Oral Histories

Chester Burger

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: Well, why don’t you describe the path in life that brought you to the point of having enough courage to open your own agency?

DONOVAN: Wow. I don’t have a typical PR background. My background actually comes from the finance world. At first I started out pitching and selling after I graduated from Cornell University. I got my Series 7 and started selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds. I have a great mentor in my life and I must say that, in your path, a mentor is absolutely necessary. He told me, the one thing you want to learn how to do is sell, because no matter what you do, selling includes all aspects of business; customer service, pitching, and relationship management. You will learn that you can do anything. And I didn’t really necessarily want to do it but I trusted him and trusted his guidance and I took that sales position. From that, I learned the importance of writing a good pitch, writing the script, how to craft it so that people can understand it. Also, I was told that if you can sell an intangible asset and get people to invest in an intangible asset because they don’t see the investment in the mutual fund—you can pretty much sell everything. So, I became very good at selling intangible assets. From that, I was in an American Express marketing department; a director of their New York office and then they sold off the financial division. So after I went into management, they sold off the financial division and I decided that, I wanted something new. But when you’re really good at something, you kind of need a little push in life to give you that, so I decided that I like the entrepreneurial world that sales provides you. I like pitching and I did a lot of soul searching. And I always liked media. So a friend of mine at the time who was also another mentor of mine, and I think that that has a lot to do with it, is Robin Beaman; she’s Oprah’s publicist. She’s in Chicago and I contacted her, went back and forth to Chicago and basically started moonlighting with her. I would say, on a contractor basis. And she said wow, you’re really good at this, I said oh, it’s the same thing. You’re just selling the media, you have to find the people who want your product or service, just like you have to find the people who are interested in your story. You have to find these people. You have to think about what’s going to make them move to write about you, and then you have to get the clients and develop the relationships. Ok, fine. So I guess I kind of picked up very quickly from that, coming from the finance world. And one of the things that I use when I hire people and I train them is, I say, you have to get sales experience. That’s an absolute must, even for my writers that are in my firm. I give them a Zig Ziglar book. I give them a Tom Hopkins book. Now that’s very unusual for a PR person but it’s really important when it comes to pitching and distinguishing yourself, so even if you’re a writer you have to know how to write where it’s enticing enough to have someone want to buy your story just like they want to buy your product or service. The writing side is more important now because people are—I believe—people are reading more. Maybe not more books, but they’re reading more with online content. So how do I make that salacious enough—and journalists get inundated with a million emails. So I have to make it salacious but not really too ‘salesy.’ And that’s really where I believe, my success motto is—and my firm—with just my path and my background and taking the good and the bad and the ugly and kind of mixing it together and coming up with your own formula.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. How long have you been in the business?

DONOVAN: Nine years.

INTERVIEWER: Nine years, okay. So in your nine years, what are the most important public relations issues that you’ve faced? What have you learned during your career?

DONOVAN: The enduring truths are people are people and we’re all human, and I think I’m reminded of that lesson every day. I think as PR pros, we try to make mountains out of molehills and sometimes you’ve just got to realize that you can’t make a mountain out of molehill. And that is something that I always have to grasp at, because you have to have a can-do attitude, but sometimes it’s not realistic. So, just certain truths that I have is that, just be realistic, although you’re optimistic about what you can do for your clients and what your clients can do and the timeframe you can do it in is very important. Because, I’ve had clients who maybe I have said that I’d like to take personal accountability—well, I think we can get something going in three months—but their story was a lot more difficult and maybe you needed a year to really begin to educate the press and start their whole PR campaign. And I’ve had campaigns even pick up after I was no longer working with that client. So, an enduring truth is also to be open and not stubborn, and people are people and be forgiving and know when you can’t do it. My mother always says a true woman knows when to leave. So, always know when to leave that relationship. Leave that story alone or leave the client alone because it causes a lot less drama and heartaches and tension later on. I’ve also found that this is a 24-hour job. You’re always on even if you’re off. The 24-hours of news, the media—they’re going without you—especially with social media and the Internet. I’ve woken up and seen things like—whoa, just watched the news last night and just…how did that happen? It takes eight seconds for a story to get out. We see that with what went on in Egypt and the Trayvon Martin case, before the media even speaks about it. So whether the journalists are on, whether I’m on, whether my clients are on, the people are out there and they’re demanding the content and they’re going to shape it if you don’t. So I believe now, everyone needs PR. Everyone needs media training. Even down to the yogurt shop down the street, because if you serve—they’re tweeting about you – this ‘whatever’ does not taste good. There’s a guy on twitter that tells where his truck is at everyday and people follow him and he’s a success with his food truck in New York and he managed to get news people to show up and next thing you know he’s on ABC, he’s on NBC, he’s on FOX 5. So, some of those truths are - just always be ready, no matter how small you are, how large you are. I also believe that clients should not try to do it themselves. I do believe that there’s room for us, because you can’t do it all, and if a business owner is trying to do his own PR then, who’s going to run your business? So, those are just certain truths that I’ve learned, and that they like you one minute—the media likes you one minute and the next minute, the media doesn’t like you. But isn’t that the case with people also? Sometimes we like our friends one minute, the next second we’re like, ‘she’s crazy. She’s nuts.’ You know? So, we’re all really just human and not to take it all too seriously and learn how to laugh.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. Well, is there anything else that you wish that we could chat about a little bit or do you feel like we’ve covered enough ground?

DONOVAN: Yeah, thank you so much.

INTERVIEWER: Oh Cordelia, thank you.

DONOVAN: I think that it’s a great field. I think that with new media—social media—I think the PR rep needs to not just be the standard communications person. I think they have to be technologically savvy. They have to know new media, social media. They even have to learn how to work a camera—thanks to the cable person back there. But, they have to learn how to work the camera and do video and imbed video into your pictures—which I’m taking a class on next week on just simply how to do some rough cuts and editing to be able to pitch my clients’ stories better. So I think a PR person has to—their mentality has to evolve, their views have to evolve, their technology skills have to evolve—not just change but evolve. I think that if you’re not that person, then it’s going to be very difficult for you in new media but I think for the person that is that person, there’s a lot of opportunity for people that are looking to evolve and they like a little bit of video with a little bit of social media and at the same time they’re a great writer and they can express for their clients in a great way. And also, you always have to work on your writing skills. That’s something that I try to do myself, as well as with my staff, is that we always have to look at how we write, what we write, sometimes the greatest writer may not be the greatest pitch writer but knowing what the different types of writing that’s required for the job is very important and you know, probably being the catch all. I think public relations firms need to have an idea of not to do everything, but know who they can hire to do other parts of the business, and we also have to be marketers now. Whereas there was a clear distinction between a social media, PR, and a marketer, now all three of those are mixed and that’s your PR professional firm now.

INTERVIEWER: Cordelia Donovan, thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

DONOVAN: Thank you.