- Harold Burson, founder of Burson-Marsteller (now BCW), has died at age 98 in Memphis.
- Burson was a legendary PR leader who counseled numerous corporate CEOs, Postmasters General, and former President Ronald Reagan.
- A World War II veteran, Burson worked as a reporter for the American Forces Network and was assigned to cover the Nuremberg trials after World War II, including the proceedings against Hermann Göring.
- Burson still worked for the agency three days a week, until just before the December holidays when he sustained a broken hip.
Harold Burson, a legend of the public-relations industry and cofounder of global agency Burson-Marsteller (now BCW), died Friday, January 10, in Memphis, TN.
Burson cofounded Burson-Marsteller in New York City in 1953, and the agency grew to become a global firm with a roster of complex, multinational clients. It was acquired by Young & Rubicam in 1970, which later rolled up into WPP. Burson was a counselor and confidante to CEOs and the C-suite for clients such as Pan Am, the United States Postal Service, and Coca-Cola.
Burson became the agency’s chairman in 1989 and collaborated with a series of CEOs thereafter, including Mark Penn, CEO of MDC Partners, who ran the firm from 2005-2012. “[Harold] was tremendous to work with. It was always his company, shaped by his intellect and charm,” Penn said via email. “We were just caretakers who passed through with the privilege of getting to know him and being guided by his kind wisdom.”
Donna Imperato, who has been CEO of BCW since 2018, confirmed that Burson was still working three days a week until before the holdiays, when he sustained a broken hip. “He remained a mentor to many of us and helped with new business and clients as needed,” she said. “Harold was such an incredible person, who kept his sharp mind and generosity until his passing.”
Born in Memphis in 1921, Burson attended college at the University of Mississippi, then joined the US Army and subsequently worked as a reporter for the American Forces Network, writing scripts for radio broadcasts on the Nuremberg trials, notably the proceedings against Hermann Göring. He moved to New York and cofounded Burson-Marsteller (now BCW) with Bill Marsteller in 1953.
Burson was known industry-wide for his mentoring of 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 and generously proferred.
Though he was based in New York for most of his life, his voice never lost its southern cadence. As advancing years dampened the volume, his lunch guests would lean in closer to hear not only his war stories from decades in PR, but also his always-current and insightful observations about global enterprise and the evolving PR profession.
Burson’s memoir, “The Business of Persuasion” was published in 2017. Among the many stories he told in the book was about his work for President Ronald Reagan, who had at that time left the White House and had committed to making a speech in Japan for a fee $2 million.
“The situation called for damage control centering on the large honorarium,” Burson wrote. “In my assessment, neutralizing public opinion relative to the fee would be difficult. In other words, there was no upside. The most we could do was lessen the downside.”
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