10/3/2012 1:02 PM
Those of us who knew Jim Burke have been aware of his ailing health for some time; even so, the announcement of his death on September 28 was a wrenching experience. After all, Jim Burke had been around seemingly forever, always calm, always cool, always willing to listen and always on target and in command when dealing with problems ranging from contaminated Tylenol capsules to persuading teenagers to scorn narcotics.
My first encounter with Jim was in 1982, shortly after seven people in Chicago died from ingesting cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. Despite Johnson & Johnson’s highly decentralized structure and that Tylenol was within the domain of its McNeill Laboratories subsidiary, Jim Burke took charge from day one. Safeguarding the public and protecting J&J’s good name was, for the next couple of months, his primary responsibility. Managing the multi-billion dollar J&J business was left to others in senior management; Jim’s total focus was on Tylenol.
The conference room adjacent to his office became his 16-hours-a-day war room. His first bold decision was voluntarily removing the thirty-two million bottles of Tylenol on supermarket and drug store shelves clear across the country; it cost J&J more than a hundred million dollars. And he apologized to the American people for putting lives at risk, even going so far as to accept Mike Wallace’s invitation to go face-to-face with him on 60 Minutes. From that point onward favorable public attitudes toward Johnson & Johnson were on the rise. Jim came across as the Eagle Scout CEO possessed of unquestioned integrity.
Regaining Tylenol’s leading market position in the pain killer category was, of course, a major priority. From the outset, Jim took the position that a significant change in the product offering was necessary to recapture Tylenol’s commanding market share. He changed the packaging to make it much more difficult to restore to its pristine condition after it had been opened. Expecting competitive pain killers to make comparable changes, Jim filled the order books of high speed packaging equipment manufacturers, assuring that Tylenol’s ‘tamper resistant’ claim would have a head start in the marketplace. After a copy-cat second incident in Bronxville, NY, resulting in three deaths three years later, when he repeated his performance as corporate America’s premier crisis manager, he transformed the traditional capsule to a more secure ‘caplet’ form whose dictionary definition came to be ‘a smooth, coated, oval-shaped medicine tablet intended to be tamper resistant,’ parroting the description in the J&J news release launching the new format.’
After his retirement as J&J CEO in 1989, he became chairman of the Partnership for a Drug Free America, a private sector not-for-profit consortium of advertising agencies and corporate marketers whose purpose was to warn teen-agers against the use of addictive drugs. He approached his task with the same zeal, enthusiasm and sense of purpose exhibited during his thirteen years as the boss at Johnson & Johnson. In 2000, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At a time when all segments of our society are crying out for selfless leadership, there’s no better model than Jim Burke.
October 3, 2012
3/5/2012 5:21 PM
Receiving more recognition than it deserves is a recently-voted ‘modern’ definition of public relations, resulting from a competition sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). It was selected in a voting process in which 1447 votes were cast, presumably most of them members of PRSA and the International Association of Business Communicators. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 275,200 individuals were employed in public relations in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available. It is likely that even more are employed today. In a cursory personal survey, none of the six well-known public relations executives whom I polled participated in the vote; only one was vaguely aware there was a vote.
Last April I wrote a blog titled ‘Public Relations Defined’ in which I bemoaned the fact that ‘so many who profess to be public relations or communications specialists are so far off the mark in their attempts to define public relations.’ I would count the 671 who voted for the new ‘modern’ definition (‘Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.’) among them.
In my blog, I go on to write “A major problem for us public professionals nowadays is that too many of us believe the communications part of our job is the totality of what we do. Many of us fail to realize public relations consists of two major components. The first (and most important) has to do with influencing our employer’s behavior. What I am talking about is best summarized in the rapper line ‘if you’re going to talk-the-talk, you gotta walk-the-walk.’ I don’t know of a more succinct definition of public relations. While we commit ourselves to serve and get paid by our employer, we who choose careers in public relations also have an implied obligation to what we call the ‘public interest.’ To what’s best for society – which, in the long run, is what’s also best for our employer. Our function as public relations professionals is to help reconcile employer goals with the public interest.
The second component of public relations is effectively communicating information that reflects employer actions and behavior. It’s a necessary and important part of the equation.
