Marco Greenberg

Rediscovering the Jewish American PR gene

Buck Buchwald, his grandson Yale Buchwald, and the author enjoying a weekday lunch in Manhattan last year. (courtesy)

What do Burson, Edelman, Finn, and Fleishman have in common? Many will identify them as big PR firms, but few today know that they were all founded by Jewish Americans. They were World War II veterans with little financial resources who, like Jews in other areas, overcame discrimination and quotas to leave their mark on the world.

Other Jewish PR legends soon emerged, with names that would become brands: Golin, Kekst, Rubenstein and more.

Credit to the father of the field, Edward Bernays. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who fled his native Vienna to London while four sisters were murdered in concentration camps.

I was reminded of this legacy last week when I read that WPP was uniting two agencies into “Burson,” in homage to the industry’s most iconic figure.  The original Burson-Marsteller was opened in 1953 by the late Harold Burson and Elias “Buck” Buchwald. They both have had a transformational impact on me and thousands of other “Burson persons” – as current and former employees of the firm are affectionately known. With different personalities, roles and backgrounds, Buck originally from the Lower East Side and Harold hailing from Memphis, TN they both exuded integrity and curiosity, classiness, and warmth – in a line of work where these qualities are too often in short supply.

Imagine then the horror these Jewish PR pioneers would feel at the reemergence of one of the world’s oldest hatreds, antisemitism. In its current ugliness, words and images are shamelessly distorted or deleted in the aftermath of October 7th, as Israel’s war to dismantle Hamas and free its hostages approaches a fifth month.

They would surely condemn the mob mentality exploding on social media, the attempt to libel Israel with false accusations of genocide before both the International Court of Justice and in public opinion, and the demonization on US college campuses not just of the Jewish state but of Jewish students and people of all backgrounds who support Israel.

Disinformation, Orwellian doublespeak and “fake news” are not some Internet invention. Their early manifestations were discernable in the Nazis’ propaganda.

Harold Burson, who covered the Nuremberg trials after World War II, would surely confirm it.  But why just speculate? Buck is still very much alive, so I went to the source.

I asked Buck, who turned 100 today, Monday, what he thought of the war instigated by the barbaric Hamas attacks. Buck lamented that “the world doesn’t believe Israel and would rather take at face value the claims and statistics provided by Hamas terrorists, which the media is often either too lazy or too biased to question.”

Like the real-life characters portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie Oppenheimer (yes, he was Jewish too), Buck spent his World War II service in Oak Ridge, TN as a young engineer working on the Manhattan Project. Later, as many of the PR innovators did, he applied his passion and PR skills to help the young and fledgling Jewish state. Buck, who basically invented communications training, delivered a weeklong course on the subject for several decades, pro bono, raising his voice to make a point (when that was still allowed) in a mix of English, Hebrew and Yiddish to diplomats from the Israel Foreign Ministry.

I discovered Buck precisely because of this Israel connection. After working as a press officer at the Israel UN Mission during the first Gulf War, I cold-called him in December ’91 as a 27 year-old looking for a professional home to build a career.  I overcame his initial gruffness and uncovered an inner sweetness combined with awesome brainpower. He gave me the break I needed into the agency biz, and I’ve been at it ever since.

Several of Buck’s protegees have gone to the very pinnacle of the field, and David Sable tops that list. David is the vice chairman of Stagwell, a global digital marketing network, and a former CEO at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam. I asked David to share with me his impressions of Buck.

“The thing about legends is that they exist because the story is often bigger than the truth. So what do you call a legend where the truth is way bigger than the story? Simple…Buck Buchwald,” David Sable e-mailed me last week.  “Buck has blessed my life and career. I worked for him at Burson-Marsteller……For going on 40 years I have been his student….He mentors me…Buck constantly inspires me…… Buck is 100 and as sharp as the day I first met him.”

For decades, Buck, David and I have witnessed the trend of disguising antisemitism as “just” anti-Zionism and opposition to Israel, yet never would we have imagined that people who can’t even identify Gaza on a map would be swept up around the world singling out the Jewish state in such fury. That it is somehow in response to the biggest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust shows the mass insanity that has taken hold.

But it’s too easy to just lament that Israel is “losing the PR war” or that “everyone hates the Jews.” I predict that after this war, and joined by moderate Arab states, the US and other democracies, a new and more positive chapter for perceptions of Israel, and a realistic portrayal of its opponents, is possible.

Charles Blow of the New York Times, not usually associated with the pro-Israel camp, shared a revealing anecdote in November: “When I talked to the pro-Palestinian activists and scholars, I posed a simple question that is often asked: Do you believe that Israel has a right to exist? To my surprise, none answered with a direct ‘yes.’” That, in a nutshell, says it all.

After more than 75 years of conflict, Hamas, and a big part of larger Arab and Muslim populations, wallows in rejection and grievance. For all their foibles, most Israeli governments in the past 30 years have tried to negotiate for the creation of a Palestinian state.

No civilized person likes war, and the civilian Palestinian deaths are tragic. Despite the many steps that the IDF is taking to protect innocents from the crossfire, the number of casualties continues to grow, which is inevitable when Hamas uses civilians as human shields, stores weapons in schools, and fires from hospitals – all actual war crimes.

I do not know what all the legendary Jewish and other American PR titans would say, but I have an inkling. I think that they would tell us to devise a communications strategy to combat the latest scourge of antisemitism and implement it with vigor. When I told Buck that perhaps some good will emerge from this war, his all-caps response was one they would surely endorse: AMEN.

About the Author
Marco Greenberg is the senior partner at Thunder 11, a marketing and communications firm, and author of Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive That Powers the World's Most Successful People (Hachette, 2020).
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