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The Future of American Democracy: A Public Relations Strategy

Mark Burson

Ainsley Counce

Mark Burson sits on an empty back veranda of the Graduate Hotel in downtown Oxford on a sweltering Friday afternoon.

Ask what democracy means to him and he’ll let America’s presidents and political leaders speak first. “I will defer to Abraham Lincoln to express my thoughts on this question. ‘Democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”

Burson, begins his mornings bright and early at roughly 4:15 a.m. when he takes time to sit with a cup of coffee and read the news from media outlets that he has come to trust.

Born and raised in New York state, Burson migrated west after high school to attend the University of Southern California where he earned degrees in art history and public relations.

The son of public relations legend Harold Burson and a former adjunct instructor in the School of Journalism and New Media, Mark Burson enjoyed his own successful public relations career and non-profit work before he stepped into the classroom.

When his eldest son showed an interest in attending the University of Mississippi, Burson sought a teaching post here, where his father had graduated.

“I believe I have a facility for bringing people who are dedicated to completing a mission together in teams by giving them the tools and skills to be successful,” he said of teaching.

“I have done this my entire career in the public relations business,” he said. “This is what I do in my classroom.”

Harold Burson, often called  “the father of public relations,” co-founded in 1953 what would become one of the world’s largest, most recognized public relations firms, Burson-Marsteller, with partner Bill Martseller.

Mark Burson taught graduate students of the School of Journalism and New Media in a degree program at Ole Miss designed to help students how to understand, engage, persuade and activate consumers in every aspect of marketing and public relations.

“I am a unicorn in Farley Hall.” said Burson, explaining how his worldview is not widely shared with co-workers. “The only conservative, the only family man with a gay son and a multi-racial adopted daughter, the only professor in the building who has actually taught at Rust College. I am the living embodiment of the adage — you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s political system has been in heavy turmoil. Social media has been an easy way for citizens to express their views and leave political figures under fire, with the most widely used platform being Twitter. Many believe this has led to a lack of media literacy among the general public.

Is there a solution? Is there a simple quick fix, or will it take longer? Burson believes the solution rests with the younger generations.

“That presumes we are actually divided.” said Burson, addressing the issues of the divided political climate today. “I like to think we are merely misinformed. Return to teaching the miracle of this country’s founding, and the sins of our present will quickly disappear.”

“We as a nation stopped celebrating the miracle of our founding,” Burson added.  “Think back to the late 18thcentury – what was happening? The world was in the throes of three great revolutions – The French Revolution, the Polish Revolution and the American Revolution. Two of these ended very badly – only one, our American Revolution ended well. Our founding is truly a miracle.  How many Americans can tell this story today? There is your answer.”

He said, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Great Britain was seen as just that, great. The colonists in America were never expected to win the war.

“Democracy is democracy no matter the location,” said Burson, in regard to the cultural effects on democracy in different areas of the country. “It is precious and must be defended. To quote Ronald Reagan: ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.’ We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.’”

Burson is no stranger to problem-solving skills. A public relations strategy calling for the teaching of civics applied to American politics and the media could be the simple fix the country is missing, he pondered.

“We need to return to teaching civics to our children and focus on what makes this country exceptional,” said Burson, explaining how the solution to the problem lies in investing in the younger generations.

One of the obstacles American society faces is the majority of the public having an illusion about how the government works. Many arguments or issues seen today can boil down to misunderstanding or miscommunications, he explained.

At the start of the semester, he would challenge each of his classes to name three amendments in the Bill of Rights, offering a steak dinner to the first student to answer correctly. “In six years, I have yet to pay off the debt.”

Ainsley Counce is a freshman Integrated Marketing Communications major from Corinth. She is a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority and currently serves leadership positions. She strives for her major and involvement on campus to equip her with skills she will take into her career.

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