Oral Histories

Chester Burger

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

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: Oh, okay you had a common thread in a lot of your writings and your speeches about social problems and the lack of the PR executives taking responsibility to influence and inform corporate policy. You’ve been a bit of a maverick in this area, and I was just wondering, has the industry made any headway now at this point 2008 in this, in changing that corporate consciousness?

Burger: First of all, let me say that you couldn’t grow up in the Depression and not be affected by a social awareness. And obviously that’s where I got mine. Experiencing it, not reading about it. Feeling it. The second part of your question, has the PR industry gone anywhere with social awareness? In terms of corporate policy, I think most PR people have withdrawn from the area completely and abandoned it to the communications function. I mentioned Wal-mart as a good example of a company that is doing something about it. I think there are quite a number of companies that are changing, that have changed policies to be socially more sensitive. When the corporations failed to change their policies, the law, forced by public opinion, changed it for them. I’ll give you an example. 1950, when I was running the assignment desk at CBS Television News, I hired what we then would have called a Negro, now African American, employee to work on the assignment desk for assigning stories. Very well qualified guy. Well afterwards, I was called in by the employment director and I was balled out like I will never forget and I was told that the company was stuck. They couldn’t’ fire him now but they didn’t want him in the first place and why did I hire him and if I ever did anything like that again I’d be fired. Well that was characteristic of the employment policies of most corporations in that period, and utilities across the country. The exclusions varied. They were always, I mean they always excluded African Americans, but many of them excluded Catholics. Some of them excluded Jews. Some excluded Protestants, and it was different everywhere, but there were all kinds of rules like that. Public opinion finally came not to tolerate this any more, and the law changed it for them.  But I don’t think public relations people played any role in that at all. I don’t think public relations people were sensitive to those things at all. Now maybe I am doing an injustice but very few companies that have shown leadership in that respect. But it didn’t come from the public relations people. It came from marketing people who said hey, if we do so and so, we’ll sell more products or something like that.

Interviewer: Talk a little bit about your activities and influence in the National Urban League.

Burger: Well for many years, many years, I was a director. I forgot whether I was called a trustee or director of the National Urban League. And I worked very closely with Whitney Young, and Whitney Young was one of the really great Civil Rights leaders. He has been shown already on a postage stamp. And there were many questions of policy we used to talk about where we could finally reach conclusions and recommendations.

The Urban League was not a political organization. It was a social agency. It was intended to help train people for jobs and so on and so on. Well, finally when the Civil Rights Act was passed, a number of corporations came to the Urban League and they said, “Well look, now we’ll hire Negroes in that context. You send us candidates and we’ll hire them if they are qualified.” Well the fact was there were very few qualified Negroes because they had been excluded from all the training programs in the universities and so on. The Urban League came up with a wonderful idea. A woman named Nancy Lane of the National Urban League came up with the idea of something called the Black Executive Exchange Program. Here’s what it was; these are the details I may be wrong about, because it’s a long time ago. But the substance is accurate. Let’s say that in that period, in the mid ‘60s, IBM might have had let’s just say half of a dozen black professional computer experts. Very few in any case, but they had some. Nancy Lane went to IBM. She said, “Would you help us out and lend us one of these people for one week only to speak at a black historically what we now call historically black college?” So IBM was very decent and they said sure. So this computer expert would go down, let’s say to Morehouse College or to any of the black colleges and spend one week there in residence as a visiting professor-in-residence and for three days a week maybe he would lecture to classes about the computer. Not talking about Civil Rights he’d talk about the computer. Start teaching an introduction to the computer. And then the last couple of days of the week, he would be there to answer any questions from the students. Well this influenced an awful lot of careers of young people who never would have thought of it because the careers had been closed to them up to that point. And the Urban League expanded this program over a period of years to a couple of dozen colleges, hundreds and hundreds of visiting professors, none of whom were paid or given anything except a certificate of appreciation, and it was a wonderful program. I was very proud that I was one of the people who helped start it.

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.