YORK, N.Y. A handful of telephone numbers in the United States
end in -0000. One belongs to Chet Burger, a national television
news pioneer with a livelihood as unusual as his number. From a
small suite of 19th floor offices at 275 Madison Ave., in the midst
of New York City's corporate image makers and power brokers, the
soft-spoken Burger advises some of the nation's largest, most influential
mission? Helping their executive officers to communicate better
with their customers and the news media.
talking to these officers he also talks to the customers, whose
dollars keep them in business.
numbers hundreds of organizations including public relations
firms and associations among his clients. The author of five
books on executive life, his name is well known in corporate suites
around the country.
example, Burger helped to change the way irate Ohio Bell customers
are treated when they complain about service.
customer-contact managers, who were trained by Burger, later said
they used his advice in face-to-face situations with customers,"
said Harold W. Burlingame, assistant vice president of public relations.
if a customer has a complaint about a bill or installation date,
our managers explain openly and in terms the customer can understand.
As a result, a customer can get the answers he or she wants about
the services we provide."
me give you an example," Burger says, using his favorite expression
to make a point about the need of American business to tell the
truth in terms the public can understand.
the events and information surrounding Three Mile Island were mishandled.
The public was given dishonest information and information it couldn't
and environmental protection are essential in our society,
not marginal. The public must have the right to a voice
in such issues, but also be willing to pay the price."
public relations official for an involved company joked when he
gave a private number to the media and then took the phone off the
hook. With that kind of nonsense, how can you expect anyone to believe
the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and the utility in question
had been forthright, you wouldn't have the hysteria present today."
craggy-faced, 59-year-old Burger is president of Chester Burger
& Co. Inc., a one-of-a-kind management consulting firm.
hadn't planned on a business career or for that matter, any
other career. In 1940, he worked as an office boy at a Wall Street
attended college at night and "never got a thing out of it."
Later, however, he took a job at CBS-TV where his interest in business
and communication began.
the early days of TV when I was a reporter, I met an AT&T public
relations man who asked a lot of questions about what we were doing.
And I asked him a lot of questions about his business. If he didn't
have an answer then and there, he'd get it for me."
would executives of large, profitable corporations, with public
relations departments of their own, need a Chet Burger to advise
them how to talk to the public and the news media?
because my four partners and I have a wide range of experience with
the many issues ecology, government regulation, labor, equal
employment business must face today," Burger said. "Public
relations people at most companies simply don't have this background
in responding to such a variety of issues.
is not to say there never is anyone employed by our clients who
hasn't been there, so to speak. And when I find such a person, I
get to know him and take advantage of his expertise."
But can't a fat-salaried, high-powered executive talk intelligently
about his own business?
executives are highly trained in everything but public relations
and public opinion," Burger said. "They are hard workers
but don't know how to talk. People don't understand their language
things like equity and rate of return.
they're human, like everyone else. They don't like to be criticized.
And there is a widespread feeling among businessmen that the press
is out to get them."
Burger is an unusually fine corporate and personal consultant,"
said Joseph D. Reed, Ohio Bell vice president. "He has a singular
talent for bringing a competent, straightforward point of view to
that have done business with Burger for a long time include Ohio
Bell, and its parent firm, American Telephone & Telegraph Co.;
Babcock & Wilcox Co. (New Orleans); Benton & Bowles Inc.
