Oral Histories

Chester Burger

Interview Segments on Topic: Trust/Credibility

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, I know in 1983 you had talked about the fact that you believe that the corporate executives really didn’t understand the purpose and the responsibilities of their public relations departments, and now we are sitting 25 years later. Do you see a change coming or are we still stuck in that same…

Burger: I think it’s much worse now than it was in 1980. Much worse. I think the public relations people by and large thought that the words public relations had become synonymous with “spin” and didn’t’ want the words. But the word communications was the way the budgets were and marketing was where the budgets were. So they changed their titles and they changed, they positioned themselves voluntarily as the “expert communicators.” But the effect of that is quite apparent. It downgraded the function in the corporation. It is just a service function rather than a management function. And if you look at a great corporation like General Electric for instance, there isn’t even a single public relations executive in the top management. Not one, and then they wonder why though they’ve had very good financial performance, why the stock has done so poorly over the years and why the shareholders lack trust and confidence in the management. Well the answer is I think, that public relations is not the same as communications. Communications is part of it but it’s the 10 percent of it, not the 90 percent. And General Electric’s concept, they’ve done some wonderful things they haven’t even bothered to communicate them. There’s nobody is worrying about the relationship between the right policy and the right communication.

Interviewer: When you hired those individuals, what things were you looking for?

Burger: Well, first of all I didn’t hire them. They were all partners. Most of them as I recall, shared ownership of the firm with me. They were really my partners. Jim Arnold, Ed Gottlieb, some of the others. Jim Lukaszewski, they were pretty senior people. And what I sought first of all was, I would say, openness and an integrity that they had credibility. They were trustworthy and that they had a lot of good judgment and experience and they were not know-it- alls or self-important. They could talk quietly from experience rather than boasting how good they were.

Interviewer: Is there anything else that you would want to talk about that we haven’t covered, anything that you might want to say to the new and future PR professionals?

Burger: Honesty. Everybody believes in honesty. Nobody believes in dishonesty, but I think that with public relations people, corporate people it’s overwhelmingly important. Because your credibility that is most important PR people tend to worry how they are going to get their messages noticed. Whereas the real problem is not getting them noticed, the real problem is why should anybody believe them. During World War II, the United States government followed a policy of absolute truth. They didn’t tell everything. There were lots of secrets. But what they did tell was the truth. For example, during the terrible, I guess it was 1944 the terrible war and the battles of Iwo Jima, I think there were 30,000 Americans killed or wounded in that terrible battle on that little island. They always told the truth. Exactly what was going on, and the result was that when the government asked people for sacrifices, people believed the government and believed they were really needed and gave them. People supported the government wholeheartedly not just because it was the right war, but because the government had high credibility. I think when an institution whether a corporation or the government tries to spin to make things look better than they really are, they really end up hurting themselves terribly. Because once they lose credibility as our government in many ways has lost credibility, it takes years and years and years before people will trust them again. So I think that’s a key thing. I think there is a second point I want to make a little differently. People who are seeing this interview whatever, whenever or whatever, are going to have children and grandchildren. And I think that my life was negatively shaped by the fact that I didn’t’ know anything about lots of careers because there was nobody in my family who was in those careers. I was limited to what I knew about life in the family circle, which was constricted as most families are constricted. When you see the enormous wealth of opportunities that are out there, the new fields, the new opportunities, you simply do not learn those within the family. And I think that this whole business of broadening in college, and in life and trying new things is such a key point to success because otherwise family after family -- you know and I know -- people follow the same general cultural pattern as their parents. We see it in our own family in, in many respects.

Interviewer: Well I want to thank you very, very much for spending some time with us. And letting us have such a wonderful view and a wonderful environment for this interview. Thank you very much.

Burger: Thank you too.