Industry heroes: Harold Burson

Once labelled as the ‘most influential person in public relations in the 20th century’, Harold Burson – the co-founder of Burson-Marsteller – is a legend to many, including AIA Group communications head Stephen Thomas

Burson – ‘most influential person in PR in the 20th century’

My ‘industry hero’ does not need another tribute piece written about him. But I will write one anyway.

Harold Burson is a man of slight stature of who is a giant in the public relations world.

The man who cofounded Burson-Marsteller in 1954 and grew it to be, at one point in time, the largest public relations firm in the world.

The man who built a company that was once described as “the public relations firm against which all others are measured”. The man was who was Burson-Marsteller chief executive officer for 35 years and who counselled other CEOs at some of the world’s leading companies – including Coca-Cola and General Motors – not to mention one or two United States presidents.

The man who helped pioneer the globalisation of PR firms, expanding to Europe in 1959, to Asia in 1973 and to Australia in the early 1980s. Harold is my industry hero as without Harold, I simply would not have had my own career.

Back in Melbourne, in the mid-1990s, I was vaguely interested in a career in public relations. A friend, who worked in investment banking, told me of Burson-Marsteller. I managed to have a coffee with someone who worked at Bursons’ Melbourne office.

I was immediately hooked by the savviness of the firm, by the corporate and public affairs work it did and by its reputation as a heavy hitter in the world of public relations. I was smitten and for me, it was a case of joining Burson-Marsteller or no one. It took me over a year of knocking on their door, but eventually they let me in.

Over the next eight years, the firm gave me all the tools I needed to operate successfully in the world of PR. Harold Burson created a strong culture at the firm, which saw a paramount focus placed on helping clients solve business issues and where providing counsel regarding actions and behaviour were given equal footing to the art of communications.

Under Harold’s leadership, the firm emphasised the need to measure outcomes and the importance of investing in the training of its people. And by the time I joined, as a result of Harold’s vision, the firm had a very well-established global network. This network enabled me to visit New York, London and Singapore with the firm and to eventually relocate to Hong Kong.

I have been fortunate to have had a number of interactions with Harold over the years. My observations from seeing him up close are twofold. First, he epitomises the value of being humble. Harold has spoken of getting lucky by surrounding himself with a lot of competent people and letting them do their thing.

His door has always been open to so many, including me. On more than one occasion, long after I left the firm, I would arrange a visit to B-M’s New York office to call on Harold. And each time, he would make the time to see me. For me, an Australian whom he really barely knew.

We would sit in his office, surrounded by his lifetime of career memorabilia and he would recount tales of people and companies that we had a common interest in. It was staggering to me to be readily afforded such an opportunity, to talk at length with the man PR Week named the ‘most influential person in public relations in the 20th century’.

Second, he is a role model for the importance of being and remaining active. Like most successful people, Harold has maintained a very strong work ethic throughout his life. His work has been his passion, perhaps fuelled by not only a genuine curiosity for life but also by the satisfaction gained through helping other people.

It speaks volumes that the great man has continued to go into the office each day in his 90s and whom I believe has counseled CEOs and other leaders for many years, even decades, after stepping down from his executive leadership role at the firm.

Harold Burson was very much a figure of the 20th century, but would he have achieved the same success today? Absolutely. Not only would he have succeed and thrived in today’s world, he would be a much needed leadership voice.

He continues to talk about the need for communicators to counsel on how companies and individuals should behave, rather than just communicate. On the need to take a long-term view and not to make decisions solely on the basis of quarterly earnings cycles.

Harold has also waxed lyrical on how there is rarely such a thing as a new idea. He has an ability to connect issues and opportunities and to provide enduring principles and insights. This gift, coupled with his entrepreneurial drive, his laser like focus on serving clients, his integrity and his ability to speak the language of business would equip him well to succeed in today’s complex world as well as that of yesteryear.

Above all, Harold is a thoroughly decent human being. It has been a great honour for me to have had the opportunity to know him and to have worked at the firm that bears his name.

Thomas was honoured to work with Burson

Stephen Thomas is head of group brand and communications at the insurance firm AIA Group and is based in Hong Kong


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