B.U. Bridge

First of the Robert P. Benedict Lectures in the History of Political Philosophy, October 15, 5:15 p.m., SAR 102

Week of 10 October 2003· Vol. VII, No. 5

Current IssueResearch BriefsBulletin BoardCalendarClassified AdsArchive

Search the Bridge

Mailing List

Contact Us


Two PR pioneers honored
Lerbinger first recipient of COM’s Burson chair

By David J. Craig

Harold Burson (left) and Otto Lerbinger Photo by Fred Sway


Harold Burson (left) and Otto Lerbinger Photo by Fred Sway


The College of Communication this month announced the establishment of a faculty chair in honor of Harold Burson (Hon.’88), founding chairman of the global public relations and counseling firm Burson-Marsteller and a PR industry pioneer. Otto Lerbinger, a COM professor who has taught at BU for 50 years, is the inaugural recipient of COM’s first endowed chair, the Harold Burson Chair in Public Relations.

The professorship was created by a recent endowment to COM funded by Burson-Marsteller, its employees and clients, and Young & Rubicam, Burson-Marsteller’s former parent company. The chair also will include the Harold Burson Leadership Forum, a series of lectures and public forums that explores issues related to media, communications, public affairs, and public relations.

Burson, whom the trade magazine PRWeek named in 2000 “the century’s most influential PR figure,” founded Burson-Marsteller with Bill Marsteller in New York City in 1953. With Burson as chairman, it grew from a small firm specializing in business-to-business communication into what is today the largest PR agency in the world. Throughout his career, the 82-year-old Burson has supported public relations education, developed training programs, and mentored young professionals. His company has a long history of collaboration with BU and has hired many COM graduates.

“For nearly half a century, Harold Burson and Burson-Marsteller have been household names, and Harold is a legend in the industry,” said COM Dean John Schulz. “His sense of partnership and collaboration with academe and academics is not new: in the 1960s he and his team devoted a full week to seminars, lectures, and presentations by staffers to further educate nearly two dozen PR professors, including Otto Lerbinger.

“Anyone who has met Harold Burson or knows his style says much the same: this is a man of calm and wisdom who cuts to the heart of the matter and sees more clearly than others the essence of problems, issues, and solutions,” Schulz continued. “He is a brilliant strategic thinker, and that has kept him and his company on the cutting edge through five decades of change and complete transformation of global society and the public relations industry.”

Company loyalty

At an October 1 ceremony at BU announcing the new chair, Provost Dennis Berkey expressed the University’s gratitude to Burson, who was in attendance, and to Burson-Marsteller. “It is such an honor to have had Harold Burson associated with the University for so many years,” he said, “and to have his name associated with this first endowed professorship in our College of Communication.”

Berkey noted that both Burson and Lerbinger, an internationally recognized authority on corporate affairs, crisis management, and communication theory, both have shown a remarkable commitment to their institutions. Lerbinger “is one of those senior scholars on the faculty who carry the character and the aspirations of the University with him constantly, serving as a member of the Faculty Council, serving on key committees across the campus, and always being there with a watchful eye and a thoughtful mind and a willingness to speak up and say what needs to be said,” Berkey continued. “In this era of rapid job changing, and the relative infrequency with which you find leaders with sustained commitments to organizations . . . it is that kind of commitment and service that we see [in] both of these men. I think they are inspiring models to us.”

Schulz said that Lerbinger, “despite being the longest serving member of faculty on our campus, retains an energy and enthusiasm in the classroom that is seldom equaled and never surpassed. Each term, students note the demand and rigor of his classes and then give him rave reviews. Otto . . . continues to actively research and publish, and enjoys a well-deserved international reputation for his work in public relations, strategic planning, and crisis management.”

Social responsibility

Burson told the Bridge that his company chose to endow a chair at COM in part because BU was “the first university to establish a program in public relations.” (The School of Public Relations and Communications, which later became the College of Communication, was created in 1947.) Asked to describe his hopes for the future of public relations education, he said that schools should teach students that success in the field requires personal integrity in addition to communication skills. Ironically, said the former Army reporter and World War II veteran, public relations suffers from an image problem, with a reputation as a means to “obfuscate, to deny, and to cover up.”

To the contrary, the best PR work is done by professionals who “advise clients on what is the best action to take,” he said. “How you behave is a lot more significant than how you communicate your behavior to the media. You can have the best communication program in the world, but if it’s not backed up by behavior that supports the communication, then the communication program will fail. I hope [in education] there is more emphasis on that.”

Lerbinger also stressed the ethical component of public relations work. The field is dedicated, he said, “to the proposition that the free flow of ideas and the accuracy of information are vital to the development and the improvement of democratic societies. . . . I’m very proud that this chair is called the Harold Burson Chair in Public Relations. Harold is a person whom I respect . . . and he has his place in the history of public relations without any doubt. . . . There have been times, I must confess, during my 50 years here that I wondered whether I could request a change in designation from professor of public relations to maybe professor of corporate affairs, something that didn’t sound as vulnerable as public relations sometimes sounds. But I said no, I like the term because although there will be moments when the press is going to attack public relations . . . it really has a lot of solid meaning.”

Following the ceremony, COM hosted its first lecture as part of the Harold Burson Chair, entitled The Rise of Anti-Americanism: Can This Global Trend Be Reversed? Panelists included Michael Hirsh, senior editor of Newsweek, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, and Bennett Freeman, managing director for corporate responsibility at Burson-Marsteller and former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.


10 October 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations