For more than two decades, Harold Burson and I have remained close. Many of you in the public relations profession know him or know of him – a brilliantly gifted communicator with a giant intellect and avuncular disposition, worthy of anybody’s genuflection.
In 1953, Harold and Bill Marsteller co-founded Burson-Marsteller and in the mid-1990s I had the honor and privilege to work there. Today, I still meet Harold and speak to him by phone – his mind, as sharp now as it was then; his analysis, precise pioneering, and Bunyanesque.
Harold has taught me many things over the years. (Much of it certainly will be shared in his upcoming autobiography, “The Business of Persuasion.”) He has taught me the value of good humor, the power of sincerity, and the rewards of honesty. He enriched my vocabulary, educated my reading choices, enlightened me about next practices and schooled me in the true meaning of public relations.
Once, while riding in a taxi cab, he explained to me that the starting fare is penned a “throw.” On another occasion he told me that when he advised President Reagan, the President requested Harold to call him “Ron.” Harold nodded in agreement and said “Yes, Mr. President!” During his remarks at the memorial service for his wife Bette Burson, Harold said that he knew Bette was the one for him because “she was well formed and well informed.”
Never in my life have I met someone with such prima facie humility, charismatic bonhomie and judicious clairvoyance.
But perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from Harold’s classes on life weren’t taught by any text book or university professor or pharmaceutical company executive. One evening, some years ago, when I was visiting the United States from Beijing, Harold invited my wife and me to have dinner with him at Aquavit in New York. I jumped at the opportunity, always eager to learn something new and to share a few jokes.
That evening, as we were dining, Harold turned to me and said he had a quiz. The question, he asked, was whether I knew what three inventions had saved more human lives than any other. I thought the question was facetious. After all, I’d spent my entire working life in the pharmaceutical industry and I wrongfully assumed that this was a “gimme.”
In response, I proudly flagged my arms and declared with gusto that it was the invention of vaccines that had saved the most lives. Harold looked at me and said that I was wrong. Adamant to get it right, I turned my focus to the invention of antibiotics, only to be told that I was wrong, yet again.
This puzzled me. How could I not know? After all, pharmaceutical companies specialize in helping to address “unmet needs.” Every CEO talks about “unmet needs this and unmet needs that.” Every annual report, every investor call, every medical conference includes a reference to “unmet needs.” Ironically, in its literal sense, the word “need” suggests something that is sought but has not been acquired yet. Ipso facto, I wonder why “unmet” is added as a prefix.
It turns out, Harold hinted, that the answer to his question was not an answer involving our industry. This was perplexing to me because I wondered how human lives could be saved without medicines?
Well, it turns out that the trifecta response Harold offered made a lot of sense. The first was the invention of the sewage pipe – sanitation has saved humanity! The second was the invention of cotton underwear, as it helped to prevent staph infections and was used in Union suits during the civil war. The third, Harold explained, was the introduction of low cost footwear in Africa. I joked and asked for a citation. I’m still waiting!
The response Harold gave made an indelible mark on me. Like robots, we are often programmed to think of solutions that we are accustomed to. Perhaps this is why many healthcare companies frequently turn outside their four walls to examine other industries and companies that get innovation right.
It’s important for healthcare professionals to always be agnostic to where good ideas come from and how they can be relevant to an industry that sometimes believes incremental innovation is good innovation. What companies must strive for is innovation that is disruptive and that can create true emotional connections with customers. By doing this, and only this, you can lead instead of chase, create the future, and communicate with soul.