Harold Burson was a PR Legend Who Shaped the Industry

Harold Burson, cofounder of global agency powerhouse Burson-Marsteller (now BCW) who died last Friday in Memphis, Tenn., was an icon in the public relations industry.

He was 98, and still worked three days a week until late last year.

Burson cofounded Burson-Marsteller in New York in 1953, and the agency grew to become a global force with a deep roster of international clients.

A Memphis native, Burson attended the University of Mississippi, then joined the U.S. Army where he worked as a reporter for the American Forces Network, writing scripts for radio broadcasts on the Nuremberg trials, notably the proceedings against Hermann Göring. After his stint with the Army, Burson moved to New York and cofounded the firm with Bill Marsteller in 1953.

They built it into an industry powerhouse with $4.4 million in revenue by 1969 and then $64 million, with 2,500 employees in 50 offices, nearly two decades later. In 1979, Burson sold the firm to ad agency Young & Rubicam, which was in turn bought by WPP in 2000. He stepped down as Burson’s CEO in 1988. Burson-Marsteller merged with Cohn & Wolfe into BCW in early 2018.

Burson – a senior counselor and confidante to CEOs and companies the world over, including the U.S. Postal Service, Coca-Cola and Pan Am – kept a packed schedule of meetings until his death.

He hobnobbed with powerful figures around the globe during his career. He enjoyed good relationships with U.S. presidents including Ronald Reagan – with whom he used to have monthly lunches – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as the late former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Burson was passionate about mentoring young professionals at his agency and beyond — as well as the more seasoned executives who sought his counsel regularly. His invitations for one-on-one lunches were eagerly sought by all. Even though he rocketed to the word stage, living in New York and traveling the world, he never lost his proud Southern drawl and charm!

Burson will always be remembered as the PR man with the Midas touch!

Todd Smith is co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Deane | Smith, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019. Smith is a former staff writer for The Washington Times, past president of the Public Relations Society of America | Nashville Chapter and a columnist for The Mississippi Business Journal, where he pens The Spin Cycle, a weekly take on all things branding. He is a former speechwriter for the George H.W. Bush for President Campaign. Deane | Smith is the Tennessee affiliate of PRConsultants Group.

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