is still a very successful social medium.
Today with social media, you can literally talk to thousands if not millions and the cost is infinitesimal. You can reach a large audience at practically no cost and therefore you can galvanize people — you can incite people to do bad, you can incite people to do good. The medium itself is not good or bad, it is neutral. It’s a utility, a device. The content is really what’s important and so I think one of the things the world has got to be considering is some kind of control over the content that goes along with uncontrolled social media.
Mark: That’s a very timely point as we just went through this issue where the government was trying to pass regulation around the protection of copyrights — the SOPA bill. Our economy is built around the protection of intellectual property.
One of the things that would be so wonderful is to tap into your wisdom and experience for the students who read my blog. What advice would you give to a young person entering the world of Public Relations today?
Mr. Burson: I talk with college audiences, four or five times a year and one of the first things I tell them is that it is important at this part of their lives to start building a network. Building a network is a lot more than knowing people — it’s really about interacting with people and building relationships so that when you need help or in trouble or are looking for a job, the people you’ve been closest to are going to help you the most. So, building a network is the most important thing any young person can do.
On any college campus, you might have access to the future governor of your state and probably several future judges, and there might be several people you know that might eventually be the CEO of a company. The trick is in really identifying those who are valuable to your network and then working very hard to build a relationship with them. I think that has paid off greatly for me throughout my lifetime.
Mark: That is a foundational truth of business, isn’t it? Whether it be on-line or off-line relationships, it comes down to building those relationships — those friendships that you can count on for the rest of your life.
Mr. Burson: Well, this is a bit generational for me. I know that this works for off-line relationships and I suspect it works the same in on-line relationships but maybe a step removed. Course, on-line you get exposure to many more people but with less intensity than face-to-face. Still I would take my chances in doing it any way you can, getting to know people and having them get to know me and what I can do, and what I stand for.
Mark: I’m so excited to hear that you are writing a book and I thought it was quite interesting that you are organizing the book by different reflection points or decision points in your life. Tell us about that.
Mr. Burson: I have long believed that people have certain opportunities that come to them in their lives and that if they recognize them, and handle them properly, it could be a defining moment — a moment in your life that changes your life forever, and usually for the better. My contention is that many people have these opportunities but either don’t recognize the opportunity or having recognized it, they don’t respond as they should and are left even more stagnant than they were before. And what I’m trying to do in my book is to tell people how they should be aware of these opportunities. I’m doing it by citing the eight or ten defining moments in my lifetime where one way or another, my life was significantly changed.
Mark: And the book is not just going to be about your life but also a history of public relations.
Mr. Burson: Yes, I will be speaking a lot about public relations. I certainly want to dispel the myth that public relations is something new. My belief is public relations began as a process when people started communicating with one another, even before we had the alphabet. Public relations is really persuasion and people have been trying to persuade one another since the first two people ever got together.
Mark: And you recently received some unexpected fame for your role in the Nuremberg Trials.
Mr. Burson: Yes, it happened quite accidentally. Last year, I was having lunch with the New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, and he said, that he had known me for 17 years and didn’t really know much about my background. He asked if I had ever been a reporter. I told him my story and that I started as a reporter on a Memphis newspaper and then worked for the American Forces Network, including covering the Nuremberg Trials. Also, I mentioned that I still had the binders of my original transcripts. He asked if I would send him a copy so to his surprise it was on his desk the next day!
He wrote an op-ed piece about it on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Nuremberg Trial. It caused quite a stir. Joe said it was among the most shared and commented-on posts he had ever written. And I received nice notes from people all over the world. Some were looking to use my scripts for research for their history projects.
Mark: Everybody who sees this blog post is going to want your book so what is the timing of the publication?
Mr. Burson: I’m about 60 percent completed, so I think I will probably finish it this summer and it should be out sometime in 2013. We are kicking around several titles.
Mark: Earlier in our conversation we were talking about the fact that you knew Peter Drucker, who was my teacher and mentor in graduate school. He was so gifted at taking a complex situations and distilling it to its vital essence. And really that’s what you’re known for, too — your ability to distill the essence of PR crisis and chaos. You have been in the middle of some of the biggest corporate nightmares in history — Union Carbide, the Tylenol crisis and so many more. What’s your process? What’s made you so good at bringing calm to something that just seems unmanageable?
Mr. Burson: It’s really a process of elimination. When I get into a negative situation, I always think in terms of what is the worst-case scenario? What is the worst possible thing that can happen if this is not handled properly? So once you define that, anything that you do that makes for a better outcome is progress, isn’t it? It gives you a little hope and a feeling that you can do something about it and from there, it builds and it builds and it builds. So having prevented the worst thing from happening stabilizes the situation and you go from there trying to build the thing back up again. It’s a two or three stage process and it takes time.
Mark: Well it is just an honor spending time with you and I can’t thank you enough for meeting me today.
Mr. Burson: You’re quite welcome.