His One-of-a-Kind Consulting Firm is Bringing Business and Consumers Closer Together

by Janice Carter
The Cleveland Plain Dealer Magazine
Sunday, August 24, 1980

Chester Burger Remembered :: VIDEO: Chester Burger Memorial, May 7, 2011 :: VIDEO: Chet Burger discusses the earliest days of TV news [New York University, March 2, 2010] :: Truth to Power: A tribute to PR pioneer and critic, Chet Burger :: New York Civic Leader Earns Highest Air Force Public Service Award :: About Chester Burger :: Career Overview :: USAF General, Chief of Staff Norton A. Schwartz Salutes Chet Burger :: Bringing Business and Consumers Closer Together :: Abraham Lincoln: Master Persuader :: How To Meet The Press :: Jesus, the Communicator :: Sooner Than You Think: Technology Pulling the World Together :: Public Opinion Is Decisive :: October 23, 2009: Ten Years Into the Future :: 1999 Interview for Jon J. Metzler's book on Management Consulting :: Leading Change :: Chet Burger celebrates his 81st birthday :: Lifetime Experiences in Dealing with Public Opinion and Public Relations Management

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NEW 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 businesses.

His mission? Helping their executive officers to communicate better with their customers and the news media.

By talking to these officers he also talks to the customers, whose dollars keep them in business.

Burger 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.

For example, Burger helped to change the way irate Ohio Bell customers are treated when they complain about service.

"Our 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.

"Now 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."

"Let 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.

"All the events and information surrounding Three Mile Island were mishandled. The public was given dishonest information and information it couldn't understand.

"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."

"One 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 you?

"If the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and the utility in question had been forthright, you wouldn't have the hysteria present today."

The craggy-faced, 59-year-old Burger is president of Chester Burger & Co. Inc., a one-of-a-kind management consulting firm.

Burger 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 law firm.

He 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.

"In 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."

Why 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?

"Mainly 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.

"This 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?

"Corporate 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.

"And 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."

"Chet 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 business discussions."

Firms 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 Brook, Ill.)

He also serves as a consultant to Carr Liggett Inc., one of Cleveland's largest public relations and advertising firms.

"Survival 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.

"Now, 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."

Years 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.

Tough antagonists all, Burger said.

"We 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 low.

"Chet, very simply, gets business leadership to understand the responsibility of speaking out on issues and speaking out with candor."

"Obviously, 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."

Burger 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, including business.

"People 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.

"Nobody 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."

As Burger sees it, corporate executives still are victims of widespread anti-business sentiments. But he, personally, has changed.

"I 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."

Like 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.

A 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.

He 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.

He 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 he serves.

One pair he points out with special pride is an IWY (International Women's Year) design his wife Elisabeth, had made for him.

Known for his deep commitment to equal employment opportunity, Burger served nine years on the board of trustees of the National Urban League.

Carolyn Woods, the firm's vice president, a black woman, has been with him since she was hired as a secretary in 1972.

Burger's training often takes the form of videotaping company executives being questioned by a "reporter" and then critiquing the tapes with the interview subject.

The 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."

Burger's 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.

Seated 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.

"Now 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.

With 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?"

"Why, no. No, I haven't," comes the hesitant reply.

"How do you think you'd handle it, if one bright morning, you discover your new boss is a female?" the reporter continues, boring in.

"Well, I guess, that is, if she was qualified, I guess it would be all right."

"All right, but not really your cup of tea, isn't that so?"

"Why no, not at all..."

As 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...

"I'm 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 the time.

"Businessmen 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."

What does Burger suggest companies say about equal employment?

"Why 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."

Burger 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.

"…and 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.'

"Well, 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..."

Despite the occasional unpleasantness of being "Burgerized," his training has produced a bevy of articulate disciples.

"What I offer is the opportunity — to talk with someone outside the company on questions of corporate policy and public opinion," he said.

"But 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 it."

Burger's stand for honesty in communication is supported by his conviction that credibility is the key issue facing America today.

"That's 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."

"What 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.

At 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.

Elisabeth 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.

At 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.

An 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.

Burger, 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.

He 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.

"News 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 interviews.
"There is no way you can win. The media always has the last word.

"You tell the truth. And, if that doesn't sound like simple, common sense, then there isn't a lot of it around."