Public Opinion Is Decisive
PRSA Foundation Monograph Series
"Monday, January 3, 2000"

Remarks by Chester Burger, Fellow, PRSA, to the PRSA Foundation Brunch, New York City, November 4, 1990

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
Carl R. Byoir
Moss Kendrix
Arthur W. Page
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My friends,

Only about nine years lie between us today and that historic Monday morning, January 3, in the year 2000, when you will go to work for the first time in the new millennium. In the afternoon of my own life, I can't very well be assured of being with you at that turning point, even though my home computer tells me that I will probably live about 19 more years, to about age 89. That would carry me to the year 2010.

Though I won't depend on it, most of you will be there. Most of you will still be working in public relations. You will still be grappling with the difficult problem of influencing public opinion favorably on behalf of your clients or employers. And you wonder, understandably enough, what your professional life will be like, and what you can do now to prepare for it.

     “...power flows to those groups and individuals that succeed in developing public support.”

In the year 2000, your role as a professional communicator will be vastly more important in our society than it is today. If you have or can develop the ability to communicate persuasively on behalf of the organization that employs you, your services certainly will be in greater demand than they are today. This is because our society, and much of the rest of the world, is becoming progressively more democratic, and therefore automatically, more contentious. Winston Churchill once said, "Where there is a great deal of free speech, there is always a certain amount of foolish speech." Your organization will need to contend with that. And besides foolish speech, every group speaks out for its own self-interest. This is true today, and it will be more true nine years from now. In such an environment, power flows to those groups and individuals that succeed in developing public support. This is very different from the past when power rested in the hands of those with lots of money and important political, social and business connections.

In the days when Republican and Democratic party bosses controlled and counted the votes, public opinion wasn't nearly so important. The party bosses ran things. In the days when money equaled power, the rich ran things. Once upon a time, it was more important to cultivate the "right" relationships with the few people and the party leaders who decided things. That isn't true any more. Ask the lobbying professionals in Washington who built successful and profitable careers on knowing and having access to the right people. Today, they'll tell you that their political and government contacts mean little unless they can persuade significant sections of public opinion back home to support the position they advocate.

Once corporate managements could run their factories as they saw fit, without interference from sanitary laws, pollution controls, child labor laws, limits on working hours and the like. Today, those days seem as far away as the time of ancient Egypt. With each passing year, public opinion demands higher standards of corporate behavior and higher standards of public behavior from our elected and appointed officials. The old era is gone — not the corruption of the past, but the ability of the corrupt to get away with it forever. Public opinion — surely influenced by the media as it simultaneously influences the media — exerts its force today. By the year 2000, this force will be overwhelming.

When we look ahead to the future to try to foresee the year 2000, we tend to see more — or less — of what already exists. We anticipate progression, or regression, but not radical and fundamental change. We foresee the path to the future as a straight line, whether up, down or across. But that isn't the way life unfolds. Life is discontinuities.

Remember Herman Kahn, the scholar and futurist (as he called himself), the president of the Hudson Institute, who in 1970 wrote a book called "2000." Just one year after his book was published, the Arab oil embargo changed the entire world economy, caused gas shortages all over our country, and began the flow of billions of so-called petro-dollars into the Arab countries. Yet, in Kahn's book, you will discover not a single reference to oil, the Arabs or the Middle East. In 1970, they weren't important. By 1971, they had become very important, as they are again in 1990. Kahn couldn't foresee drastic discontinuities.

And the academic community as well as government officials failed to foresee that Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika would drastically weaken communism not only in the USSR, but equally, in Eastern Europe. They did not see or believe that perestroika would introduce political democracy into the Soviet Union itself. They did not foresee the centrifugal force of nationalism that will tear apart not only the USSR, but many other nations as well, with consequences to us that are not yet foreseeable. They surely did not foresee that the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, as we Americans cheered.

it won't be terribly important where you work, whether in an urban metropolis or in a small town; whether in your office or in a room newly converted into an office in your home”

So I make predictions knowing the hazards. Change doesn't happen because someone plans it. It won't happen because someone gets a bright idea. Change happens because available technology invariably is put to work to do things that couldn't be done before. We must look at science and technology to see what will change your future and create the world in which you will work in the year 2000.

