Oral Histories

Chester Burger

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Chester Burger Biography

Chester Burger spent most of his working career in various communication fields.  He began with CBS in 1941, working his way from Page Boy to become the National Manager of CBS Television News in 1955.   During the 1960’s civil rights campaigns, he served as an officer in the National Urban League and was a founder of the Black Executive Exchange Program.

Burger was a consultant to AT&T and other Bell companies for 20 years and became an honorary member in the Telephone Pioneers of America.  As president of Chester Burger and Company, he provided public relations counsel to the CEO’s of many of the largest corporations in America, including the American Bankers Association, Sears Roebuck, Texas Instruments, 3M and to organizations like AARP and the American Cancer Society.

In 1955, the U. S. Government awarded Burger the Medal for Outstanding Service to the United States, which he proudly displays in his home in New York City. Mr. Burger passed away on March 22, 2011 at the age of 90.  A graduate student scholarship was created by PRSA, IPR and the Page Society, titled the Chester Burger Scholarship for Excellence in Public Relations Fund.

Scenes from Chet Burger's rooftop garden interview.  Photographs taken by Andre Burger, who was visiting his grandfather in New York City.

Transcript

Interviewer: Now I know that you met Jesse Bell and you had a friendly relationship with him for a while and I believe eventually you wrote a manual for his department and he was with AT & T. And although it seems as though there was a chance that you might have known Arthur Page you never really overlapped your time.

Burger: No, Arthur Page retired from AT & T Company right after the war, roughly 1946 or ’47 something like that. And it was in January of 1955 that, after I left CBS, that I began working for the AT & T Company as a consultant. And the way it happened was Jesse Bell. Jesse G. Bell was a member of the public relations department at the AT & T Company and he said to me one day, “You know we’re building this television network for you guys. We don’t know anything about how you are using it, could you tell us, help us? Let us understand what you are doing.”

Well he was, he was a fatherly type of a fellow. He had been with the company many years, and he was very nice to me. And I began showing him around and showing him some of the problems that we were having in television, and he began using me as an advisor to the AT & T Company. He would have me meet some of the senior people; the chairman, the president, and I would answer their questions. And finally in, I think it was my recollection, it was September of ’55 he asked me to write a manual for them. And it was called Telephone News on Television. And it told how you could tell the telephone story using this new medium that they were actually physically building for the networks. And that manual was, it turned out, copyrighted by AT & T in 1955 and it became the first corporate manual in existence using public relations techniques for a corporation.  I worked with the AT & T chairmen and president for 33 years until the day I retired in 1988. It was, I believe, the longest continuing relationship with any “supplier” they ever had. And the extraordinary thing to me, Cinda, was that in all those 33 years, I never had a contract with them. Never had a piece of paper with them. Nothing. The chairman or the president would call me up and say, “Hey, we got a problem we’d like to talk to you about. Come on down.” And we’d go down and talk and discuss whatever it was, and at the end of the month I’d send them a bill for the time, and they never questioned it. Just paid it. And that went on that way for 33 years, pretty extraordinary. And I would say, my self-perception may not be the way they would see me, but in my self-perception was that my real value that I had to the A T & T company was not that I knew television, but that I had learned the telephone business intimately so thoroughly, very, very thoroughly. I knew what their problems were in great depth. I remember many a time for instance, in those days, when they were cutting over to the new electronic central offices, I would be in the office at midnight when they went out there to make the switch. It was so much that I knew in great depth about the business, and that’s something I had learned in public relations, when I had to learn how to ask questions and learn the value of knowing a business.

Interviewer: Good.

Burger: See, I think public relations people working for a corporation who are really expert in public relations, but have a superficial knowledge of their own business, I think they are handicapping themselves. I mean, I used to go out with installers; I used to go out with service people, just to get a sense of what it was like. What they were doing and it was invaluable because in many cases I found I knew more about the business than the particular person that I was working with at first off. That’s what I was really proud of.

Interviewer: Wonderful. Well tell us a little bit about the founding of the Chester Burger Company.

Burger: Well, there was a period in my life, Cinda, between the time I left McCann Erickson or Communications Counselors as our name was, when I was hired as president of one of their clients, a company at that time called Office Temporaries, which in 1963 was one of the largest in the industry. And I ran that company okay for a couple of years. And then on December 1, 1964, I decided to open my firm, my own firm. I had the idea, (I didn’t know whether it would work,) that I was going to try to earn a living selling advice to corporations, public relations advice to corporations, but not doing publicity. I wasn’t qualified to do publicity. I really didn’t’ know it. And at that time I had as a friend, a pretty close friend, John Hill who was the founder of Hill and Knowlton, who was really more than a generation older than me. He was quite in advanced years then. But he was a good friend and he said to me that he had tried the same thing in 1927, when he started Hill and Knowlton. He had hoped to found a firm selling advice to corporations about what their public relations policies should be and he said he failed at it. Because when he gave advice that they liked and accepted, they then said to him, “All right. You go ahead and implement it. We have no resources to implement it.” And John Hill soon found that the money to be made in public relations was in the implementation, not in the advice. That’s why it became such a fine big firm. Well I did succeed at it, and my firm was always a little firm. We were never more than 25-26 people at the very peak I think. But we were advisors to dozens and dozens and dozens of big corporations, Sears Roebuck, 3M, Texas Instruments, Metropolitan Life, all of them, and American Bankers Association. All we did was discuss problems and suggest how to handle them. That was half of our business. The other half wasn’t so well known and that was, if a company went to a big PR firm and had a problem that the PR firm had no experience in handling privately, the PR firm would come to us and ask our advice. And we were advisors to almost all of the major PR firms for about 25 years. Then finally in 1988, I retired. Sold the firm to my partners, to one of them, and they ran it into the ground in two years and it was dead.

