Harold Burson, who attended the University of Mississippi and got his start as a writer for The Daily Mississippian, recently spoke to students in the School of Journalism and New Media.
In a conversation with Professor Robin Street, he discussed what it takes to become successful in public relations.
“Strive to be the best writer you can be,” he said. “I think that you should expect long hours throughout your course of working (in) PR, and the key is to provide productivity that is always meaningful,” he said.
After graduation he created his own business and was co-founder of one of the world’s largest public relations agencies, Burson-Marsteller, known as Burson, Cohn & Wolf since a 2018 merger. For decades he was one of the most well-known and influential figures in public relations.
PR Week called him the “godfather of modern PR” and one of the founding fathers of the PR industry. He has spent more than 50 years serving as a counselor and confidante of many corporate CEOs, government leaders, and other important figures.
One of his most high-profile PR cases happened during the 1980s when he was hired by Johnson & Johnson when news broke that several people had died after bottles of Tylenol had been tainted by cyanide. Burson said it was not just a threat to the pharmaceutical industry; it also was dangerous for the entire food industry in which products could easily be penetrated with needles, etc.
Although Burson contributed greatly to the progress and helped rebuild public trust for the company, he credits James Burke, former CEO of Johnson & Johnson, as “the real hero of the story.” He said Burke ordered removal of all Tylenol in the supermarkets and pharmacies; a decision that cost the company $100 million.
“After a new capsule was created that was nearly impossible to penetrate, it took about six to nine months before it reached its original selling mark in the industry,” Burson said.
Burson noted that the FBI still considers it an unsolved case.
After living in New York City most of his life, Burson recently moved back home to Memphis, Tennessee. Three days a week, he works at his local public relations firm.
Student journalists Samantha Powell, Elexis Craft, Sara Kate Rushing, Ariel Jones, Lily Garner Caroline Helms and Grace Baxter contributed to this story.
For more information, contact Assistant Dean Debora Wenger, Ph.D. at 662-915-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Tags: Harold Burson