(New York City); Northwest Bancorp (Minneapolis); Occidental Petroleum
Corp. (Los Angeles); Johns-Manville Corp. (Denver); the American
Bankers Association (Washington, D.C.) and McDonald's Corp. (Oak
also serves as a consultant to Carr Liggett Inc., one of Cleveland's
largest public relations and advertising firms.
has become the key business concern of high-level executives these
days," Burger said. "It is incredibly difficult and complex
to run a major company. It's not that businesses don't want to be
responsive to public demand. They do and always have been.
however, their future, their very survival, depends on questions
of public policy and decisions of regulatory bodies, not just what
their customers and employees think or want."
ago, he said, big companies made profits, provided jobs, produced
goods and services and negotiated with labor unions. Today, their
executives, apologize for profits, are criticized for giving out
fewer jobs, provide goods and services the public complains are
overpriced, negotiate not only with labor unions but with consumer,
environmental and equal rights groups, and wonder what to do about
hostile reporters and bureaucrats.
antagonists all, Burger said.
first brought Chet to Cleveland back in 1974 to work with us on
multiple issues," said Ohio Bell's Reed. "At the time,
every company policy was being attacked or questioned by different
groups. I thought our ability to engage in public dialog was quite
very simply, gets business leadership to understand the responsibility
of speaking out on issues and speaking out with candor."
I'm in favor of environmental protection," Burger said. "Consumer
and environmental protection are essential in our society, not marginal.
The public must have the right to a voice in such issues, but also
be willing to pay the price."
thinks that Watergate and Vietnam, in which "the public discovered
it was being lied to, not only by the president and government officials
but by the military," made people distrustful of all institutions,
thought President Nixon was a friend of business. Well, he wasn't.
He sent a lawyer to call around on companies, shaking them down
for thousands of dollars under threat of regulatory harassment.
was more anti-business than I was back in college. (He was graduated
from Brooklyn College in 1946.) Business was the villain. Our family
lost its home during the Depression. And my professors said business
was no good."
Burger sees it, corporate executives still are victims of widespread
anti-business sentiments. But he, personally, has changed.
am convinced successful businesses have a good story to tell, are
well-managed and should not be ashamed of making a profit. That's
what I try to get across in my training sessions."
many executives he counsels, Burger is a workaholic. His corner
office is strictly a workplace. There is no plush carpeting, executive-type
furniture or soft lighting.
typical Chet Burger workday starts with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting.
Occasionally, the bulk of the day may be absorbed by a flight to
California for a luncheon meeting with a corporate executive and
immediate return home to New York.
averages three days of travel each week to meet with clients, and
he says he's never met a martini-at lunch executive. Very often
his own lunch, during business trips, will be at McDonald's, one
of the more consumer-oriented companies for which he is a consultant.
wears dark-framed glasses and conservative suits, always set off
by one of his 130 pairs of distinctive cuff links. The collection
meticulously organized in a bureau drawer at his home near
Lincoln Center includes sets from the more than 50 countries
he has visited, the companies he counsels and civic organizations
pair he points out with special pride is an IWY (International Women's
Year) design his wife Elisabeth, had made for him.
for his deep commitment to equal employment opportunity, Burger
served nine years on the board of trustees of the National Urban
Woods, the firm's vice president, a black woman, has been with him
since she was hired as a secretary in 1972.
training often takes the form of videotaping company executives
being questioned by a "reporter" and then critiquing the
tapes with the interview subject.
questioning, which Burger insists be as tough and realistic as possible,
sometimes turns into a grilling. As a result, those who have been
through it are said to have been "Burgerized."
reporter, usually an ex-newsman or actor, is primed to ask hard
questions on everything from profits to equal employment practices.
Sometimes, the executives lose their tempers, grow defensive or
end up totally flustered. The good things they hoped to say about
their company never surface.
at a corner table in a dimly lit restaurant, Burger, his reporter
and a public relations representative of the client company plan
details of the next day's training. Possible questions the reporter
might use are discussed, and any areas of personal sensitivity are
pointed out by the company man.
this guy's got a real short fuse, so be ready if you cut him off
without giving him a chance to answer; he might explode," the
PR man warns.
hot TV lights streaming down, Burger's reporter leans forward in
his chair, stares, unsmiling, into the face of the middle-aged executive,
and asks: Tell me, have you ever reported directly to a woman?"
no. No, I haven't," comes the hesitant reply.