Interviewer: What was the biggest challenge that you have faced in your life?

Burger: I will generalize, and then I’ll give you an example. I think the hardest thing for anybody in life, certainly anybody in public relations or among management consultants, is to tell the truth to power. It’s very, very hard. I had an experience just a couple of weeks ago that I’ll tell you about. For about 12 years (I don’t know 11, 12, 13 years now,) I’ve been officially an advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force, the Office of Public Affairs. And about a month ago The New York Times came out with a front-page news story as follows. By suing the government under the Freedom of Information Act, they had achieved, rather acquired documents that showed as follows; the Pentagon, the top officials of the Pentagon had been briefing retired Generals who were serving as commentators on military affairs to the television news programs. And according to the documents that The New York Times uncovered as a result of its litigation, this information was not accurate. Some of it was untruthful. Essentially, they said how great everything was, covering up some of the failures. And the Generals, according to the documents that were produced, knew it at the time that it was false. And nevertheless, these commentators went on the air on all the channels talking about this, parroting of the Pentagon line, and there it was. The Times revealed it. Afterwards, I was asked by somebody connected with the military, “What did I think of it all?” And I was really troubled because the truth was; I thought it was an outrage. What the Pentagon had done was not telling the truth. Truth, I would say, is that the military are exhausted from this war. The men are worn out. The equipment is worn out. The money is gone. The services are short of everything, and that there is no military solution to the present war. I felt that it was, first of all disgraceful that the Pentagon had not told the truth, a truthful balanced picture. The second thing was, the Generals hadn’t told the truth, why were they employed? They were all employed by military contractors.  Now there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly okay. They have expertise in combat. The problem is that it should be disclosed because if they were to criticize any Pentagon activity or policy, they would lose their value to their employer and therefore they’d lose their employment. That should have been disclosed. If it had been disclosed, it would have been nothing wrong with it. The third failure was the media. The media should have investigated and found out that these military commentators were not impartial, honest commentators, but they were under the control effectively of the Pentagon. And if they had disclosed that, it would have been okay. If the public knew how they were, they could judge it accordingly. But they didn’t. Or they didn’t even bother to try to find out.

So that was my dilemma. My association with the armed forces is very close. It’s very important to me in my life. It’s enriched my life. And I didn’t’ want to lose it and I was afraid if I said what I thought, which was what I have just said to you, that they would cut me off. And so I stalled for a couple of days before I answered them. What should I do? Then I finally decided that if I couldn’t tell the truth, what good was I? Or was the access to the military that important to me that I was wiling to not to tell the truth? So I told the people involved exactly how I felt. And I waited for the ax to fall on my head. Subsequently, within the following ten days, I had occasion to talk to some very senior military commanders and they all agreed with me and they all said they felt exactly the same way, that they were terribly offended by the breech of integrity, which was the essence of their character in their lives.

Interviewer: Very interesting. So feeding into this, what are the most important issues, the enduring truths that you’ve learned in your career?

Burger: That’s a broader question than asking me about public relations, and I like it for that reason. I often think that… let me exaggerate a minute, let me put it in black and white. It really is shades of gray but let me put it in black and white. Nobody goes to bed at night worrying about Chet Burger. Maybe my wife does but that’s about it. My children, I am sure, are concerned about me, but they have other concerns of their own. What I am suggesting is that the world doesn’t begin or end, or is centered around me. And one of the very important lessons of my life is that when you are concerned about other people, besides yourself, you get very rich returns. You develop relationships that are beyond anything you could have hoped for. If you genuinely, I don’t mean being a phony, but if you genuinely care about other people, they care about you. So I would say that’s perhaps as good a lesson as any. A second lesson I think is the perspective of time. When I talk with my grandchildren of whom I have many, their life experience is shaped by only what they have known in the few years of semi-adulthood. When you look at the perspective of time and you get interested in history and realize the origins of ideas and how the wheel turns and how things change and how things come back in a different perspective, the perspective of time is very, very important to me and that’s interested me so much in history. That’s the reason. It helps me understand today much better.

Interviewer: That’s a wonderful answer. Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

Burger: Cinda, you will laugh at this, but I will tell you frankly. The one that I think I am probably most proud of is the fact that I gave 206 blood donations. I used to give it first once a year, then I started increasing in frequency and then at the end of the year it was every eight weeks, and finally on the 206th time I fainted. Just psychological shock and they said, “Well you’ve given enough. That’s enough.” But it really to me was what I am saying to you is, I got great pride in having a feeling that I helped other people and that’s wonderful because other people helped me. I would say the other thing was when the government gave me that “Medal for Outstanding Service to the United States.” That meant a lot to me.