Harold Burson’s thoughts, at 91.

It’s not often you get to hear from one of the greats. But the other day I heard a talk made by Harold Burson.  The co-founder of global PR practice Burson-Marsteller. He’s the quintessential PR practitioner from the 1960’s, who is still active at age 91. Americans don’t seem drawn to the concept of a peaceful retirement.
Chris Harrison
Chris Harrison

It’s not often you get to hear from one of the greats. But the other day I heard a talk made by Harold Burson.  The co-founder of global PR practice Burson-Marsteller. He’s the quintessential PR practitioner from the 1960’s, who is still active at age 91. Americans don’t seem drawn to the concept of a peaceful retirement.

Mr. Burson comes from the generation that built great brands and great political initiatives on the US. He also understood that PR on its own was less effective than PR combined with work in other channels. So he was one of the first to collaborate with an Advertising Agency, and later sell his business to one.

In the interview, he answered a question that is pertinent to the practice of Public Relations in Africa today. Do you think the role of PR is still misunderstood? 
 This is what he said:

’If you took a census of people in PR the definition would centre around communications. I maintain that it has two components: to help devise policies and procedures that are acceptable to the people you want to reach and if you communicate that effectively, you will succeed. So the PR function covers a much broader spectrum than just getting out news releases. You have to operate in the public interest and PR has a role to play in the reconciliation of what the public wants and the client expects. Unlike in the political sphere, where you can make claims and not be held accountable, corporations can’t do that.

The more sophisticated companies do understand. The Chinese are doing more to build a quality image for their products. Japan moved from the cheap end to the top end. The thinking [in much of the developing world] has been, ‘if we make the cheapest products, people will buy them’, but the public is much more sophisticated than that.’

Mr. Burson went on to discuss the importance of good public relations to any major enterprise. He is adamant that the CEO should be the person who really represents the corporation publicly. There should be close contact between the CEO and the chief communications person. The CEO and chief PR officer must identify closely with one another. If there is a change in CEO, there is usually a requirement for a new chief PR officer—because the CEO wants him to be his adviser and interpreter.

I feel that this speaks against established habits in Africa. Here we often find PR Managers in big companies who outlast several CEOs.  And sometimes PR practitioners who become bigger media personalities than their clients!

Drawn to talk about PR impact on business, Mr. Burson had this to say:

‘In more sophisticated markets, we are being evaluated on outcome. Whether it be promoting a product or assisting a company in legislation, a lot more research is being done into outcomes. You can only measure if you have really good research. In the past, companies didn’t spend as much as they should on measurement, but that is changing.’

This is an area where Africa is increasingly in step with the rest of the world. After a worrying decade where investment in research was choked off, more and more Companies are now refreshing their understanding of their markets. And inward investors would not dream of market entry without establishing clear benchmarks for performance.

With that in mind, perhaps we can look forward to the growth of the PR profession in Africa. So what does Mr. Burson say about the kind of people the industry needs in the future?

‘I have a lot of optimism about the role of PR as a business tool and I think PR people increasingly have a better understanding of business. Those in charge of hiring are insisting that people know more about the business—that they understand how a sale is made, what can go wrong… Much more is demanded in terms of quality from candidates for the top communications jobs. Ten years from now, having an MBA may be a requirement for getting the top job in communications.

What we’re looking for is people with skills in specific environments. People who can mix experience in NGOs with PR, for example. We are also hiring more people such as lawyers who do not want to practice law, or in the healthcare field, people who have had experience with regulatory agencies. In tech, we look for people who know what’s in that black box. Journalism is also now much more like that. So it’s a matter of being able to understand what the different priorities are.’

A broader based PR industry makes good business sense for Africa.

Chris Harrison is Chairman Young & Rubicam Group Africa

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