Harold Burson is one of the most respected and influential people in PR, partly due to his philosophy of upholding the First Amendment rights of speech and press even when a controversial client may result in a backlash against his firm, Burson-Marsteller.
In his new book, "The Business of Persuasion," a deeply personal account of a 70-year career in public relations, Burson sums up his belief in free expression: "Even the most unpopular or destructive organization has the right to express its views and explain itself, as long as its objectives are legal and the messages incite no violence, then it should be free to employ professional PR counsel, especially for navigating the media landscape, which has grown as complicated as our legal system." Amen to that.
B-M has refused assignments that make staffers or existing clients uncomfortable (e.g., debate on abortion) or countries with questionable human rights policies that have little chance of changing.
In Burson's view, it comes down to whether the client would be good for business over the long run. "To me, it's more a business decision than an ethical decision."
Burson outlines his firm's work on behalf of clients such as Union Carbide following the Bhopal explosion, Argentina under junta rule, Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol poisoning, asbestos litigation and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of 9/11.
He notes how B-M often takes heat for supporting or defending clients, mentioning that a cable news commentator once referred to B-M as "the public relations firm from hell" and that India's media still pillory the firm for its Bhopal work.
Burson contrasts the legal and PR professions. While a lawyer can take on a murderer as a client without suffering any stigma, a PR firm may be hit with "hateful criticism and picket lines" because of a client.
"There is a love-hate relationship between media representatives and PR professionals, even though many PR professionals have journalism backgrounds," explains Burson. "Institutionally, reporters and editors believe that clients hire us to whitewash our clients' misdeeds or prevent them from talking directly with client CEOs—although they can almost always cite PR professionals who have been helpful."
Burson's book is much more than controversial clients and crisis management.
It's about the co-founding of one of the most influential PR firms and its eventual sale. It's about the development of modern PR by a man who helped create that communications discipline.
The Business of Persuasion is published by RosettaBooks and will be available on amazon.com next month.
Get it. You'll become a better PR person for it.