The principal purpose of public relations is and has always been persuasion -- persuading an individual or group of individuals to a specific course of action. To vote for one candidate over another. To vacation in a location deemed to be more favorable than others. To buy a certain brand of cereal or toothpaste or toilet tissue. To gain community goodwill so as to cultivate a loyal customer base.
Appropriate behavior in the public interest underlies every successful public relations initiative. This means that the public relations ‘process’ starts with behavior. Acting in the public interest is an absolute essential for long term success; that’s why the public relations professional must have a voice in the decision making process; it’s -- or should be -- part of the job. Some look at it as being the company conscience; others the role of ombudsman.
The public relations ‘process’ has changed little over the past century since it was first offered as a commercial service in 1900. But changes in how information is disseminated have been momentous. An entire generation around the world now receives most of its information digitally. While ‘traditional’ media, print and electronic, are important, their roles have changed – they are not as timely, not as personal.
As for a definition of public relations, I believe the most authoritative goes back to Edward L. Bernays’s classic ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ published in 1923. It forms the basis of a definition I have valued through the years:
Public relations (pub’lic re-la’shuns) n. sing. – An applied
social science that influences behavior and policy, when
communicated effectively, motivates an individual or
group to a specific course of action by creating, changing
or reinforcing opinions and attitudes. Its ultimate objective
is persuasion that results in a certain action which, to succeed,
must serve the public interest.
Yes, communications and establishing relationships are part of the mix, but the process must start with appropriate behavior that serves the public interest. Our role as public relations professionals is more than communications. So what’s the point in defining what we do in a manner that actually diminishes the value we add?
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March 05, 2012
11/4/2011 12:34 PM
I spoke with Steve Jobs twice, the first time soon after the Apple board fired him. The first time he cold-called me to ask if Burson-Marsteller could represent his new company, NeXT, after he was ousted as Apple's CEO in 1985. Unfortunately, we had a conflict; he said he understood. I would have cherished the opportunity (and challenge) to work with him, especially during the start-up phase of a new business.
The second time, it was face-to-face. He used the occasion to fire me, that is, Burson-Marsteller, which had worked for Apple for some eighteen months after his departure. It took place at the 1997 Macworld Expo in Boston, Jobs's first reappearance as Apple CEO. I never took the firing personally; I felt he did what he thought he had to do — make a public statement that life had changed at Apple (he also fired Apple's advertising agency).
Despite losing Apple as a client, my regard for him from afar grew year-after-year. In fact, I can think of only two other business leaders who, over the past 150 years, changed the way we live to the extent Steve Jobs did. One is Thomas A. Edison, the inventor who brought light into our lives. Henry Ford is the other; his affordable Model-T automobile gave Americans, and then the world, a new sense of liberation. As a long time observer of the business scene, I cannot think of another who was so much the essence of the corporation he headed or whose impact on society affected more people as profoundly. (I wrote this before reading Walter Isaacson's thoughtful Steve Jobs TIME magazine cover story in which he picked the same two as being Jobs equivalents.)
Actually Jobs did Edison and Ford one better — and it's something I've found absent from his many glowing obituaries. I'm talking about what he did to strengthen the democratic process. Witness what happened in Egypt; witness what happened in Tunisia and its spread to Libya; what has happened to the political process in our own country. Steve Jobs gave people – the little guys – a louder voice by making the computer a near-appendage to the human tongue multiplied by a million or more. He enabled people to come together in real time and in common purpose. It's coincidental that both Jobs and Abraham Lincoln were fifty-six when they died. Both advanced the cause of freedom, Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation, Jobs with the Macintosh.
My association with Apple started in 1995 when Gil Amelio became Apple's chief executive officer. I met Gil when he headed the electronics products group of Rockwell International, Burson- Marsteller's first major client and the one that brought Bill Marsteller and me together. Gil is a highly respected scientist/engineer who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Georgia Tech as well as more than a dozen patents on things inside the black box. He left Rockwell to become CEO at National Semiconductor in 1991; I didn't go after his business because we worked for Texas Instruments at the time. After serving on Apple's board as its business went from bad to worse, he was asked to take over as CEO. The company was losing money by the billions and in danger of running out of cash. Product quality had slipped and customers were beginning to lose faith in the company and its once-exalted Macs. The distribution channel was losing faith as were developers of applications and peripherals. After reading The New York Times article on Gil's appointment, I sent him a brief handwritten note: "I want to help you." In just a few days he asked me to come to Cupertino.
