David Blecken
May 30, 2012

INTERVIEW: Harold Burson, co-founder, Burson-Marsteller

At 91, Burson-Marsteller co-founder Harold Burson appears as sharp as ever. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, he presented no-nonsense views on the state of PR in Asia and the extent to which its role has changed.

Harold Burson
Harold Burson

Has the standard of PR practice in Asia caught up with that in the West?
The methodology [for PR] is pretty standard around the world. There are differences in how developed they are, but the quality of work from Hong Kong [for example] is often on a par with our US and European offices. One of the big differences is among the people who hire us. In Asia there is [still] not as much appreciation of the need for PR as in Western countries, particularly the UK. But understanding of it by locally owned businesses has improved greatly. The idea of consultants is traditionally very foreign to Chinese and Japanese companies. It was very difficult for them to understand why they should hire us—that is now better understood than before.

Pressure from multinationals spilled over into the local communities and they saw different companies progress faster than others. Some were better regarded than others, and they wanted to know why. Typically, Asian companies were not nearly as brand-sensitive as Western companies. Today, apart from Japanese and Korean companies, there are still very few recognisable world brands from Asian countries. If you have an established, known brand you could command a premium price for the product and that [concept] was not established before trade began moving around the world. But the people in our offices in Asia have become interchangeable with our people in the US. When they come to New York, they fit in very quickly.

Do you think the role of PR is still misunderstood?
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 [in Asia] 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. I think the thinking [in much of Asia] has been, ‘if we make the cheapest products, people will buy them’, but the public is much more sophisticated than that.

Management consultancies have suggested branding and communications should not be the preserve of marketers and communications people. Do you agree?
In any major enterprise, the CEO should be the person who really represents the corporation publicly. There should be really close contact between the CEO and the chief communications person. That is one of the more gratifying things to have happened over the past 10 to 15 years—that the management now includes communications management in the morning meeting. It’s not standard, but it is expanding. The CEO and chief PR officer usually identify closely with one another and if there is a change in CEO, there is frequently a new chief PR officer—because the CEO wants him to be his adviser and interpreter.

Another way I can indicate greater acceptance of PR is that when I came into this business in the 40s, the chief PR was not an officer of the company. Then they started becoming VP, then SVP, now EVP—members of the management committee. In that way I think PR has really come of age and I think other countries will follow. I don’t think you can force it. People have to adopt it, and they do this because competitive pressures force them to.

There has been much talk of PR being assessed on its impact on business. Is this actually happening?
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.

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.

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