Harold Burson, Memphis-born Global Public Relations Guru, Dies at 98

Jan 10, 2020

Harold Burson in Oct. 2019.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

A Memphis native who became a giant in the industry of public relations has died. Harold Burson, founder of Burson-Marsteller, helped transform P.R. from a cottage business into a global industry. His influence -- and powers of persuasion -- extended to major corporations such as General Motors and Philip Morris, and even foreign governments. 

He died early Friday morning at Memphis Jewish Home and Rehab. He was 98.  

In 1985, in the midst of the famed "Cola Wars," Coca-Cola received huge public backlash when its scrapped its "classic" forumla for the sweeter-flavored New Coke. Behind the scenes, Burson advised the company to own up to its mistake. 

"I have always felt that you always tell the truth," he told WKNO in an October interview. "If you don't wanna tell the truth, you don't answer the question."

A graduate of Humes High School twenty years before Elvis Presley, he set out to become a big-league journalist. He got his start as a reporter at the Commercial Appeal while attending college at Ole Miss. 

In the U.S. Army during World War II, he took part in reporting about the Nuremburg Nazi trials. 

After the war, Burson moved to New York City and started his own public relations business. In 1953, he teamed up with a Chicago ad man, William Marsteller. Over three decades, Burson-Marsteller became one of the world's biggest P.R. firms. 

Chris Foster, President North America of Burson Cohn & Wolfe, says Burson expanded the role of PR companies for major corporations. 

"He was one who really helped globalize the industry and really bring lots of other aspects and areas and capabilities together to benefit organizations," he said. 

Foster says some of Burson's innovations in crisis management have become textbook examples of modern public relations. His company advised Johnson & Johnson through the Tylenol poisoning crisis of 1982, which led to tamper-resistent drug packaging. 

"It's a case study that a lot of us who have been in the industry for 30-plus years have benefited from," he says. "And it's a classic example of doing everything right."

In 1999, the industry magazine PRWeek named Burson the most influential PR person of the 20th Century. Last year, he moved back to Memphis after a 78-year absence to be closer to family. His wife, Bette Ann Foster, died in 2010 at age 85. Burson is survived by his sons Scott and Mark, and five grandchildren.