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The man most CEOs call in a crisis

October 18, 2006 09:26 IST

The 84-year-old founder chairman of Burson-Marsteller practices his PR explaining his firm's presence in China long before it came to India.

For over five decades now, Harold Burson is the first man CEOs of famous companies call after they have caused an oil slick on a beachfront or have recalled a product from the market.

He is, according to PRWeek, the most influential public relations person of the century. The 84-year-old founder chairman of Burson-Marsteller, the global leader in public relations, may have doused many a fire all over the world in his long career, but he has travelled to India only twice.

"Twice in the last one year, and I will come again next year. This is the shape of things to come," Burson puts it in perspective. We are sitting at Enoki, the Japanese restaurant at The Grand in distant Vasant Kunj, and Burson is telling me what India has come to mean for the company he founded in 1953 along with Bill Marsteller (who died in 1984) and sold some years back to Martin Sorrell's WPP.

"With 200 people, India is our biggest office in the world after the US. Earlier, UK used to be number two. China is third with a staff of 180, though we went there before India," he says. But that can be explained easily: while Burson-Marsteller has built its business from scratch in China, it started out in India by taking over a leading agency, Genesis, last year. The bottomline is, like advertising agencies, public relations firms, too, follow their top clients whichever corner of the world they go to.

As we order our drinks, Diet Pepsi for him and watermelon juice for me, Burson enquires if we grow oranges in India. While I fumble for an answer, Burson says he was looking for orange juice in the morning at breakfast but couldn't locate it in the restaurant. The Nagpur orange definitely needs a new publicity agent.

Burson orders a Sasami and grilled lamb chops, I opt for a yakitori preparation of tofu and broccoli along with a helping of marinated pork.

In the last few years, companies and businessmen alike have realised the importance of public relations in achieving corporate goals. One Indian CEO I know, I tell Burson, measures the output of his public relations officer in the appreciation of his share price. "How much have you added to my market capitalisation," thus begins his annual review of the function. (Of course, he has a new head of public relations every six months.)

"The objective should be that the share price movement is consistent over a period of time," Burson says when I ask if CEOs have made a similar demand on him. "One should not raise expectations above what the company can perform," he says.

However, Burson's memoirs on the Burson-Marsteller website mention an unconvinced businessman waking up to the benefits of good public relations when his bankers cut their interest rate by a quarter after he organised some "good press" for him.

The food, which arrives in surprisingly quick time, is not very inspiring, though Burson seems to enjoy the chops. I order another watermelon juice to aid the food down my throat. But the rivetting conversation more than makes up for it.

Burson tells me that he started out as a journalist at a very young age as he always wanted to be a journalist. In his early days, he even covered the Nuremberg trials after World War II. But he soon switched to public relations and set up his own outfit called Harold Burson Public Relations in August 1946, seven years before he tied up with Marsteller. The story goes that Marsteller took a 51 per cent stake and Burson managed to have his name first in the company. "We were five people then; we are almost 2,000 now," he says, pride in the business he built from scratch evident in his eyes.

In 1983, Burson-Marsteller became the world's largest public relations firm, a position it retained till 2001. Though it still counts among the top five agencies in the world, it is no longer at the top. "How did you lose out," I ask him. "Except in India, we have deliberately stayed away from playing the acquisitions game as we believe in a common culture and methodology," Burson says.

Though he has dealt with top honchos of the corporate world (he was also an advisor to President Reagan for four years after he demitted office), Burson rates an assignment in a small US town as his most satisfying moment. The local college had old flags in its grounds that were remnants of the town's racist past. Burson was hired to devise a way to move the flags out of the college grounds.

With opposition from locals, Burson knew it would be tough. Then he realised that all the African-American athletes stayed away because of the flags. So he mounted a campaign that the college should rather have a winning football team than retain the flags. In two weeks flat, the flags were off. "This was the quickest turnaround in public opinion I have ever seen," Burson says.

Burson claims he has never got into a serious argument with a publication or a journalist, though he has had serious issues with environmental NGOs: "It was largely over the forest product industry. These people would say we were destroying forests; we said we were planting more trees than we were cutting." On the whole, Burson is reluctant to talk about his exploits. "Let the companies do all the talking. I am happy to remain in the background," he says.

The food is over by now and the attendant suggests we try green tea ice cream for dessert. We agree to give it a shot. And it turns out to be the only delicious course of the meal.
Bhupesh Bhandari