Mr. Harold Burson and the lesson of the flags

March 12, 2007

I had the great privilege during my recent trip to Houston to participate in the Texas Public Relations Association annual conference. This was a great event with strong participation from an exceptional group of communication professionals. Our keynote speakers were Mayor Bill White, Mayor of Houston, and I had the opportunity of sitting next to him at lunch, finding out that it is quite likely that he is a distant relative of Davy Crockett. Mayor White’s comments showed that the mayor can indeed claim to be king of the mild frontier known as Houston.

I also had the great privilege of hearing Mr. Harold Burson, founder of Burson Marsteller and certainly one of the great gentlemen of our profession. He spoke about what he saw as the loss that the industry has suffered as we went from Public Relations professionals to managers of communication. I don’t agree with him that this change of title is a problem, but I do agree that what he sees as the loss of participation with key management in providing advice and counsel on actions that bear on public interest is a signficant concern. I found it interesting that although the words he used were different, the message he taught is exactly what we are trying to communicate today: reputation (we prefer trust to reputation) is based on two key things: doing the right things, and letting people know about it.

Anticipating a question he is frequently asked, Mr Burson offered up what was his most rewarding experience of his lengthy career. It involved removing the rebel flags from Ole Miss athletic events. Obviously, a tremendously touchy subject but he was asked by the Chancellor to assist with the removal. He told how this difficult action was managed. In talking to the new football coach (who didn’t want to touch the subject with a ten foot pole), the coach told the PR man that until the flags were gone, Ole Miss would never have a great athletic team. Why, asked Burson. Because recruiting top athletes from Mississippi and the region meant going after predominantly African-American athletes, and all competitive schools needed to do was show the Ole Miss stadium with all the rebel flags flying and ask the parents, Is this the environment you want your son or daughter to grow up in? Finally, the coach was ready to communicate that message to the public, the alumni and the world and shortly after the flags were gone.

Here is a tremendous example of the gifts we as communicators can bring to the world and the organizations we work for. It is not a matter of calling in the spin doctors as far too many executives continue to think. It is about doing the right things, finding ways for all consituencies as far as possible to win in implementing changes, and then doing a great job of telling the story with truth, honesty, class and transparency.

Thank you Mr. Burson, you are an inspiration.


One Response to “Mr. Harold Burson and the lesson of the flags”

  1. […] 2007 Just when I was pondering the thoughts presented in Houston by PR father Harold Burson (see crisisblogger post and Force for Good post), a co-worker gave me a copy of the New Yorker article on Howard […]

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