Reviewing Harold Burson’s 1973 CSR Speech

Reviewing Harold Burson’s 1973 CSR Speech

Celebrity sightings are part of daily life in New York City.

I saw Richard Gere shooting a movie near Grand Central Terminal a few weeks back.

Queen Latifah was in the house at Tuesday night’s Stevie Wonder concert.

But my most impactful brush with fame in recent days happened before the start of an energy industry breakfast when 94-year-old Harold Burson took the time to chat one-on-one and share some history about corporate social responsibility.

Burson, described by PR Week as “the century's most influential PR figure," showed no sign of his age when I described my new role at 3BL Media and explained our distribution platform focuses only on CSR and sustainability content.

With no Google search to jog his memory, Burson recalled a 1973 speech he gave as part of the Garrett Lecture series at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.

The co-founder of Burson Marsteller vowed to get me a copy of the speech, and we had a little debate about whether it was typed on an IBM Selectric electric typewriter.

When I read the 860-word address, it became clear why generations of CEOs took counsel from Burson.

“A corporation can’t compensate for its inadequacies with good deeds,” he wrote in language prescient of a term we know today as greenwashing.

On regulation, Burson appears to have referenced the 1964 Supreme Court decision on obscenity.

“Corporate social responsibility defies precise definition because no two corporations are exactly the same. We know a socially responsible company when we see one, but we can’t completely describe it ahead of time,” he wrote.

There are also sections in this 41-year-old speech that, one can argue, have not withstood the test of time. 

“We should no more expect a corporation to adopt a leadership role in changing the direction of a society than we should expect an automobile to fly. The corporation was simply not designed for that role,” Burson wrote.

But in 2014, the stock price of CVS Health soared when the retailer banned sales of tobacco products from its pharmacies, demonstrating that businesses do benefit by driving social change rather than simply responding.  

A more recent example of corporate pressure for legislative action involved Apple’s Tim Cook and Salesforce’s Mark Benioff public standoff against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence over a law widely perceived as being anti-gay.

In general, Burson’s juxtaposition of PR and CSR still feels right in the age of the iPhone, right down to the former agency chief’s call for PR pros to act as corporate activists.  (Just ignore the pronoun “he,” even though two-thirds of today’s PR workforce is dominated by women, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)

“The public relations function must separate issues from fads and work out a timetable for the corporation’s response and adjustment,” he wrote. “In planning for social change, the role of the public relations executive is critical. He must judge which issues are real and which are merely fads, and he must help decide when the corporation should start to make reforms in policy. “

For anyone who wants to read the entire speech, a link is located on the web site.