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UM School of Journalism faculty members remember Harold Burson and his legacy

Posted on: January 14th, 2020 by ldrucker

University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media faculty members are proud to have known Harold Burson, a UM graduate who founded Burson-Marsteller, a company that grew to become the world’s largest public relations firm.

The World War II veteran was a friend and colleague to many who passed away at the age of 98. But in October, Burson visited the school to sign copies of his book The Business of Persuasion and spoke to a room of faculty and students during a presentation moderated by Senior Lecturer Robin Street, who specializes in public relations and integrated marketing communications.

Senior Lecturer of Journalism Robin Street stands behind Harold Burson and former Chancellor Robert Khayat.

Senior Lecturer of Journalism Robin Street stands behind Harold Burson and former Chancellor Robert Khayat in October. Photo by LaReeca Rucker.

“One of the greatest joys in my teaching career was the chance to spend time with Harold Burson, and even better, to have him speak to my students several times,” Street said via email, adding that his name and significance in the PR world are among the first things she teaches her students in the Introduction to Public Relations class.

“I tell them that what Elvis Presley was to rock and roll, Burson was to PR,” she said. “He truly helped the profession evolve, change and grow. . . This man was a giant in the PR world. Yet, he was soft-spoken and humble when he spoke to students. After he spoke, he always patiently posed for photo after photo with the students.”

Burson got his start as a writer for The Daily Mississippian and later became one of the most influential public relations figures in the world. He spent more than 50 years serving CEOs, government leaders, and heads of public sector units.

This week, his life has been chronicled in national newspapers and on websites such as PR Week, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalists Curtis Wlkie and Peter J. Boyer were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson.

Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalists Curtis Wlkie and Peter J. Boyer were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson. Photo by LaReeca Rucker.

Burson, who spoke to faculty and signed copies of his book before addressing students in the Overby Center, was born in 1921. He said his father came to the United States from England and served in the British Army before establishing a career in the cotton business.

Ellen Meacham, a professor with the School of Journalism and New Media, said Burson covered the Nuremberg trials for the American Forces Network as a 24-year-old radio journalist.

“His work stands as an essential witness to both the atrocities of the Nazis and the values that the U.S. aimed to uphold,” she said. “As he spent days and days watching the documents and footage taken by the Nazi’s themselves from the concentration camps entered into evidence, it must have taken a tremendous personal emotional toll, yet his demeanor and writing remained unshakably professional.”

From left, Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalist Curtis Wlkie were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson.

From left, Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalist Curtis Wilkie were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson. Photo by LaReeca Rucker.

Meacham said the scripts he wrote demonstrate timeless journalistic values, the same ones professors try to teach today.

“Tell the truth as best you can,” she said. “Tell it square, with out fear or favor. Know your audience. Help them understand what they want to know and what they need to know. Make them see, hear, and, most importantly, FEEL the story. Be the witness to history, and write its first draft. He set a great example for generations to come.”

Harold Burson signed copies of his book The Business of Persuasion.

Harold Burson signed copies of his book The Business of Persuasion.

Burson told faculty during the fall that when he decided to create his own business in the 1930s, he wrote a letter to a potential businessman asking him to be his first client. The recipient agreed and found Burson an additional client. Six years later, he had a team of five employees.

Throughout his career, he has worked on many important projects at the local, state, and federal level.

One of his most high profile PR cases happened in the 1980s when he was hired by the company Johnson & Johnson after news broke that several people had died after bottles of Tylenol were found to have been tainted by cyanide.

Burson discussed the case in the Overby Center, explaining that it was not just a threat to the pharmaceutical industry; it was also dangerous for the entire food industry whose products could be easily penetrated with needles, etc.

Street said she has taught about this classic crisis case for years, but didn’t know Burson was the PR expert helping with it until he casually mentioned it one day.

“The last time he spoke was in October, and he held the rapt attention of a room full of college students,” she said. “That is something even few professors can do.”

Although she met him only a few times, Meacham said Burson made a deep impression.

“He had an intense focus, on you, on the business at hand, and on the larger context,” she said. “He seemed to notice everything and remember every detail. He was a great storyteller, too, which is what made him, early on, a good reporter and, later on, a public relations visionary.”

Will Norton Jr., dean of the School of Journalism and New Media, described Burson as a quiet man who was incredibly insightful about human nature. He was a man of integrity who wasn’t afraid of anything, he said.

“His company created integrated marketing communications,” he said. “The IMC field is his legacy to our world.”

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that those who wish to celebrate Burson’s life and lessons to make a donation to the Harold Burson Legacy Scholarship Fund at the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi.

Friends and colleagues are invited to leave a comment, an anecdote or a note of remembrance at the following email: mmburson99@gmail.com.

For more information, contact Mark Burson, instructional assistant professor, University of Mississippi, School of Journalism and New Media, mmburson@olemiss.edu; 805-390-1767.

