Harold Burson Interviewed By Der Spiegel
In August 2006 the German magazine Der Spiegel published an interview with Harold Burson, a founder of the major global PR firm Burson-Marsteller. The interview, as re-published on the blog of Richard Edelman, was as follows.
SPIEGEL: Herr Burson, what is PR?
BURSON: PR is about doing good and being recognised for it. It also has a lot to do with perception. Perception can be controlled through PR, attitudes can be changed.
SPIEGEL: Perception management sounds sort of like propaganda.
BURSON: Propaganda is a form of PR. That said, it depends upon how far you would extend propaganda, and often it stops being PR. Propaganda is done by those who wish to misinform people.
SPIEGEL: Edward Bernays, who is considered the “father of misrepresentation,” saw PR as “trading with reality.” One of his most important books was called “Propaganda.”
BURSON: Bernays thought that he could control public opinion. His methodology, of course, was fundamental. Most of the things we do today were identified by Bernays 80 years ago. He had brilliant ideas. I met him a few times, but didn’t like him. He was one of the most egocentric people I have ever met.
SPIEGEL: The speciality of your agency Burson-Marsteller, which you set up in 1953, was crisis management. It seems that few jobs were too low for you. After the Bhopal chemical catastrophe of 1984, you tried to gloss the image of the chemical multinational Union Carbide.
BURSON: In Bhopal there was an accident with over 2000 deaths. We were called and asked, “Can you help?” We wanted to support journalists in bringing out the news.
SPIEGEL: And the journalists needed you, of all things?
BURSON: In such a chaotic situation it was hard to see exactly what had happened.
SPIEGEL: Some tanks in a ramshackle pesticide factory exploded. Union Carbide left behind a region that was to be contaminated for decades, something which now effects 500 000 inhabitants.
BURSON: Our first piece of advice was to hold a press conference every day, to be transmitted via satellite. Union Carbide reacted with understanding, the director Warren Anderson stood at the site and asked for forgiveness…
SPIEGEL: …and withdrew from an impending trial by fleeing to the USA. Are there companies or countries that you would not work for?
BURSON: We don’t work for what the State Department calls “rogue states.”
SPIEGEL: So working for the Argentinean Junta was not a problem?
BURSON: No, we even consulted the State Department. And we don’t work for the Junta directly, just for the Department of Trade. But when the Junta took over power, many saw it as a liberation.
SPIEGEL: A liberation? Are you doing PR now?
BURSON: No, after ten years of civil wars the country returned to normality for a while. Our job is to care for investment.
SPIEGEL: One of the Burson-Marsteller specialities is “grassrooting,” the generation of buzz among the masses. How does that work?
BURSON: That is something fundamental to the democratic process. People believe in things that happen in their neighbourhood, things that they can follow. If they hear a story on a localised level, its credibility increases. This is why we are so enthusiastic about it. Our spin-off company “Direct Impact” specialises in placing such stories.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever regretted a job?
BURSON: Had I known that I would still have to be defending our work in Argentina after thirty years, I wouldn’t have accepted the military government as a client.