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Requiem for a Heavyweight

Bob Oltmanns, APR, Fellow PRSA

Harold Burson died last week.

You’re forgiven if you don’t know who Burson was, particularly if you’ve never worked in the field of professional public relations.

But for those of us whose careers are spent in the profession that Burson personified, his passing should serve as a reminder of not just how our business changed in his lifetime, but how we as a profession should use the occasion to take a refresher course in human behavior and the art and science of persuasion.

PR Week called Burson “the century’s most influential public relations figure.” He followed in the footsteps of historic pioneers in the business of persuasion. During World War I, early practitioners like Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee forged a discipline out of the arts and sciences of language, human psychology, writing, and were the first to coin the term “public relations” as a legitimate form of enterprise. Burson, who covered the Nuremberg Trials as a 24-year old cub reporter, opened a one-man PR consulting practice in 1946 and built it into the world’s largest public relations firm, and along the way transformed the tradecraft of Bernays and Lee into a multimillion-dollar global management science. His book, “The Business of Persuasion,” is must-reading for anyone who earns their living advising others on the use of communications as an instrument of human behavior.

Full disclosure—much of my career has been heavily influenced by Harold Burson and his namesake firm, Burson-Marsteller. The agency I grew up in and later owned was founded by a Burson alumnus, as were many of our employees and the firms we competed with. That training ground served us well for decades. I therefore make no apologies for my reverence of and respect for “the Burson way.”

So the news of Burson’s passing was not far from my thoughts during a conversation I had in a local Starbucks that same day with a young college student, eager to pursue a career in PR. As we talked, I couldn’t help but marvel in the irony of the moment: the passing of a legend in the morning and the wide-eyed optimism of a young apprentice in the afternoon.

As we talked, I found myself disillusioned, as happens now too often in conversations such as this. I was reminded once again that to this young student and to many of his contemporaries, public relations and marketing communications is more about algorithms and crowdsourcing than it is about the power of an idea. Somewhere along the line, not long after the internet found its place in business, technology became the shiny bright object that opened infinite new possibilities for creating awareness and targeting messages to individuals rather than groups.

A Burson protégé once phrased his approach to the business of persuasion in a simple question:
“What do I have to tell you to get you to do what I want you to do?”
I always found that kind of analysis particularly elegant, but it’s sadly fighting for survival with all manner of digital marketing tactics.

Put another way, to a great many aspiring young professionals like my young Starbucks friend, the messenger has become more important than the message.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that technology tools in PR and marketing aren’t important, because they are. They’re very important. But they’re merely tools, and how we use those tools are every bit as important as how a surgeon uses a scalpel. What matters most is decidedly not the scalpel.

At the same time, we’ve devalued the message itself to a subordinate role in the equation. “Content generation” is how we now describe the message’s role in a web-driven economy. Burson knew that “content marketing” may sound new and cool in the millennial world, but it’s been the most proven and powerful form of influence since Moses came down from Sinai.

Victor Hugo wrote that “the armies of the world are useless against the power of an idea.” That’s what Bernays learned from his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and it’s what Harold Burson learned from Bernays. Great ideas are what move people to behave in ways that benefit themselves and, by design, sponsoring clients.

But the written word as a conveyor of ideas has been devalued to make way for a new form of conveyor. A client once suggested to me that good writing is simply good thinking, well ordered. That’s certainly part of it. But there is no substitute for writing skill that can stir the soul and move people to act in ways they never would have before. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that and changed the world. John F. Kennedy understood it and we landed a man on the moon. Ronald Reagan understood it and ended the Cold War.

Burson and his generation had a reverence for good writing that has been replaced by proficiency with technology, and as a consequence, a vital leg in the stool of “engineering consent” is teetering.

Burson said that "the staffer who demonstrates a strong writing ability soon becomes one of the most billable employees. There is always a need for good writing, and word spreads fast."

Without abandoning the power of technology and innovation, there needs to be a return to the highest standards of solid writing, understanding of human psychology, and appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”

So at the risk of offending my young Starbucks friend, perhaps we can honor the passing of Harold Burson by stepping up our game as a profession. Give writing and strategic thinking the same approbation we give to social media and technology tools and apply them to the science of human behavior in ways that Burson would have admired.

OK, now that I’m done writing, I need to get this on LinkedIn.

Bob Oltmanns, APR, Fellow PRSA is the president of OPR Group.

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