Lifetime Experiences in Dealing with Public Opinion and Public Relations Management


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

Edward L. Bernays
Chester Burger
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Today we heard from the Hebrew Bible in the Book of Jeremiah the story where Jeremiah tells us how God spoke to him directly, not in a dream. Jeremiah was probably about 24 years old at the time. God appoints Jeremiah a prophet to preach righteousness to the people. Jeremiah replies to God, "Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." The Lord answers Jeremiah, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy.' For you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you." "Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, 'Now I have put my words in your mouth…"' [Jeremiah, ch. 1, v. 4-9]

This story holds special interest to us, because first, it tells us that God sometimes communicates directly with people, as the Lord did with Jeremiah. And second, it tells us that God sometimes communicates with us indirectly through people like Jeremiah.

Forty-eight years of my life were spent in the communications field, mostly figuring out how to persuade people to change their minds about one subject or another. So I'm going to talk about how God communicates with us, how we communicate with each other, and how the Bible can teach us something about communicating, something that could affect the way we live.


And the first lesson about communicating — to persuade — is the importance of faith. Not "facts" but faith. In Matthew, we read that Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you." Jesus didn't talk about shovels or bulldozers to move mountains but about faith. [Matthew, c. 17, v. 20]

I suppose that everyone considers herself or himself to be something of a good communicator. But you can very easily separate the amateurs from the professionals, the sheep from the goats. Just wait until someone tells you that to persuade people, you simply need to give them "the facts." More often, it's not "facts" but faith that's required to change people's minds. Faith in the source of the message. If we have faith — trust — in the source, we believe and we accept.

Facts Alone Are Not Enough

In my experience as a professional communicator, I can recall very few (if any) cases where people changed their minds because "the facts" were presented to them. Years ago, the American Cancer Society recognized that one word from your physician would be more apt to persuade you to stop smoking now that all the newspaper and magazine articles, public service ads, or warning messages from the Surgeon General printed on the side of the cigarette packs. So the Cancer Society shifted its persuasion away from the general public and to physicians. They urged doctors to advise patients to stop smoking for the sake of your health. You were more likely to trust your doctor than any printed message.

Professional communicators understand the need for a trustworthy source. That's why, for example, so many companies publish their ads in the National Geographic rather than in, say, the National Enquirer. Or why so many public relations people try to persuade The New York Times to cover their news stories. Faith and trust in the source means everything. The National Geographic and The Times are trusted — justifiably.

And what is our faith that there is a God but our trust? No "facts" exist that prove to you or to me that there is a God who created us and who loves us. Yet, I believe it. When I look at the world around me, I believe that only God could have created our world, our universe, our cosmos. When I pray to God and wonder if the Lord hears what is in my heart, my life experience has given me faith that sooner or later, in God's way — not mine — my prayers will be answered. Sometimes, I don't recognize God's response when it comes. The Lord doesn't speak to me as God spoke so clearly to Jeremiah. But some time later, often much later, I recognize that things in my life have changed, perhaps even that I have changed in ways I could hardly have foreseen. My recognition comes from faith in God, not "facts."

When you spend (as I did) your entire working life trying to communicate effectively and to persuade, you get to know what works and what doesn't. Jesus used his own special style to communicate. He usually made his point through a parable — telling a story in a way that people could understand. Jesus used parables and analogies to bridge the gap between what his audience already accepted, and what he was trying to persuade them to accept. A parable helps us to understand the broader principle illustrated by the story.

Stories Help Make the Point

Remember the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep? In Jesus' time, the land of the Israelites was a primitive agricultural economy. People worked as farmers and shepherds and vintners in all the little villages. So when Jesus wanted to preach about the worth of every human being, even the smallest child, he illustrated his point by talking about a shepherd and a lost sheep. It was a story everyone could identify with in those days.

"If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost." [Matthew, ch. 18, v. 12-14] If Christ had simply said, "Every child is important to God," would we remember it so vividly?