This story was written by LaReeca Rucker.

Alumnus Harold Burson speaks at University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media

Posted on: October 4th, 2019 by ldrucker

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.

Senior Lecturer of Journalism Robin Street stands behind Harold Burson and former Chancellor Robert Khayat.

Senior Lecturer of Journalism Robin Street stands behind Harold Burson and former Chancellor Robert Khayat.

“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.

Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalists Curtis Wlkie and Peter J. Boyer were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson.

Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalists Curtis Wlkie and Peter J. Boyer were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson.

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.

From left, Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalist Curtis Wlkie were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson.

From left, Harold Burson, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and journalist Curtis Wlkie were among those who attended the faculty meeting with Burson.

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.

Harold Burson signed copies of his book The Business of Persuasion.

Harold Burson signed copies of his book The Business of Persuasion.

“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 drwenger@olemiss.edu.

Faculty Profile: Burson teaches students to find their passion

Posted on: May 25th, 2019 by ldrucker

Mark Burson began teaching at the University of Mississippi Jan. 27, 2016, but not before spending 43 years in California.

“My only regret is that it took me so long to discover Oxford, Mississippi,” he said. “I wish I had done it 30 years ago.”

Growing up, Burson had no desire to teach. He wanted to play baseball.

“I went to a private school,” he said, “and I was the first freshman to start all four years. I made all-league those four years as well. So by the time I was a senior, I thought I was really good.”

With no collegiate offers to play ball, Burson decided to walk on at the University of Southern California. At the time, USC had a freshman team and a junior varsity team that held open tryouts for walk-on athletes. He made the team.

“I spent two weeks on that team,” he said, “and I was amazed at how good everybody else was. I soon realized that I had never seen a real curveball before. I had never seen athletes who were so fast and could jump so high.”

Reality began to set in, so he talked with the coach, asking when was the last time that someone from the freshman team made it to JV or varsity? “The coach said, ‘Oh that’s easy. Fred Lynn.’”

Fred Lynn is a former center-fielder who had an impressive career in the Major Leagues. Burson said he then realized he had to do something else with his life.

While studying art history, only because he registered late for classes, Burson discovered he really enjoyed it. “It was through art history that I developed this appreciation of just looking at the world, and then being able to tell stories about what I saw,” he said. “And while I didn’t know it at the time, that was the business that I would end up in.”

Burson graduated from USC in 1977, but decided to stick around for graduate school. He earned his master’s degree in public relations in 1979.

If you’re in the public relations business, you’ve probably heard of Harold Burson, his father, who co-founded Burson-Marsteller in 1952.

“I had no intention of ever working for my father’s company, and that happened just through serendipity,” he said.

Burson joined the Santa Monica-based firm in 1985, but left in 1997 to run the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for seven years before returning to Burson-Marsteller.

“Through accident of birth, I was born into a PR family,” Burson said. “I didn’t have a choice; it just happened. Because of that, I’ve had a unique ringside seat to the growth of this business.”

Burson said the business that has only been around for about 100 years has changed a lot. If you’re an integrated marketing communications major at the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism and New Media, you may have an idea of this change.

“This business used to be about relationships between the agency and the client,” Burson said, “and when I first started, that’s what really appealed to me, because you could develop, not only business relationships with the client, but also real friendships.”

Burson feels the industry has moved past these relationships and is now in a more “What can you do for me today?” state of mind. He said the things he loved most about the business has been slowly vanishing and transitioning into what he calls PR or publicity stunts – doing a random act to attract the public’s attention.

“That’s not what I signed up for,” Burson said.

With the nature of the business changing, Burson said he knew he wasn’t going to be able to do the things he really liked doing, so he developed an interest in endurance competitive cycling. After competing in several signature events, Burson thought about starting a company that would help promote those events, but nothing took off.

It wasn’t until a friend invited him to guest lecture a course at USC Annenberg School of Communications, Burson thought: “Wow. This is a pretty cool gig.”

With two of his children out of the house and the third about to graduate high school, Burson began to consider teaching. When his daughter graduated high school, she decided to attend the University of Mississippi because she heard about it through Burson’s father, Harold Burson, who earned his degree from UM.

Burson moved his daughter to Oxford and said, “I just fell in love with Oxford and the university and inquired about how to get a teaching job here in the school of journalism, and what would I teach,” he said. “The subject that I knew most about was how to put together a campaign from start to finish, and then build an environment within that team that would optimize success. So that’s what I teach here and why I’m here.”

Burson doesn’t just teach a class; he makes connections with each student, and he builds relationships that last. Anessa Guess, who took a class under Burson, said he is a wonderful teacher whose aim is to positively impact student lives.

