Unless he’s traveling, Harold Burson can be found in his corner office at Burson-Marsteller, Inc., the giant public-relations firm he founded in 1946. His parents emigrated from England in 1920 and opened a hardware store in Memphis, Tennessee, but were wiped out by the Depression. Burson’s mother supported the family by selling clothing door-to-door, and he declares that, “if she’d ever had $25,000 in capital, she’d have been Sam Walton.”
He’s not given to exaggeration, so it’s probably the case.
Burson paid his way through the University of Mississippi as the campus correspondent for the Memphis Commercial Appeal and opened his own public relations firm in New York just after the end of World War II. The motivation was financial: the minute he landed his first PR job his income doubled, to $50 a week. Burson briskly dismisses any notion of himself as an industry pioneer. Some years ago he dispatched an employee to the New York Public Library to look up all the listings under “publicity” and “public relations” in the 1947 Yellow Pages. “There were over 500 people. And a lot of them were newspaper reporters like me, or men who’d been public information officers for some military unit.”
Sixty years later, Burson Marsteller is the largest public relations company in the world. Governments and blue-chip corporations knock on the door when they’ve got a problem: “anything from ‘We want to introduce a new product,’ to ‘We have a crisis and we need to reestablish our reputation,’” he explained. One problem came his way from Robert Khayat, Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and Burson describes it as the most gratifying experience of his career.
As his legacy, the chancellor wanted to establish a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on campus. The Phi Beta Kappa committee happened to visit on a football weekend. Word came back, Khayat told Burson, that “as long as there are Confederate flags in the Ole Miss stadium, and as long as they play ‘Dixie’ over and over, we’ll never get a chapter.” The music wasn’t a problem: the band director was on the university payroll. The flags, on the other hand, were carried in by 60,000 fanatical alumni — little ones for waving, and big ones for tailgating and huddling under on chilly November afternoons. Burson told Khayat that he’d never get rid of the flags. But he went down to Oxford and talked to a lot of people. He determined that the custom had no institutional support. He conferred with staff and students on the best way to announce and initiate the transition. And he had lunch with the coach.
The coach was no fan of the flags — hear why, on the audio clip below — but he dismissed Burson’s assurance that the alumni, “despite their southern roots and their professions of loyalty to the old Confederacy, would rather have a winning football team than have all of those flags in the stadium.” The coach shook his head. “You don’t know how rabid those guys are. I’m not your man.”
Nevertheless, Burson sized him up as a man of integrity, and figured that he’d muster the conviction within a year or so. He told the chancellor, “Robert you’ll never get the flags out of the stadium. The coach will.” A few months later the coach called Burson and said, “OK, what do you want me to do?” The plan went into action: the coach held a press conference, the school newspaper printed his letter, and students monitored fans at the next football game. Ninety percent cooperated. At the following game, the last of the season, there were no flags in sight. Afterwards, Burson found out that the coach was leaving to go to Auburn State, “so he felt he had nothing to lose — and he was a decent guy.”
It’s striking to hear an industry legend rank this behind-the-scenes blow to the Confederacy as his greatest achievement. Others include leading Burson-Marsteller’s work on the tampered Tylenol poisonings for Johnson & Johnson, handling the Bhopal disaster for Union Carbide, and restoring public confidence in Korean economy. At 67, Burson stepped down as CEO, but his successor and associates asked him to stick around, and he has. “Having been at this 35 years, I felt that I was absolutely at my peak. I knew just about everyone who was running big business in this country.” Now 87, Burson works a 35-hour week as Chairman Emeritus and remains an incalculably valuable employee. He represents Burson-Marsteller at major functions (last trip, to Australia; next one, to Beijing) and remains its home-page poster boy.
It’s not the same as running the operation, and here again Burson’s modesty and clear-eyed pragmatism stand him in good stead. He has no official management responsibilities, but the firm’s gone public, “and I wouldn’t like to manage a company like that.” Many of his retired friends envy his position, but few could occupy it. “Since I’m no longer the CEO, the one thing I have to do to retain my position here is to keep my mouth shut when I see something I don’t like,” he explains. “I don’t second-guess. I watch people make what I think are mistakes and say, ‘They’ll learn from it.’ Most of my friends could not do that. That’s an art, a real art, ‘cause this is my baby that they’re sticking pins into.” Call it art, call it business, call it wisdom.