Gil told me his most pressing problem was borrowing $750 million to keep the company afloat. An obstacle he was encountering with lenders was the composition of Apple's board; it lacked executives who had managed large companies. He sought my assistance in identifying two new directors with proven records among Fortune 100 companies. By coincidence, about ten days earlier I had met with Edgar S. Woolard, who took early retirement as DuPont's CEO. I asked Ed what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He said he would like to go on a corporate board where he could learn something new; I offered to help. Little did I know an opportunity would appear so quickly. I asked Gil if the recently retired CEO of DuPont qualified and, as I expected, he said such a person would be perfect. I picked up the telephone in his office and said 'let's find out if he is interested.' Ed's first question was 'how many times a year will I have to go to California?' Arrangements were made for them to meet, and Woolard was elected to the Apple board at its next meeting. The stage was set for something I would never have expected.
John S. Reed, long-time chairman of Citicorp, once told me Ed Woolard was the most effective director he ever worked with. One manifestation about how he went about being a director was showing up a couple days early for his first Apple board meeting at Cupertino. He spent time with each of Amelio's direct reports learning their part of the business and establishing a rapport with Apple's management team. It wasn't long before Woolard became what was tantamount to Apple's lead director. Over time, he became apprehensive about the way Amelio was managing Apple and felt the company was headed for bankruptcy. Though personally well-disposed to Gil, Ed felt he was miscast as CEO of a consumer products company in a rapidly developing technological environment. He supported Amelio's recommendation to acquire NeXT and met and participated in discussions with Steve Jobs. From the outset of those talks, he urged Jobs to return to Apple on a full time basis as CEO. Jobs, he told me, was, at first, reluctant to return as an employee — even as CEO. Woolard, and I am certain, many others, continually urged him to return full-time. After a while Jobs agreed, though there's little doubt he wanted a second bite of the Apple he had co-founded.
The board having decided to fire Amelio, Woolard telephoned to give me advance warning; he was the director charged with delivering the bad news. I asked him to call me as soon as possible after his meeting ; having brought Ed Woolard into the Apple inner circle, and knowing his role in the management decision, I felt obligated to face up to my long time friend. Within a half hour after leaving Gil's office, Ed called and reported Gil took the decision philosophically; he thought Woolard and the board had made a bad call. I dialed Gil's personal telephone number with great trepidation.
I started the conversation by asking 'Are you still talking with me?' It seemed to take him by surprise and he responded 'Why wouldn't I want to talk with you?' I told him I was aware that he had just met with Woolard and since I had recommended Woolard for the board, he may be somewhat peeved at me.' 'Not at all,' Gil replied. 'I asked you to recommend a person who would be an effective director and, in Ed Woolard, you delivered; I simply think he and the board have made a big mistake, but you and I will continue as friends.' I have valued his friendship even more ever since.
Through the years,and especially in the past year or so when it seemed near certain that Steve Jobs was fatally ill, I have wondered if the outcome would have been the same if Ed Woolard had not joined the Apple board. It was almost certain Jobs wanted another chance to redeem himself and that, one way or another, he likely would have ended his career as Apple's CEO. But without Ed Woolard, it may not have been as surgically clean-cut; almost surely, the transition would have gone as smoothly. But the ultimate result would most likely have been unchanged: Steve Jobs would have played the same role in transforming so many of the things in our daily lives.
November 4, 2011
10/19/2011 5:26 PM
On Monday, October 1, The New York Times Op-Ed Page columnist, Joe Nocera, titled his offering “The Nuremberg Scripts.” He used the next 750 or so words to comment on my reporting on the Nuremberg Trial for American Forces Network, the military radio network in Europe. October 1 was the day the trial of major Nazi war criminals ended sixty-five years ago.
While I reference my Nuremberg experience on biographical material, and many of my professional colleagues and friends know I witnessed history in the making over a stretch of five months back in 1945-46, I have never sought to publicize my association with the trial. And it was by chance that Joe Nocera learned about it over a social lunch about six months ago.
Joe asked me if I had ever been a reporter. I told him of my early days on the Memphis Commercial Appeal and that I had also reported on the Nuremberg Trial. Also, I mentioned I had kept my scripts. He asked to see them and I sent him all 40-something. Some time later, he e-mailed me that he planned to write a column based on the scripts and that a timely day would be the anniversary of the end of the trial.