Today, universal communication, brought about by science and technology, is intensifying the force of democratic life. Didn't Radio Free Europe influence the beginning of political democracy in Eastern Europe? Didn't fax telephones influence the events in Beijing before hope was crushed in Tiananmen Square? Isn't the computer changing the education of young children across our country? Science and technology are causing this.

Today, science and technology signal clearly to us what your work will be like on that Monday morning of January 3, in the year 2000. I will mention three signals that I believe are significant.

First, it won't be terribly important where you work, whether in an urban metropolis or in a small town; whether in your office or in a room newly converted into an office in your home. Developments in the transmission of information will cause this to happen. Today, anything, anywhere can be transmitted inexpensively to anywhere else, whether words, or sounds, or pictures, or data or all in combination. Optical fibers — threads of glass — are now being unrolled like vast superhighways under the oceans from one continent to another, carrying torrents of messages, pictures, videos and data, at less and less cost. A new Trans-Pacific undersea cable will carry six hundred thousand phone calls at once, compared to the 48-call capacity of the first undersea cable that was placed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1956. Dozens of TV channels today come into your home by cable and satellite, compared to the lonely three that broadcast intermittently when I joined CBS Television News in March 1946.

If technology enables you to work as effectively — maybe more so — in your home, it will reduce corporate needs for high-rent space in downtown office buildings. If you work at home, you will reduce the overhead of your employer. The way to get ahead at the office will be not to go into the office and thus, keep down the overhead. As technology eliminates location as a significant factor, corporate overheads and the real estate markets will change fundamentally. Cities will change fundamentally.

Second, repetitious work will disappear. Not just repetitious work in the factory; 30 years ago, automation began to eliminate repetitious factory work. Now, repetitious work will disappear from the office, and from much professional work as well. Developments in the science and technology of memory are bringing this about. Tiny chips under development will store 64 million — not 64 thousand — but 64 million bytes of information on an area the size of your little fingernail. Processors will find the right answers and print them out at unimaginable speeds. The computer, for example, has already changed every profession from legal research to seismic exploration. It has changed the engineering profession. It is changing medical practice, particularly in diagnosis, where it can remember the significance of infinite combinations of symptoms that an ordinary physician could never remember.

The availability of unlimited memory is changing the public relations profession as it has already changed law and medicine. If you work in marketing support or product publicity campaigns, you won't spend time selecting media to match the demographic characteristics of your target audience. You'll tell your desktop computer whom you want to reach, and your computer memory will make the selection with a precision not now possible. The folks at Lotus in Cambridge, MA, already are selling inconceivably large masses of information encoded on optical disks. You buy not just the disk, but the keys to extracting the particular categories and specifications you wish, at so much per 5,000 items of information.

After you have approved your computer-selected media list, your computer memory will call up whatever information you wish to communicate to the media. It will be edited automatically to fit the special interest of each newspaper, magazine or broadcast outlet, according to general instructions you have previously placed in memory. Then it will send out your information, probably in computer-readable digital form. Postal service and bicycle messenger services are fading away as postal rates and messenger charges climb. By Monday morning, January 3 in the year 2000, you probably won't be able to recall when you last mailed a letter or relied on a bicycle messenger in the city.

Third, communications will be directed to more specific and sharply identified audiences. The mass media will have fragmented, fading away possibly to the point of extinction. Advances in computer memory and in the techniques of reproduction are making this happen. Today, copying machines are everywhere, and every amateur and would-be editor who has something to say to others uses desktop publishing. By the year 2000, two technologies — the computer and the copier — will have fused into one. The new Xerox Document Machine is leading the way.

