Oral Histories

Chester Burger

Interview Segments on Topic: Marketing/Advertising/Branding

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 In terms of corporate policy, I think most PR people have withdrawn from the area completely and abandoned it to the communications function.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.