The son of English immigrants, Harold Burson was born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1921. Like a lot of other PR leaders, Harold Burson started out as a reporter, then served as a Public Information Officer in the Army during WWII, working for a while at the American Forces Network, which was the Army radio network in Europe. After the war, he stayed on with the radio network, and was assigned to cover the Nuremberg trial. Eventually he returned to New York and launched a small PR firm, mostly working for engineering clients. By 1952 he had a handful of employees and a small office. He met ad man Bill Marsteller that year and the two of them decided to combine forces on a new firm, Burson-Marsteller. It would go on to be one of the largest PR agencies in the world.
Burson was a pioneer in the realm of crisis management, and often emphasized the importance of his clients taking particular actions, not just coming up with the right messaging. “In the beginning, top management used to say to us, ‘Here’s the message, deliver it,’ ” he's quoted as saying in the textbook Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics. “Then it became, ‘What should we say?’ Now, in smart organizations, it’s ‘What should we do?’ ”
Burson-Marsteller’s clients included Philip Morris, Merrill Lynch, Coca-Cola, Shell, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Dow Chemical, IBM, American Express and Citicorp. The firm also served Nigeria, Argentina and Romania at times when those countries had dictators with image problems.
Crisis management existed before the cases Burson handled for Tylenol, but he and his firm really made it part of the PR industry, and that all started with two big problems for Tylenol in the 1980s. First, in 1982, seven people died after taking Tylenol that had been tampered with. The company moved quickly to recall products and introduce better tamper-resistant caps, and Burson moved just as quickly to make sure the public knew about it. In 1985, a similar thing happened—three people were found dead after consuming Extra Strength Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide. Again, Burson and the company moved quickly to figure out exactly what had happened and assure the public it was one batch only.
Burson's best-known crisis management stint was for Union Carbide in the wake of the Bhopal disaster—a gas leak at its pesticide plant that killed more than 15,000 people and injured 600,000 in Bhopal, India. “We are being paid to tell our client’s side of the story,” Mr. Burson told the New York Times that year. “We are in the business of changing and molding attitudes, and we aren’t successful unless we move the needle, get people to do something. But we are also a client’s conscience, and we have to do what is in the public interest.” Burson-Marsteller pushed the company to invest in clean-up and rehabilitation efforts, and the firm focused on those efforts in the press, with Burson often insisting that Union Carbide, which paid $470 million in 1989 to settle lawsuits, had been forthright and ethical.
In 1979, Burson-Marsteller was acquired by Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency, which was absorbed by the communications giant WPP Group in 2000. Mr. Burson remained as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller until 1989, when he became founder-chairman. He continued for many years to visit company offices, mentor employees and meet clients. He died in October 2020.