Called by PRWeek the “godfather of modern PR,” Harold Burson is the 96-year-old founder of one of the largest (and for many years the largest) PR firm in the world, Burson-Marsteller. Burson has published an autobiography that is at once a fascinating and candid overview of a long life spent close to the major corporate events of the 20th century and an insightful primer on public relations.
The title of the book, The Business of Persuasion: Harold Burson on Public Relations, sounds more like a “wit and wisdom” book — which to some extent it is, since every chapter ends with a list of takeaways that span the mundane advice of work experience to life and moral guidance.
The Business of Persuasion is, however, much richer than simple “wit and wisdom” since it is also a traditional, birth-to-present autobiography, presented in a direct, modest and unassuming style. Burson takes readers on a journey that moves from his father’s hardware store in early 20th century Memphis to the public-relations debacle of New Coke; from starting a one-man PR shop in post-war New York City to the birth of the common European market, which inspired Burson to pioneer the development of an international PR agency; and from the Nuremberg Trials to the challenge of changing the aggressive civil war atmosphere of his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, in the 1990s.
Corporations and Social Responsibility
Burson is an eloquent defender of his much-maligned profession. In a chapter titled “The Corporation’s Role in Society,” Burson writes, “There are still misconceptions about public relations; he writes, “that it is the substation of imagery for substantive acts, or that the PR professional’s job is to mastermind a public perception of a corporation so that its executives can do whatever they damn well please. Quite the contrary.” The public-relations executive, he argues, must help corporations meet their societal expectations, not avoid them.
His perspective in this chapter on the responsibility of a corporation reflects the nuance apparent throughout this book. Burson rejects the measurement of a corporation’s social responsibility through its good deeds. In a 1973 speech on the issue, Burson writes that he declared that a corporation’s most important social responsibility was to be well managed, that is, “to manage its affairs properly and profitably.” “That was the greatest service it could perform in society,” he continues. Burson, a political moderate, succinctly encapsulates his middle-of-the-road view of social responsibility in a few key sentences: “No one had ever picketed a company for not building a playground or an opera house,” he writes. “But many had boycotted corporations that had failed to hire minorities, promote women to executive positions, serve customers without prejudice, install pollution-abatement equipment or otherwise take responsibility for their actions.”
The middle-of-the-road, thoughtful atmosphere of the book is somewhat disturbed in a chapter entitled “Crisis Management and Controversial Clients.” Some of Burson’s clients, including the repressive Argentinian military junta and Union Carbide, the chemical company whose Indian plant exploded in 1984, killing more than a thousand employees, will raise eyebrows (as proof, Burson quotes one commentator who called Burson-Marsteller “the public-relations agency from hell”). Although he writes that he would have cancelled the Argentinian contract within the first six months had he been able to, Burson is mostly unapologetic about his choices. He notes, for example, that management of the Union Carbide plant had been taken over by the Indian government before the explosion, although he acknowledges in typical phlegmatic manner that “some three decades later… Burson-Marsteller is mentioned from time to time in an adverse light.”
Whether or not you agree with every position or assessment in the book, The Business of Persuasion offers a valuable, thoughtful and eloquent perspective on 10 decades in public relations from a pioneer of the field.