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‘A lion of the industry’ – Richard Edelman leads tributes to the late Harold Burson

Harold Burson, 1921-2020

Harold Burson, founder of PR firm Burson-Marsteller, has died. Former colleagues and industry peers, including Richard Edelman and McCann Worldgroup chief Harris Diamond, have paid tribute to both his pioneering approach to PR and the kindness of his spirit.

Burson died today (10 January) at the age of 98. Mark Read, chief executive of WPP, wrote it was a “very sad day for everyone” at the holding company, which merged Burson-Marsteller with Cohn & Wolfe in 2018.

Edelman, meanwhile, praised the graciousness with which Burson viewed the rise of his father’s agency.

Burson and Daniel Edelman were rivals for the best part of 40 years, but the latter’s heir recalled how the Burson showed him kindness after the death of Daniel in 2013. Later, Burson would publicly honor the way Richard was successfully following in his father’s footsteps in a speech to the industry.

“Competitors don’t necessarily do that,” said Edleman. “He was just a good man. And I think, like my dad, he was very much shaped by his experience in the war.”

Burson was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1921. He began working in public relations at an engineering and architectural firm after graduation before enlisting in the US Army in 1943.

He returned from the war in Europe in 1946 to New York City. It was there that he opened a public relations agency specializing in B2B clients. He went into business with Bill Marsteller and the two went on to forge a multi-million-dollar business.

“He’s going to be remembered as the first person who truly professionalized and globalized the business [of PR],” said Harris Diamond, chief executive of McCann World Group. “His was one of the first businesses to go global, and to take going global seriously.”

The 1970s saw Burson-Marsteller expand into a raft of new markets, including London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. At the time, it was unheard of for a PR firm to expand into Asia.

By the 1980s, Burson-Marsteller had become the world’s largest public relations firm. High-profile work such as the Tylenol recalls, the U-turn on New Coke and Pam Am’s inadvertent part in the Lockerbie bombing cemented the shop as one of the first prove PR to be significant strategic corporate investment.

“He proved agencies could be of council, not just implementers,” said Edelman. “Some of his positionings were just masterful.”

He stepped down as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller in 1988 but continued to work closely with the agency and industry right up until his death. Diamond recalled bumping into him on the street in New York just two years ago, when Burson would have been 96 years old.

“He was coming from the office!” said Diamond. “I think that just shows how he lived life to the fullest. He was a man that loved talking to his employees – and my employees. But I respected him for that.”

“He was great with his own people,” said Edelman. “He always kept in touch with little notes and calls. And years after [he’d stepped down] he would go to PR seminars and always be one of the first people to come to the microphone and ask questions.

“He never stopped, he kept growing. He was a legend – a lion of the industry – and he’ll be missed.”

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