“In just a short time, he inspired a classroom full of hopefuls to go beyond the normal realm of dreaming and tear down the veil to seek limitless dreaming with a sturdy foundation to start with,” she said. “He is a teacher capable of so many things, and the most important is instilling hope, grounding, diligence, and character in the youth of tomorrow with tools learned from the past.”

Audrey Ryan, who was also enrolled in a class Burson taught, said he is her favorite instructor. “His enthusiasm for not only IMC, but teaching is inspiring,” she said. “He is interested in each individual’s path and wants to learn about every student he teaches.

“You can tell his passion is teaching just by the way he interacts with his students, and the way he can build a bond with each student, and always have a way to relate to them. He is phenomenal at what he does, and as a person.”

Burson has found his passion, and he teaches students to never give up searching for what you’re passionate about. Take chances. Live life. Do what makes you happy, no matter where it might take you.

This story was written by Brandon Hancock for OxfordStories.net. To learn more about our program, email jour-imc@olemiss.edu.

Harold Burson, ‘Father of Public Relations,’ Named to SPR Hall of Fame

Posted on: July 25th, 2017 by ldrucker

Harold Burson, a University of Mississippi alumnus known as the “Father of Public Relations,” was inducted Friday (July 21) into the Southern Public Relations Hall of Fame in recognition of his decades as a giant figure in the industry he helped invent.

Burson, a 1940 Ole Miss graduate who has been described by PRWeek as the 20th century’s “most influential PR figure,” founded the powerhouse public relations firm Burson-Marsteller with Bill Marsteller in 1953. The firm created the concept of total communication strategies, which became the industry standard for decades.

Will Norton, dean of UM’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, was among those who wrote a letter supporting Burson ’s nomination to the Hall of Fame. Norton notes Burson has had a long and exceptional career and brought honor to the profession. He’s also made enormous contributions to the success of the Ole Miss journalism school.

“We have worked with Harold to initiate the integrated marketing communications degree program at Ole Miss that now attracts nearly 1,100 majors to the Meek School,” Norton said. “His sage advice in developing the curriculum and his interaction with faculty and students have been crucial for the program’s gaining recognition from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.”

“Without the guidance of Harold Burson, the Meek School would not be what it is.”

A Memphis native, Burson was an exceptional student, so much so that he entered Ole Miss at age 15. When he was 19, he served as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army, and in 1945, he worked as a reporter for the American Forces Network and was assigned to cover the Nuremberg trials after World War II.

After leaving the military, he used a connection he had forged with an engineering firm, which became the first client of his new PR company. Later, Burson-Marsteller was born.

The PR business grew from there and for many years, Burston-Marsteller was one of only two major PR firms in the world. In 1969, Burson’s firm was making about $4.4 million a year, according to PRWeek, but by the early 1980s, revenue was about $64 million, and Burson was head of a firm with 2,500 employees in 50 offices worldwide.

In 1983, it officially became the world’s largest PR firm, with regional headquarters in New York, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong and London.

His firm handled several major accounts.  For example, it  help ed Johnson & Johnson with its response to the deaths of  eight  people who had taken Tylenol in 1982. The company was not faulted, but it assumed responsibility and took the product off the market and halted advertising.

Representatives showed complete transparency and openness and made themselves available at all times to answer questions. The  response to the Johnson & Johnson case led to Burson being credited with creating the template for crisis management.

The British government called on Burson-Marsteller ’s help  during  an epidemic of mad cow disease. He also counseled Union Carbide, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant after a famous meltdown in 1979 and BP after its Torrey Canyon oil tanker sank .

The Southern Public Relations Hall of Fame is co-sponsored by the Southern Public Relations Federation and Mississippi State University’s Department of Communications. The names of the Hall of Fame members adorn the walls in the Mitchell Memorial Library at MSU.

Inductees must have 25 years of professional experience that brings honor to the profession and show strong contributions to their organization, city, state or region, among other criteria.

Burson’s son, Mark, is an adjunct instructor in integrated marketing communication at UM. He accepted the recognition on behalf of his father, who could not attend the ceremony Friday.

Scott Fiene, director of the school’s integrated marketing communications undergraduate program, said it’s fortuitous for Ole Miss that the “father of public relations” got his start here.

“He’s counseled royalty and shaped the image of many top global brands , but he’s always remained involved and partnered with the university on so many projects,” Fiene said. “His influence on the profession isn’t just what he has accomplished, but on the lives he has touched and the students he has mentored.

“The seeds he has sown will live for generations to come.”

Rick Dean and Kristie Aylett, agency principals with The KARD Group, a PR and marketing firm based in Mississippi, also  were among those writing letters in support of Burson’s nomination .

“Kristie and I have studied and respected Harold’s contributions to our industry since we were students and, as professionals, we continue to use things learned from him,” Dean said. “To have played a role in Harold’s well-deserved nomination and induction into the Hall of Fame was our honor.”

Story by Michael Newsom