Monday, May 12, 2008

A MWPRInsight Find: Burson's Perspective on PR's origins

Sam Adams knew value of good PR
Phil Rosenthal Media (Chicago Tribune)
May 11, 2008

The United States of America was born a spin zone.

That's what Harold Burson thinks, at least.Burson hasn't been in public relations quite that long. But the co-founder of Burson-Marsteller 55 years ago, who still goes into the office every day at 87, obviously has given the matter some thought."People regard public relations as a 20th Century phenomenon," said Burson, in town to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award on Friday from the Publicity Club of Chicago. "Public relations existed and was practiced from ancient times, when people started interfacing with one another. It just wasn't identified as a commercial function until the 1900s."

To hear Burson, Samuel Adams was the great public relations person of the American Revolution."He started the first grass-roots committee, the Committee of Correspondents," Burson said of Adams. "He set up the Boston Tea Party [although] the tax on tea was like one pence on the pound, which really wasn't that onerous. He wrote the op-eds that fomented people ... toward separation."The Boston Massacre, Adams referred to it as the horrible Boston Massacre to make it seem bigger; six people were killed. So public relations has been used all this time. … This is our history.

"The American public, weary and wary of manipulation, has grown suspect of public relations, so much so that people who do it for a living often want what they do to be dubbed "strategic communications" instead, much to Burson's chagrin. "It really diminishes the totality of the function," he said.Burson traces the semantics shift—probably the brainchild of another PR exec—to Richard Nixon, who, on the Watergate tapes when faced with a need to explain away one inexplicable misdeed or another, "had a penchant for saying, 'Let's PR it' or 'Let's call in the PR flacks,' so PR took on a pejorative meaning.

"Public relations, strategic communications or whatever it's called, is neutral in and of itself. "You can use it for good. You can use it for evil. When a government uses it to sway people, it's called propaganda," said Burson, who, before entering PR, covered the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II as an Army news correspondent.Burson, despite criticism, believes he has nothing to apologize for in representing Union Carbide through the Bhopal disaster, saying "there would have been chaos getting information out of that place" if not for the "two Brits we sent over there to do a basic reporting job" and three months of daily news conferences.

As for the New Coke fiasco, on which he advised Coca-Cola, the lesson he learned was "the American public is extremely forgiving if you eat enough" crow.Today's new media world has information—accurate or not—racing throughout the globe in an instant, and groups of one view or another can coalesce almost as fast, requiring those in Burson's line of work to respond immediately no matter the locale or time.Yet he sees the basic role of PR as essentially unchanged, helping companies not only articulate their views but advising them on how to act consistently with their messages. "It's a function of customer service," Burson said.And it's as American as, well, America.Sell block: The CW Network, having failed to do much business on Sundays dating all the way back to its earlier incarnation as The WB, is turning over its Sunday-night prime-time block this fall to an outfit called Media Rights Capital, which will develop programming and sell ad time.

It's anticipated MRC will aim for a broader appeal than the young female-oriented programs CW has favored to date. This is likely to be welcomed by those CW stations that follow its programming with older-skewing newscasts, such as Chicago's WGN-Ch. 9, one of more than a dozen CW affiliates owned by Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co.

Sam Adams knew value of good PR -- --

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