Father of modern PR Harold Burson on seven decades in the industry

You live and you learn: Harold Burson, co-founder of PR firm Burson-Marsteller on covering Nuremberg, the 'Mad Men' culture of the 1960s, and why money is like manure.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

In my mother's eyes, there was nothing her son couldn't do. She gave me a strong sense of security and was my biggest influence. My father was gassed in World War One and his health never recovered. He had a hardware store that failed during the Depression. My mother supported us, going door to door selling clothes in black neighbourhoods in Memphis.

I served in the combat engineers during the war and stayed in Europe afterwards to cover the Nuremberg trials for the American Forces Radio. I moved back to the US and set up my own PR firm. I met Bill Marsteller in 1952 through a friend at the New York Times. People say when we started we didn't have any competition. That's not true. There were several hundred listed in the New York phone book, but only a dozen of us are still around.

Office life in the 1960s was much more relaxed. There was always alcohol at lunch. You'd have a martini and sometimes two, although drinking in the office wasn't as widespread as Mad Men would have you believe.

There's no doubt the PR industry has changed. My generation was still getting used to TV. Now digital is much more powerful. It's ubiquitous and reaches a lot of people at low cost. I don't think we know the potential for digital as a medium to persuade people.

Going international in the 1960s was the turning point. At the time, Hill & Knowlton was the only other PR firm that was international. Most of our business came from word of mouth, but we were very careful about who we worked for. You need to measure up to what you promise people. That's what's being lost now. People are communicating without thinking through the consequences.

My older son has an expression I live by - money is like manure. If you don't spread it around, it won't do any good. I live fairly modestly. I don't have fancy cars. And I support a number of causes. My wife and I put several children who were not our own through college.

The secret to good health? Clean living and thinking good thoughts. I've never had a serious disease - at 92 I still go into the office, although I have been writing my memoirs, which I hope to finish by next year. But, these days, I don't plan too far ahead.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today