After Joe’s column appeared on the New York Times website, comments from friends and B-M colleagues started arriving at midnight Sunday, the first from Bob Pickard, our regional CEO based in Singapore, followed by an e-mail from former B-Mer Brian Lott in Abu Dhabi. By now, I have had several hundred more, many asking if they could access the scripts. Joe has also received requests from readers to make them available on line. (A sampling can be accessed on my website haroldburson.com.)
Now that the subject has been raised, I will share with you how I came to report the Nuremberg Trial. After wartime service with an engineer combat unit in Europe, I was transferred in July 1945 to American Forces Network as a news writer preparing on-the-hour news broadcasts and special news programs. AFN brought U.S.-style broadcasts to the several million state-side troops in the UK and on the Continent. It also had a vast European following largely due to its news coverage and popular disk jockey music programs.
It was a great new job for me, not alone because I was stationed in Paris at a time when most GIs had headed home and the American liberation of France was still top of mind. Also, of course, I welcomed the occupational change. I always preferred writing to erecting bridges and maintaining roads!
In early November, I was summoned to the office of AFN commanding officer, Colonel John Hayes, who as a civilian had headed WQXR, the radio station of The New York Times. He said he wanted me to cover the upcoming Nuremberg Trial of major Nazi war criminals starting November 20.
While flabbergasted he chose me to report on so historic a happening, I was flattered, but confident I was up to the task. At age twenty-four I was the youngest GI on AFN’s news staff.
My job was writing the news commentary after each day in court; I didn’t have either the right voice or the right accent to go on air. For the first couple of weeks, I worked with another AFNer on the scripts; until the end of March, I did all the writing. Because so many were being discharged after the war, four successive “voices” read my scripts, the last of them, Herb Kaplow, who later joined NBC News in Washington.
Knowing I was experiencing history in the making, I saved my scripts. For sixty-five years they attracted no attention, although I have participated in numerous conferences and seminars dealing with the Nuremberg Trials. To tell the truth, I have scanned the scripts about once every ten years and, frankly, marveled at the words of a 24/25-year writer. But the topper was this Joe Nocera observation in his column:
“There was another aspect to Harold’s scripts, one I found quite endearing. They have an earnest, idealistic quality that reminds you just how full of hope America was after World War II. Though we had fought a brutal war, we were determined to act generously to the vanquished. That even applied to the Nazi brass who had committed reprehensible crimes against humanity. ‘GI’s have one stock question,’ reads Burson’s very first script, ‘Why can’t we take them out and shoot ‘em? We know they’re guilty.’
“Again and again, Burson’s scripts try to answer that question. Because ‘the guilt of the German leaders should be carefully documented.’ Because ‘we of the four Nations are devoted to law and order.” Because ‘our system is not lynch law. We will dispense punishment as the evidence demands’ Led by the Americans, the Allies were insistent that the Nazi defendants be treated fairly; Burson’s pride in that ethos shines through on every page. This postwar idealism was one of the Greatest Generation’s finest qualities. Today’s cynical, divided country sorely misses it.”
My hope is that you will find interesting the sampling of scripts on my website, the words of which make me prouder today than when I typed them on an ancient Olivetti portable typewriter that badly needed an overhaul. Take into account I wrote them sixty-five years ago; I am not certain I would do as well today.
October 19, 2011
7/1/2011 10:29 AM
In its daily news summary, PR Week (June 20, 2011) reported that "Rolls-Royce Motor Cars of North America is issuing an RFP in mid-July for the first time in its history."
Sort of like walking into a Rolls-Royce showroom and bickering over the price. Admittedly, never having been in a Rolls-Royce showroom, I don't really know what goes on between buyer and seller. But my image of Rolls Royce is that the buyer wants top-of-line and is willing to fork over what it takes to get it.
I would have thought the same of Rolls-Royce as a buyer of services: that it would (discreetly) seek out the public relations firm it considered best for maintaining the status of its priceless brand and expect to pay what it takes to get that kind of service.
Instead, the company will conduct the near-equivalent of a public auction. It may result in a lower price and even acceptable quality service – but at what cost to its pristine brand.
