NEW YORK — Like many young veterans, Harold Burson came home from World War II full of ambitious dreams. He was 25, had worked in public relations before the war and decided to try it again in New York. It was 1946, and there were 540 local phone listings for “public relations” and “publicity” — a scrimmage of press agents who took reporters to lunch, hoping to plant items for clients.
Over the next five decades, Mr. Burson became one of the nation’s most celebrated PR men, a founder of the giant Burson-Marsteller agency who broke ground not only by enhancing corporate images but also by helping clients soften the blows of potentially ruinous crises. These included a Tylenol-tampering case that panicked Americans in 1982 and the 1984 toxic gas leak that killed thousands in Bhopal, India, considered the world’s worst industrial disaster.
Mr. Burson, who was hailed by the industry publication PRWeek in 1999 as the most influential PR person of the 20th century, and whose standards gave a luster of respectability to a business often seen as a confraternity of spin doctors, died Friday in Memphis, the city of his birth. He was 98.
A spokeswoman for his company, now known as Burson Cohn & Wolfe, said the cause was complications of a fall in November. He had donated archives of his work to Boston University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1988.
Public relations has long been an easy target of critics, who liken its faceless practitioners to Machiavelli’s Prince or Orwell’s Big Brother, manipulating public opinion to hide truths and maximize profits. But to Mr. Burson, it was a profession that used the arts of persuasion for corporations and governments to publicize facts, not lies, for worthy social, political, and commercial goals — and, by the way, to make the clients look better.
“We are advocates,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “We are being paid to tell our clients’ side of the story. We are in the business of changing and molding attitudes, and we aren’t successful unless we move the needle, get people to do something. But we are also a client’s conscience, and we have to do what is in the public interest.”
In 1995, Boston University established a faculty chair in Mr. Burson’s name. Early in his career, a mentor had brought him to BU to speak to students.
“And I found myself learning as much from them as they learned from me,” he said in a BU video interview that is posted online, in which he praised the creation of a public relations college curriculum.
“Today one of the big faults that we run into time after time is we get exquisite answers to the wrong problems,” he said. “I think that the educational process has gone a long way toward defining the steps to be taken.”
In 1953, after seven years at his own agency, Mr. Burson and William Marsteller agreed over a breakfast at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan to team up and call the new agency Burson-Marsteller, with offices in New York and Chicago. Over the next 35 years it became one of the world’s largest and most successful public relations firms, rivaling Hill & Knowlton, as the industry evolved into mass marketing and global communications.
Burson-Marsteller’s clients included Philip Morris, Merrill Lynch, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Dow Chemical, IBM, and American Express. The firm also served Nigeria, Argentina, and Romania — countries that had dictatorships and image problems.
Mr. Burson often was called in crises. When cyanide-laced capsules of Tylenol, the pain medication, killed seven people in the Chicago area in 1982, its manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, made the best of a bad situation. After consulting Mr. Burson, the company’s chief, James Burke, announced a recall, ordered new tamper-resistant caplets and packaging seals, and mounted a campaign that acknowledged the facts, stressed safety measures, and eventually restored his company’s credibility.
After the 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in India that killed as many as 3,800 people overnight and thousands more later, Burson-Marsteller helped get out the story of the disaster and company efforts to alleviate the suffering. Mr. Burson defended the work, insisting that Union Carbide, which paid $470 million in 1989 to settle lawsuits, had been forthright and ethical.
Burson-Marsteller promoted trade and tourism in Romania and Argentina. Human rights advocates said the work supported brutal regimes in the 1960s and ’70s, but the company insisted it did not answer for the conduct of dictators.
Mr. Burson advised corporate CEOs to get bad news out quickly and fully, making it a one-day story rather than letting it drag out. He urged them to be candid and refused to take clients who could not be.
He married Bette Ann Foster in 1947. She died in 2010 at 85. Mr. Burson leaves their sons, Scott and Mark, and five grandchildren.
In 1979, Burson-Marsteller was acquired by Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency, which was absorbed by communications giant WPP Group in 2000. Mr. Burson remained as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller until 1989, when he became founder-chairman.
Harold Burson was born in Memphis on Feb. 15, 1921, a son of English immigrants, Maurice and Esther (Bach) Burson. He graduated from high school at 15 and worked his way through the University of Mississippi writing articles, at 14 cents per column inch, for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. One article, in 1937, was an interview with William Faulkner; it made the front page.
He joined the Army in 1943 and removed land mines from Normandy beaches after the 1944 Allied invasion. He was later a radio reporter for the American Forces Network, covering early trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. On the eve of the trial of Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and others who had been close to Hitler, he caught the mood of an empty courtroom when, in a script, he wrote, “Tomorrow morning, the conscience of the world will be present.”
He added: “These trials have a meaning even greater than the immediate importance of doing justice in reference to those men charged in the indictment with plunging the world into war. The real long-range importance of these trials would subsequently mean that we have, in our time, established an agency to which we could hold accountable the rulers of all nations of the world in years to come.”
Material from The New York Times was used in this report.