Harold Burson, a Giant in Public Relations, Dies at 98


Ms. Burson died in 2010 at 85. Mr. Burson is survived by their sons, Scott and Mark; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Burson collected stamps and looked like an old-world philatelist: contemplative, analytical. He was a small man with a gentle face, appraising eyes behind improbably oversize glasses and a bald pate with a fringe of gray touching the ears. The voice was soft, patient. To a question, he would think a bit, and then have something to say.

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. Mr. Marsteller, who retired in 1979, died in 1987.

Mr. Burson won numerous awards and lectured at many colleges and universities. He wrote two memoirs, “E Pluribus Unum: The Making of Burson-Marsteller” (2004) and “The Business of Persuasion: Harold Burson on Public Relations” (2017). Since 2006, when he turned 85, he had written a blog on current events, history and people.

“Blogging is akin to taking dope,” he said. “The more I blog, the more I like it.”

Harold Burson was born in Memphis on Feb. 15, 1921, a son of English immigrants, Maurice and Esther (Bach) Burson. He graduated from high school at 15 and worked his way through the University of Mississippi writing articles, at 14 cents per column inch, for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. One article, in 1937, was an interview with William Faulkner; it made the front page, was picked up by a wire service and ran in many newspapers.

After graduating from Ole Miss in 1940, he took a P.R. job with H.K. Ferguson, an engineering and construction company, which began building military installations as America went to war. Deferred from the draft for a time, he joined the Army in 1943, in the middle of World War II.

As a soldier he removed land mines from Normandy beaches after the 1944 Allied invasion, and was later a radio reporter for the American Forces Network, covering early trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. On the eve of the trial of Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and others who had been close to Hitler, he caught the mood of an empty courtroom when, in a script, he wrote, “Tomorrow morning, the conscience of the world will be present.”

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