do you think you'd handle it, if one bright morning, you discover
your new boss is a female?" the reporter continues, boring
I guess, that is, if she was qualified, I guess it would be all
right, but not really your cup of tea, isn't that so?"
no, not at all..."
this is going on, Burger is seated off to-the side, out of camera
range, his eyes fixed on the executive, a small note pad in hand...
dealing more and more as a consultant on the issue of equal employment,"
Burger said. "Companies are defensive on the question of women
and minorities in management, especially upper management. Most
are sensitive to their relatively small numbers prior to the Civil
Rights Act, although this only reflected the mores of America at
want to obey the law. Some may say, 'We don't like it, but we'll
obey it.' Some think promoting minorities and women will lower standards.
And there's a lot of resentment from white males. So women and minorities
have to perform, or else. And most are damned good in their jobs."
does Burger suggest companies say about equal employment?
not tell the truth? Be absolutely honest, but say it in a positive
way. Tell how many women and minorities are being moved up the ladder
and how this is being accomplished. That's the story to tell."
was on his feet, talking as he paced back and forth, every move
studied by the five upper-management types seated in a semicircle
in the company's closed-circuit TV studio.
then the reporter asks the executive if it was true his company
made a bonanza in profits last year," he said, suddenly
stopping. "And you know what the executive answered? He said,
'No, our profits weren't a bonanza.'
you can guess the rest. The next day the paper came out and the
story was headlined, 'Profits no bonanza, says oil company executive.'
"The man's mistake was repeating the reporter's word, 'bonanza.'
That's a no-no..."
the occasional unpleasantness of being "Burgerized," his
training has produced a bevy of articulate disciples.
I offer is the opportunity to talk with someone outside the
company on questions of corporate policy and public opinion,"
I don't develop images. There's no such thing as image. There's
only reality. You can't put over an image without a reality to support
stand for honesty in communication is supported by his conviction
that credibility is the key issue facing America today.
the problem of the Carter administration," he said. "You've
got to work with people. You must have their respect. I believe
the White House is having problems because the current administration
has failed to do this."
Chet advises, in short, is, if you believe in what you're doing,
say it. And, if you can't say it, then you better reexamine what
you're doing, and fast," Reed said.
home, in a stately old apartment building with a 26-foot-high living
room ceiling, Burger's life-style seems as no-nonsense as his approach
to business. A book-lined study, complete with desks for himself
and his wife, the former Lady Owen, is adjacent to the huge, white-walled
living room with bright, northern exposure.
Burger, whose late husband, Sir (Arthur) David K. Owen, was assistant
secretary general of the United Nations, has two adult sons. Burger,
married twice before, has three children.
a pleasant, family dinner on a Sunday in April, there was piano
playing, a just-starting-to-talk grandchild's wish to have dessert
before finishing his vegetables, and light-to-serious conversation.
The subjects ranged from a cordial debate on the New York transit
workers strike then in progress, to travels in Bucharest (where
Elisabeth was an IWY conference officer), Japan, Russia and dog
sledding in the Arctic, to women in the labor movement.
avid walker, Burger delights in strolling in his picturesque neighborhood
and beyond. Sometimes he walks the two-plus miles to his office
in the morning, and back again in the evening.
who worked at CBS before Walter Cronkite came along, was responsible
for developing national news coverage at the television network.
He joined CBS-TV in 1946 and was its first national news manager
in 1953 when the largest news gathering operation in television
history got under way.
left CBS in 1954 to become president of Communications Counselors
Inc., the public relations firm of Interpublic Inc. Later he became
president of a New York City job placement firm and started his
present firm in 1964.
and newspeople have changed since those early days," he says.
"Today's re-porters especially on the print side
are more aggressive and unpredictable. I always tell executives
we counsel to stay away from one-upmanship with reporters during
"There is no way you can win. The media always has the last
tell the truth. And, if that doesn't sound like simple, common sense,
then there isn't a lot of it around."