CEOs: “Have The Courage To Speak Your Mind,” Says Father Of PR, Harold Burson

Long before PR became a marketing tool, it had two basic functions: As a vehicle to communicate what a company stands for—its value proposition to customers, suppliers and the public—and as a monitor of how well the company was living up to those values. Harold Burson, the founding chairman of public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, feels both of those missions have been largely forgotten.

After being demobilized from the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, Burson started his own public relations firm specializing in B2B. In contrast to today when everyone understands what public relations is, many companies in that era had only a vague notion what PR was about. In his recent memoir, The Business of Persuasion, the 96-year-old founding chairman of Burson-Marsteller confesses that, at the time, he had never heard the term differentiation, let alone its role in marketing, but this is what his fledgling firm was all about.

Burson regrets that there are fewer and fewer CEO-statesman whose voices others respect and who can speak on behalf of the business community. Citibank’s Walter Wriston, DuPont’s Irving Shapiro, AT&T’s John DeButts and GE’s Reginald Jones once strode the business landscape each as a colossus and spent as much time in the U.S. President’s office as any cabinet member. Whenever they spoke on issues of the day, people listened. Today, few CEOs dare to raise their heads above the parapet lest they be the target of arrows from Twitter or Facebook. Among the few CEOs who do have the courage to speak their minds, he feels, are Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and Chase’s Jamie Dimon.

Given the turmoil in business and the diminishing trust the general public has in many companies today, he wonders why more CEOs aren’t speaking up on issues that matter to them. “I have found that corporations have the same capacity for contradiction and paradox as people. And why not? “ he writes. “Contrary to popular conception, the corporation is a collection of flesh and blood people. The corporation cannot feel, think or act. Only people can act responsibly.”


Digital has changed the game
He points the finger at social media and digital communications, which has changed the nature of public discourse, making any communication by business leaders risky. Shifting cultural values combined with a total collapse of privacy has set the stage for a crippling communication environment for business leaders.

Burson also notes the fear and loathing generated not just by Amazon but by the tech quadumvirate of Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple. Increasingly, they are seen as information gatekeepers to millennials and others who are cord-cutters and don’t rely on traditional newspapers or media for their news. The fact that Facebook has removed certain postings and that Google has deleted videos that they deem offensive has raised questions of who gets to decide which messages are appropriate.

Are shareholders in control?
But it’s been the rise of shareholder supremacy, in no small measure by the emergence of activist investors, that troubles Burson the most. “People once recognized that all business is cyclical,” he says. “Yes, business should maximize returns for shareholders, but it’s not realistic to maximize returns for every quarter, quarter after quarter indefinitely.” Shareholder value, viewed in its current form by activists like Trian’s Nelson Peltz, can be pushed to extremes where ultimately shareholders may lose. “Folks like Nelson Peltz are treating their portfolio like trading chips at a casino. I saw it with Gulf & Western,” he notes, “where ultimately, it tore the company apart.”

He may have revolutionized the delivery mechanisms, Burson argues, but its essential purpose has remained constant. The trouble is that CEOs today, says Burson, are in a much more difficult environment than they have ever been. The primacy of shareholder capitalism has raised expectations of performance to unreasonable heights. Where CEOs were once expected to produce a good product at a fair price and treat suppliers and employees fairly, today they are expected to maximize returns and shareholder value every quarter without fail. “The trouble is that most businesses are cyclical,” Burson says. Investors, he thinks, have lost sight of the long-view.