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Remembering Harold Burson:
One of the Earliest Corporate Responsibility Visionaries

In 1973, PR pioneer Harold Burson — who passed away last week at the age of 98 — deftly summed up the role of the PR professional, related to the role of a corporation, in society: Be the corporate sensor, conscience, communicator and monitor.

My favorite memory of Harold Burson is when we shared a panel at Boston University’s 60th anniversary for the School of Communications.

I was honored to be in Harold’s presence for that special event. Prior to that meeting, he had some knowledge of my work. As I told my story about the need for companies and brands to become humanized and engage with social issues for business and societal impact, he became intrigued. We had a brief conversation after the attendees departed, and he promised to send me an essay he had written on this subject some 35 years earlier.

That paper arrived within a week, and I have always treasured it, keeping it among my most valued professional possessions over the years.

It’s called "Social Responsibility or Telescopic Philanthropy: The Choice Is Ours." The paper started with this amazingly prescient comment:

“My subject pertains to the relationship between public relations and corporate social responsibility. I do not believe there is a relationship between the two. They are not cousins or even siblings. They are even closer than identical twins. They are one and the same.”

In 20 pages, he outlines his vision of the modern public relations executive: He/she “provide(s) qualitative evaluation of social trends. He helps formulate policies that will enable the corporation to adapt to these trends. And he communicates, both internally and externally, the reasons for those policies. Public relations, I’d like to emphasize, is involved in all the steps, from analysis through action to communications — a corporation must take to meet its obligations to the public. And those obligations are numerous and constantly changing.”

He goes on to say:

“A corporation run by responsible managers will be a responsible corporation. A corporation run by irresponsible managers will be an irresponsible corporation.”

Other key points in this seminal essay:

“A healthy society is the society that offers its citizens the greatest number of options.”

“The human relations component of public relations cannot be overlooked.”

Institutions should not forget that they must serve people.”

“Rapid and visual communications have become the overpowering factor in the time equation. They have generated demands for instant action.” (Fascinating that this precedes the internet, social media and the rise of social issue individual and corporate activism by over 20 years!)

“The companies that anticipate [social] change are far less vulnerable to criticism.”

“An enterprise can no longer make sound economic decisions without taking into account the environmental consequence of is acts.”

He continued to explain the role of the PR man, related to the social responsibility of the corporation:

  1. He is the sensor of change – “He is like a radar man and gives the early warning.”

  2. He must be able to separate enduring social changes from current fads.

  3. Keeps the attention of his management focused on the problem.

  4. Fulfills the role of corporate conscience.

  5. Communicates the social issues internally and externally.

  6. Internal communication should bring about understanding towards the issues.

  7. Externally the challenge is to convince the public that the corporation is being responsive, and substantial in its actions.

  8. Continue as the “corporate monitor” to match public expectations.

Ending this amazing essay, Burson wrote that:

“Social accountability is just another management art that corporations are going to have to learn. In the long run, the corporation which does the best job of managing its operations will also do the best job of adapting to social needs.”

In 1973, Harold Burson so deftly summed up the role of the public relations professional related to the role of a corporation in society: Be the corporate sensor, the corporate conscience, the corporate communicator and the corporate monitor.

I was so fortunate to have had this exchange with Harold. He saw the power and responsibility of a corporation in 1973, which has become the foundation of the evolution of capitalism today.

Harold, you were a gift to the public relations profession; and inspired thousands upon thousands of practitioners and the organizations they represented to truly embrace the powerful and expansive nature of our work, especially related to social purpose.

Thank you so very, very much, Harold. We all will miss you terribly.

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