Jesus used parables to bridge the gap between what his audience already accepted, and what he was trying to persuade them to accept.

Then remember the story in Matthew's Gospel of how Jesus handled things when he was accused — accurately too! — of hanging around with no-good folks like tax collectors and sinners. He answered, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" [Matthew, ch. 5, v. 43-47]

It's that reference to the hated tax collectors that drives home the point. With that reference, Jesus made his point in a memorable way: even those lowest of the low, the tax collectors, deserve to be loved as human beings. We need to remember that lesson with September 15th coming up in a couple of weeks on the IRS tax calendar.

Of course, Jesus wasn't always simple and clear. Not all those who heard him understood him, especially when he spoke in parables. Sometimes he was deliberately obscure. On one occasion, his puzzled disciples asked him, "Why do you speak to these people in parables?"
He answered them this way: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen, nor do they understand. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you hear, but did not hear it." [Matthew, c. 12, v. 10-17]

Seek a receptive audience

This is a lesson that public figures of our day recognize immediately: Don't waste you breath on those who don't want to listen. Direct your messages primarily to those who are most likely to be receptive.

And he gave us another lesson in communicating: being believed is much more difficult to accomplish than getting attention. Practice what you preach; your actions do indeed speak louder than your words. Don't be a phony. Don't say things that you don't really believe. Instead, say what you really believe in your heart to be true.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke of those who prayed to God not because they wanted their prayers to be heard, but because they wanted people to see them praying. He said, "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly, I tell you they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not be like [the Gentiles], for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." [Matthew, ch. 6, v. 5-8]

Don't say things that you don't really believe. Instead, say what you really believe in your heart to be true.

When we communicate today, too often our highest priority is: don't offend anyone at all by anything we say. Jesus didn't believe that. Jesus taught us that telling the truth is more important than winning a popularity contest in public opinion. Telling the whole truth instead of half-truths. He stood at the foot of the mountain and told his newly-appointed disciples, "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for surely your reward is in heaven... Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets." [Luke ch. 6 v. 22-23]

Think of the impact of Jesus' ministry — only three years in its entire duration from the beginning at the wedding in Canaan to the ending on the Cross — three years that rocked the Roman Empire, challenged the religious structure of the Israelites, and changed the world. Some very powerful message must have been communicated by the incarnate Jesus. Is there a preacher — a televangelist — even a President or a King or a Prime Minister who can today make a comparable impact, even with all the marvelous electronic communications technology at her or his disposal?

After Jesus was gone, there was a problem of communicating his message to the generations that followed. Paul was the first to attempt this. His style was simple, direct, personal. We see this in all of his letters. No obscure parables for him. In Paul's first letter to the struggling little Christian community at Corinth in Greece, he demonstrated the first rule of good communication: it must be unmistakably clear if it is to be understood. Talk — if you prefer — in "tongues" — or in high-flown words, but don't expect folks to understand you. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Corinthians: "And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves: if in a tongue, you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air..." [I Corinthians, c. 14, v. 8-9, RSV].

Listen for God's word. That is the message of the Scriptures to consider and remember and faithfully apply the moral values by which we live, so that when our time comes, we may say, as Paul wrote to Timothy, "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith." [2 Timothy, ch. 4, v. 7]

That's why we come to Church — to remind ourselves to be true to our best instincts — to be able to say, "Yes I have kept the faith."

Chester Burger spent most of his 48-year working career in the communications field. He joined the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1941 as a Page Boy, and left in 1955 as National Manager of CBS Television News. During World War II, he served with the U.S. Army Air Force. After entering the public relations field, he became president of Communications Counselors. During the years of the civil rights campaigns, Burger served as an officer and member of the Board of Trustees of the National Urban League. The United Negro College Fund awarded him its Distinguished Service Citation. He was a member of the Board of Directors of Union Theological Seminary, is an ordained Elder of Central Presbyterian Church in New York and was President of its Board of Trustees.