Reminds me of the story of a rich, but brash, young American who was trying to impress his titled English lady-friend with his newly acquired wealth. When jewels, a chartered yacht exploring the Greek-islands and an invitation to join him in climbing K-2 failed, he showed up at her family's estate in a newly-purchased most expensive Rolls Royce.
After about ten minutes, hearing no comment from his up-scale companion on his new tour de force automobile, the young American remarked "I suppose you have ridden many times in a Rolls-Royce."
"Yes," she replied, "many, many times, but never in the front seat."
A response something like Rolls-Royce putting out an RFP.
July 20, 2011
4/20/2011 4:34 PM
Based on the comments I read on web sites, blogs and the trade media, I am appalled that so many who profess to be public relations or communications specialists are so far off the mark in their attempts to define public relations. Sadly, this applies even to some students at communication colleges specializing in public relations who, ostensibly, are being schooled in the theory underlying public relations as well as the application of public relations tactics and techniques.
Most people – even the scholarly and the sophisticated – fail to recognize the public relations element inherent in every human transaction and communication. The smile on our face, the tone of our voice and the letter we write, how quickly we respond to telephone calls, the typefaces and colors in an advertisement, the body language of the politician seeking our vote.
Even though not offered as a commercial service until the first year of the 20th Century, public relations has, mostly unknowingly, been practiced from the time humans began interacting with one another. But its basic principles have been recognized through the ages. The Ten Commandments were chiseled in stone; the broad boulevards of ancient Rome were built not to accommodate a heavy stream of traffic but to demonstrate the power and grandeur of the Roman Empire; Martin Luther's 95 theses were nailed to the cathedral door, not tacked on the bulletin board; the horrible Boston massacre was the term used to describe the killing of five patriots at a time when American colonists were seeking independence from England.
Public relations is a process that impacts public opinion. Its objective is to motivate individuals or groups to take a specific action. Like buying a certain brand of toothpaste or automobile; voting for a specific candidate; supporting one side or the other of a political issue; signing up with one cable provider over another. As such, public relations is an applied social science that draws on several social sciences, among them psychology, cultural anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, geography. Actually, one could more accurately describe public relations as a maturing applied social science. It is all too slowly developing theories and a body of knowledge, mainly case histories, that can bring about greater discipline, uniformity and predictability in delivering our services.
Everything we do is directed at people's opinions and attitudes. We can affect opinions and attitudes in only three ways,
One, we can seek to change a presently-held opinion or attitude.
Two, we can seek to create a new opinion or attitude.
Three, we can reinforce an existing opinion.
That's why we write and try to place articles and stories where they will be read or heard. That's why we think up outrageous stunts certain to attract media attention. That's why we're responsive at times of crisis and so willing to answer reporter's questions..
And that's why the media so frequently refer to us as press agents, why they call us flacks. That's the aspect of public relations to which they are most often exposed – our role as communicators using all manner of media to reach our target audiences with the greatest impact. Recognizing they couldn't do their jobs without our help, they foster a love/hate relationship with us that has existed for a century.
A major problem for us public relations professionals nowadays is that too many of us believe the communications part of our job is the totality of what we do. The fact is that public relations consists of two major components. The first (and most important) has to do with influencing our client's or our employer's behavior. What I am talking about is best summarized in the rapper line "if you're going to talk-the-talk, you gotta walk-the-walk." I don't know of a more succinct definition of public relations.
While we commit ourselves to serve and get paid by our employer or client, we who choose careers in public relations also bear an implied obligation to what we call "the public interest." To what's best for society – which, in the long run, is what's best for our client or employer. Our function as public relations professionals is to reconcile client goals with the public interest, Part of our job is foreseeing major shifts in public attitudes on issues that affect our employer's business and continually monitoring whether our employer is delivering on its promises and the public's expectations.
In summary, here's a definition for public relations that fully describes my idea of what our jobs should be and entail:
public relations (pub'lic re-la'shuns) n. sing. – An applied social science that influences behavior and policy, when communicated effectively, motivates an individual or group to a specific course of action by creating, changing or reinforcing opinions and attitudes.
It's worth remembering when you're writing what seems to you to be an innocuous news release announcing a mundane new product or a promotion to senior vice-president. Even more so when you're part of the management team that wrestles with policy decisions. In either instance, make your views known!
April 20, 2011
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