Oral Histories

Chester Burger

Interview Segments on Topic: Transition to Corporate World

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: You also, I believe, were impressed with the transparency of AT & T and I was just wondering if at the time when you were there if any reference was ever made to Arthur Page and his values and integrity and if it was just the culture of AT & T and your influence and Page. Just because you had the same ethical standards; that kind of business attitude just has continued.

Burger: I don’t think, -- my memory at age past 87 is not that good, -- but I don’t think I remember ever hearing Arthur Page’s name mentioned in all the years I was there. It might have been but I don’t remember it. But I do remember this was really, remember, my first corporate exposure, and I was struck. That was where I got my education in business ethics and I’ll tell you a little about it. One day one of the chairman or the president (I don’t remember who,) asked me if I would help out some young fellow down in the PR department who was having some problem that I happened to be familiar with. My relationship with AT & T didn’t depend on my relationship with this young man. It depended on my relationship with the top. But I went down and I met this fellow and I liked him and I helped him with the problem. He was 25 years old. He was not experienced. And I really hit it up with the fellow. I liked him. So at Christmas time, I sent him as a nice gesture a year’s subscription of the National Geographic Magazine, which at that time was $17 for the year. Well I just meant it out of goodwill. I wasn’t going to get anything from this fellow. But a couple weeks later I get a letter from him saying that he had received and noticed the gift and he said AT & T has a policy prohibiting us from receiving any gifts from anyone with whom we do business, so would I please cancel the subscription and send him a letter, a copy of my letter canceling it, for the file for the record. Well, that was the way of the ethics of the AT & T Company. That’s how careful they were. And the early 50s somewhere around then maybe the mid 50s there was a journalist who had in later years became a friend of mine, Joseph Goulden, wrote a book called Monopoly about AT & T, attacking AT & T as a monopoly and all the terrible things they did. But in the whole book there was only one or two petty little nothings of corruption which really had happened but they were out of a million employees. He could only find a couple of little nothings. And that said something about the character of the corporation.

What I think was the significance of Arthur Page, which certainly influenced my whole life, was that he said was a corporation’s reputation comes from 90 percent of what it does and 10 percent of what it says. And he said if there’s a disparity between the two, it’s the 90 percent that counts, not the 10 percent. Well, the sad thing to me that’s happened in public relations by and large with honorable exceptions is that public relations people think of themselves primarily as communicators, and they are very skilled at it. They know how to communicate a message. But that’s the 10 percent. I never had, never Cinda, I never had any involvement with publicity of any kind. We never even in my firm in later years we haven’t talked about that. We never had anything to do with publicity. There’s noting wrong with it. I am just saying we didn’t’ have that experience. We never wrote a speech. We never wrote a news release. What we were involved in was what we hoped would be the 90 percent. That is to say what was the policy of the company in the first place and did it deserve public support. Now, I think that public relations today ignores, too often ignores, the 90 percent and pays attention just to the 10 percent of saying it. For example in the Enron scandals, it turned out the public relations people might have been good communicators. They weren’t involved in any of the decisions. They had nothing to do with the decision. In the case of Wal-mart, which is a company that I have to say I admire a great deal, I don’t’ know what part the public relations firm is playing in any of this or in all of this, but I think the significant thing about Wal-mart trying to change its reputation is the changes in policies, changes in the things they are doing, not in what they are saying. They don’t’ say very much, but in the way they are treating their employees, the healthcare policies, and so on and so forth. I think that’s good public relations. And I think that’s the Arthur Page idea.