January 10, 2020
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The great Harold Burson

Today, like so many others in public relations, I was saddened to learn about the passing away of Harold Burson, a giant in the global PR consulting industry. Many others knew Harold better than I did, but I want to share my personal perspectives notwithstanding.

The first contact I had with this legendary leader was in 2008, when Harold emailed me a message out of the blue saying he had heard about my resignation from the firm I was working for at the time, and he simply wanted to wish me well for the next stage of my career. This was not a recruitment approach; he just seemed to want to provide me with a morale boost. When I met Harold in his New York office a few months later, I asked him why he had contacted me with no discernible commercial agenda.

I remember exactly what he said in response:

“In my experience, when an executive living overseas far away from home – especially one who has a young family to support – leaves a position like that with no new job lined up, it’s a time of extreme stress and that’s when I like to provide some positive encouragement.”

Over the years I have learned the hard way about people one only hears from when they want something, but Harold was a relationship maker, not a taker. His proactive compassion and empathy made a lasting impression on me. 

In 2010 I joined Burson-Marsteller, where the highlight for me during three ‘interesting’ years there was learning from him and benefiting on several occasions from Harold’s wisdom and experience, especially as an astute judge of character (indeed, much to my delight, I found that we agreed in our private opinion of just about everyone we knew in common). 

I was so excited when Harold came to visit Asia on my watch as the firm’s regional chief (a part of the world he understood and respected much more than most US-based ‘global’ PR executives), because I got a chance to spend many hours with him and frankly I just luxuriated in his impressive presence. Even into his 90s, Harold could command a room and he still knew how to well sell the services of Burson-Marsteller. I also enjoyed watching his pleasure in having a stiff drink after a long day on the road, and the twinkle in his eye when he encountered old friends along the way.

In an industry which still has too many propagandists and prevaricators and Machiavellians, Harold was an honest man who didn’t just talk the walk, he walked the talk. Even better, unlike many in the trade who have the ‘gift of the gab’ and talk your ear off with their loquacity, he was a great listener and conversations with Harold were always a two-way street.

I also like to consider all the lives changed for the better by Harold. I understand that 34,000 people around the world have worked for his firm going back to the 1950s. Consider the careers built, families supported, clients served, friendships forged – not to mention the societal outcomes. Harold knew that making money was only one part of it, with the people behind the profits the most important thing of by far the highest value. He had a special connection to the extended alumni community of Burson-Marsteller, consisting – much more so than most PR firms – of people who fondly remembered their time there because of what they learned from the founder.

I feel really grateful for having known – and for serving under – the great Harold Burson.

 

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