Oral Histories

Chester Burger

Interview Segments on Topic: PR Agency or Corporate PR/Outsourcing

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: 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: Well, when it was vital and alive, did you have a mission statement or anything that was written down, a code of ethics?

Burger: No, no. We had none; we were not bureaucratic. We had about maybe, I am trying to remember, at the most six or eight senior people, approximately, and they would just go out and talk to a CEO about a problem and they all had years and years of good experience, and they had good judgment. They had very good judgment. And we were involved in, I would say, a very large percentage of the major corporate problems facing corporate America during all those years. We were even advisors to the AARP. We were advisors to the American Cancer Society. Not just for once, but for years, for many years.