The Passing of Harold Burson, ‘PR Legend’ – A Tribute

The Passing of Harold Burson, 'PR Legend'Fay Shapiro, Publisher, CommPRO.biz

Public relations legend Harold Burson, co-founder of Burson-Marsteller and one of the most influential figures in PR history passed away today.  Burson, a veteran of World War II, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, founder of Burson-Marsteller, friend and colleague to many, husband to Bette Ann and father to Scott and Mark has passed away at the age of 98. The family made the announcement today in Memphis, TN.

“Our family is saddened by the loss of our beloved father. We grieve and mourn his passing. And yet our spirits are lifted by the belief that he is now “gathered” with his loving wife and faithful companion of 63 years – Bette Ann. We pray they will now rest together for all of eternity,” the family said in a released statement.

Memorial services will be held in New York City and at the University of Mississippi. He will be entombed in the Columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, the family asks those wanting to celebrate their father’s life and to insure the lessons he taught us all live on to make a donation to the Harold Burson Legacy Scholarship Fund at the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi.

Mr. B.  you will be missed!(While he always said, “Fay, please call me Harold,” I held him in such regard, it was impossible to be so informal with Harold Burson, a PR legend.)  I am truly blessed to have known you. I will forever cherish our conversations in those wonderful rocking chairs you kept in the office. Thank you for being a constant source of inspiration. Rest in peace.

Hearing the sad news of his passing today, here are thoughts, stories and heartfelt memories from some of the many people whom Mr. B. impacted…

Remembering Mr. B.

I first met Harold Burson many years ago when I was around 26 years of age.  I had been promoted to public relations director of Prentice-Hall, the international books and business services publishing company.  At that time, Prentice-Hall was an American Stock Exchange company with around 6,000 employees worldwide.  I was a neophyte PR director having been appointed by the CEO of Prentice-Hall to that position on what I viewed then was a giant leap of faith.

When Harold Burson, a considerably younger man at that time, heard about my promotion, he called me and said he would tutor me in the finer points of public relations for no charge at all.  I accepted his offer willingly.  For the next year I would have periodic meetings with Harold who truly taught me a great deal about public relations.  He did it for no charge.  He did it because he wanted to help the next generation carry out public relations programs the right way.  Thus began a many decades long friendship.  Harold and I had lunch periodically and he  continued to help me any way he could as my career veered toward the PR agency world. 

I worshiped Harold Burson.  He was a leader, a pioneer and a role model.  He will never be forgotten.  Goodspeed, Harold.

—Art Stevens, Managing Partner, The Stevens Group


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, CEO, Edelman


Harold Burson was a true pioneer who laid the groundwork for the public relations industry we know today. His commitment to ethics and, above all, doing the right thing, set the bar for all practitioners in our field as we seek to communicate with purpose and be a force for good. I had the pleasure of working at Burson-Marsteller in New York early in my career, and I will be forever grateful to Harold for creating a role-model firm for me to learn at in my formative years.

—Barri Rafferty, Global CEO & President, Ketchum


In my first month at BM in 1992, I shared over lunch with Mr. Burson that my Dad lost his mom at age 3 and I lost my grandfather when I was only 8.  Mr. Burson, my mentor, my boss and my friend, looked me right in the eye and said, “Well you have another grandpa now.”  It melted my heart then as it does now. I miss him, but we now must also celebrate him. Celebrate his life and smile. We have so, so, much to smile  and warm our hearts about regarding Harold Burson. I will have much more to say in the near future. I need a bit of time to reflect more clearly. I am a broken up today. I miss him a lot already. He was a big part of my life for 28 years.”  #RIP #legend #grandpa #MrBurson

— Mike Paul, President, Reputation Doctor® LLC


All BM’ers derived comfort knowing that Harold’s office door was always open should anyone have a need to run an idea or solicit his sage advice. You’d soon find yourself sitting comfortably in one of his Stickley chairs staring at the 1940’s era radio before you. 
I have many memories of our chats, but one remains with me to this day. It was his genuine excitement when I bee-lined it to his office with an early prototype of the front page of The New York Times newspaper, printed in color. Heretofore, the Gray Lady was, well, a gray lady. Harold, a former war correspondent, was so proud to count the world’s most venerable news organization as a client of the firm he founded.  
—Peter Himler, Founder, Flatiron Communications LLC

Two things. Once he told me if the media were not interested in a story tell them there’ll be kids and dogs! And on the other more important thing was his deep appreciation and knowledge of Faulkner, who hailed from Oxford, Mississippi where I believe Harold once worked as a journalist.

—Larry Weber, Chairman & CEO, Racepoint Global


Our industry has lost one of the greatest pioneers of our profession. Harold’s legacy will last for generations—he not only had a positive impact on our industry but society as well. Sometimes we talk about the greatness of the founding fathers of PR, but he was truly an example of how it should be practiced—with integrity, care and enthusiasm. He also loved the profession and made countless contributions that has made our world a better place.

