Harold Burson has been the last living legend of the generation of World War II veterans who started their own firms and transformed the PR business. His passing marks the end of an era in which PR firm leaders were public figures, who spoke out about issues and helped the nascent industry to develop in a responsible manner. Harold and my father were deeply competitive but had real mutual respect.
Harold will be remembered for building a large extended family of present and former Burson-Marsteller employees. You actually never left the fold. He kept in touch, seeing his alumni for drinks or at industry confabs. He was always Harold, never Mr. Burson.
He was the first to build a truly global PR firm. B-M was the first into China with its unique Xinhua relationship. He persuaded clients to trust B-M as it expanded into a global power.
The ethical practice of PR was the essence of the B-M culture. PR had to be done in a transparent manner; no front organizations.
Harold was CEO in the period when B-M was atop the PR league tables. He was the go-to advisor for CEOs at Merrill Lynch, Dow Chemical, Union Carbide and J&J. He was a relentless builder.
He bought into the Y&R concept of “the whole egg” and sold the agency in the late 80s. But he never allowed the PR team to play second fiddle to the ad agency or any other of the Y&R units.
On a personal basis, no one was more kind to me in the wake of the passing of my parents. He asked me for lunch. He told me stories at PR Seminar. He told me that I had done a great job in building Edelman and that my dad would be very proud. He gave me invaluable advice on how to balance work and the rest of life.
Every one of us should aspire to the same intellectual hunger and basic decency that guided the life of Harold Burson. We must live up to his standard of professional conduct in our profession.
Richard Edelman is CEO.