PR Legend Harold Burson Passed Away

The public relations mastermind that co-founded Burson-Marsteller, and then managed to build the firm into one of the leading forces in the PR industry, died on January 10, at a rehabilitation center in Memphis. Harold Burson was 98 years old.

According to Catherine Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Burson Cohn & Wolfe, the cause of death was a complication from a fall.

Throughout the years, Burson was one of the leading men in transforming the field from a small-scale industry into a global business that employed thousands of people. In 1988, Burson stepped down from his role as Chief Executive Officer at Burson-Marsteller. However, he still continued to work within the company all the way to his 90s.

Burson was born February 15, 1921, in Memphis, Tennessee and was the son of an immigrant couple from Leeds, England. After finishing high school, he started classes at the University of Mississippi, while also working as a campus correspondent for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Six months after graduating from university, Burson accepted a PR position at an engineering and architectural company.

However, his work in the field was cut short after he enlisted in the US Army, up until the point when he was transferred to the staff of the American Forces Network, in 1945. He then managed to become the only one to get an interview with the chief American prosecutor, Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson, during the Nuremberg Trial. Burson was only 24-years-old when he argued that the American soldiers that fought during the war deserved to hear about the trial firsthand from Robert H. Jackson.

After being discharged from the army, Burson opened his own PR firm in New York, during a time when the field was just a cottage industry. By 1952, Burson already had a staff of five people, when his firm was recommended for a project based in Pittsburgh. This was when he met William A. (Bill) Marsteller, and a year later, on March 2, 1952, the two opened joint offices in Chicago as well as New York, working under the name Burson-Marsteller.

Ever since that day, Burson worked on many high-profile projects and events, with an impressive roster of clients like General Motors (GM) or Pan Am. He managed the Tylenol recall crises in 1982 and 1985, introduced the “New Coke,” and worked with Pan Am after Flight 103 was bombed, among others.

Throughout the years, Burson-Marsteller opened up offices all over the world and became a global public relations company. Burson remained the CEO of the firm until 1989, when he became a founder-chairman. His partner, Marsteller, retired in 1979 and passed away in 1987. In 2018, it merged with Cohn & Wolfe and transformed into Burson Cohn & Wolfe.

Burson was married to Bette Foster Burson for nearly 63 years until she passed away in 2010 at the age of 85. He is survived by two sons and five grandchildren.