—Tina McCorkindale, President and CEO, Institute for Public Relations


We got to know Harold well only in the last several years, when we started recording his oral histories and organizing his artifacts for an exhibit at the Museum of Public Relations.  In all this time, Harold never seemed to miss an industry event or awards dinner. In the last two years, he would come by wheelchair, with large gatherings of admiring students and professionals bending down to hug him or shake his hand. With each and every person, Harold was gracious, warm and appreciative, a smile that never faded. At one of these dinners two years ago, Harold called me over from a few tables away. “What are you doing over Christmas?” he asked me.  I told him we’d be in town, but why? “I need you guys to start picking out the items you want for the Museum. All those chotchkas I’ve collected over the years… You know, I can’t take them with me!”  Alarmed, thinking he was telling me some bad news about his health, I began telling him how great he looked (and he did!). How strong and healthy (he was!) Then Don Wright, overhearing the conversation, pulled me aside and said, “He’s moving to a smaller office, and he can’t possibly take all that stuff with him!” Ah, right! B-M had just merged with Cohn & Wolfe, and everyone was moving into news offices.  A few months later, Barry, Harold and I started going through the many dozens of momentos, photos, letters that Harold wanted to donate to the Museum. Every item he identified came with a story. Original hand-written letters from Pres. Reagan; a miniature can of Coke with “Harold” splashed across it; a 1980s O’Dwyer’s ranking of PR firms (B-M was Number One)… a B-M teddy bear…  All these precious artifacts– as he called them, “chochtkas”– now occupy a good part of the Museum, for today’s students and all the PR students and professionals in the years ahead to get to know first-hand the man we’ve all been so privileged to know these past many years. We will miss you Harold. And we thank you for all you’ve given us. 

—Shelley J. Spector, President, Spector & Associates, Inc. / Founder, The Museum of Public Relations


We’re all very sad about the passing of one of the pioneers of the public relations business. In the past few years, we have lost three legendary leaders – Dan Edelman, Al Golin and now Harold Burson. It’s been my honor to have known and worked with all three of them.

—Fred Cook, Chairman, Golin


We are sad to hear about the passing of Harold Burson — one of our industry’s legendary greats.  From Washington, DC and beyond, we’re grateful to this man for all he did — not just for his clients — but for those who he so generously helped along the way to foster their careers. He will be remembered fondly by so many.

—Danny Selnick, Member, Board of Governors & Communicator Team Leader of the National Press Club, Washington, DC.


I am saddened to hear about the passing of Harold Burson, a legendary leader who was an inspiration and a mentor to many. I met Harold several times and he was always engaging, thoughtful, smart and strategic.  His profound impact in the Public Relations industry will be remembered and celebrated forever.

—Kass Sells, Global COO, President International  |  WE Communications 


Harold Burson was a pioneer of the public relations industry whose legacy will continue to influence the communications profession long into the future. He was a man of tremendous ambition and achieved unprecedented success throughout his celebrated career. As a longtime member of PRSA and a member of the College of Fellows 1989 inaugural class, Harold was a treasured, generous role model and mentor who helped shape countless generations of students and communications practitioners. His passing is a tremendous loss and our heart goes out to his family and to the many people whose lives he touched. He will be missed very much.

—Statement on the passing of Harold Burson from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)


Like many in the PR industry, I loved Harold Burson. I weep today for a man who made us proud to be PR professionals and who was caring, thoughtful and guided by integrity. I didn’t know Harold well, but he was always exceedingly kind and generous with his time and advice on the half dozen or so occasions that our paths crossed. When I wrote my first book, Becoming Ginger Rogers, about my late-life, passion-obsession with ballroom dance he read it, wrote a beautiful blurb for the cover AND, in his desire to help, strongly suggested that I rewrite the ending!  I didn’t do it, but I love that he was so passionate about my giving readers a happier ending. Thank you Harold for making a difference in the lives of so many of us and for upholding the highest standards as a PR professional and as a human being.

Patrice Tanaka, Founder & Chief Joy Officer, Joyful Planet LLC


 

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5 Comments

  1. James Lukaszewski on at 12:52 PM

    Harold Burson is the last World Class PR giant. He helped so many, so frequently, and so richly for as long as he could.



  2. Eric Schwartzman on at 8:28 PM

    “The best client relationships and most effective client relationships are when the two parties to the agreement or to the project are working in tandem and you can’t tell at the end who really deserves the credit.”

    ~ Harold Burson, 2006 (https://ontherecordpodcast.com/on-the-record-online-with-burson-marsteller-founder-harold-burson)



  3. Deborah Buks on at 9:04 AM

    His character set the tone and foundation for the culture of the firm. To this day, like many others, I am proud to say I was a BursonPerson, because of who he was and what he accomplished, but mostly for how he conducted himself, and expected us to conduct ourselves. This year as I celebrate the 30th anniversary of my own firm, I remain inspired by the many lessons of his life.



  4. Lynn Hazan on at 12:01 PM

    Harold Burson was a legend ( I hate to use the past tense.) His staff and clients were top tier. Harold and his staff created the best in class PR professionals. Any time I looked at candidates’ resumes and saw that they had previously worked at B-M, I knew that I would be dealing with A+ talent. It was also rare for B-M employees to leave the agency!



  5. Scott Tagliarino on at 7:37 AM

    I got to work with Harold during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and it was one of the highlights of my career. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with many of the great leaders in our industry: John Graham. Dan Edelman, Howard Rubinstein, and, of course, Richard. All class acts in my book. Rest In Peace, Harold. Greatly missed but never forgotten.