Computers remember masses of data about who we are, what interests us, how we live and what we buy. This will make it easier for those who want to communicate with us. They won't waste their circulation or their money on getting their messages to people who aren't interested. Examine the 100 different current editions of Time magazine. Granted, today they differ only in advertising, not in editorial content. But for how long? Examine The American Baby, whose computers tell its printing presses what articles to include in your copy of this month's issue, depending on whether your baby was born this month, three months ago or six months ago. These examples point the way to what will be commonplace at the beginning of the millennium: the withering away of the general or mass media, and the development of highly specialized, highly targeted magazines, newspapers and broadcasting stations.

     “...those who are skilled at communicating...will surely have their work cut out for them in the years ahead.”

By the year 2000, optical computers will have intensified this trend beyond what is now possible for us to foresee. Photons instead of electrons will be widely used, not only for the transmission of information but for processing it in computers. The AT&T Bell Laboratories have invented a way to manufacture and place two million lasers on a chip the size of your fingernail. How can we foretell the impact of light waves instead of electricity?

The consequences of scientific development can rarely be foreseen. For example, the transistor, surely the most important invention of the 20th century, was initially seen simply as something that would eliminate vacuum tubes from radios and telephone switching equipment. That's the way The New York Times first reported it. Who could have foreseen that the transistor would first make practical the computer, and that in turn, the computer would bring about space travel?

It is science and technology that have encouraged the development of democracy, ever since the Industrial Revolution. Science and technology today are strengthening our ability to communicate. For this reason, science and technology offer positive hope of strengthening democracy. Democracy is a process, not a solution. It doesn't solve the problems of society. It is superior to all forms of dictatorship primarily because it provides an orderly process for people to express their views openly, and then hope their elected officials will be able to reach a compromise in an effort to find the best answers to their problems.

In our own country today, it is fair to say that democracy has reached the highest level yet known in any modern society. Everyone speaks out. Everyone is listened to. Everyone who chooses to speak out influences decisions. And the result all too often is a deadlock. No wonder Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others."

Look at the abortion issue. The conflict can be summed up in the catchphrases "pro-life" and "pro-choice." This issue has divided our country with an intensity perhaps not seen since the days when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated the issue of slavery on political, moral, economic and religious grounds. That issue tore apart the nation. But not all the issues dividing our nation are as big or perhaps as important.

To cite one example that confronts us today, thousands of the mentally ill are living homeless in the streets. Some people of goodwill say that the government should have no right to take them off the streets and place them in hospitals or mental institutions for treatment, because they threaten no one but themselves. Others say that simple humanity and their desperate need for help should require their removal to places of treatment, whether or not they wish it. The issue is deadlocked. Public opinion has not yet crystallized.

Let me cite a minor conflict involving the telephone companies, in which I was involved for 33 years of my life and, therefore, have a particular interest. The state of Pennsylvania has prohibited a new telephone service that automatically shows the number or name of the person who is phoning you the instant your phone begins ringing. Some civil liberties advocates say this violates the privacy of the person calling you. So Pennsylvanians are not permitted to buy this service. But across the river in New Jersey, the Public Utilities Commission has approved it, on the basis that you have just as much right to know who is phoning you as to know who is ringing your doorbell before you open the door. As a result, in New Jersey, obscene and threatening phone calls have decreased sharply. The right of the caller's privacy conflicts with your right to identify who is calling you. In many states, the public utilities commissions are divided over this issue.

I cite these as representative of the great number of issues, large and small, facing our country that are unresolved because public opinion either is too sharply divided or as yet unformed. How these and other issues are finally resolved will affect all of corporate and organizational America.

One common factor encompasses all these difficult problems: ultimately, they will be decided by public opinion. Not by some president's or dictator's opinion, but by public opinion. As democracy has flourished, both in our country and in the world, the opinions of ordinary people have become decisive. Yet many folks don't believe their opinions are important. A majority of eligible citizens often don't even bother to vote because they've lost faith that their vote makes any difference on important issues.

People have become cynical and distrustful that their leaders can or will resolve contentious issues. Senator Robert Dole (R-KS) once said in a moment of frustration that Congress in one session had managed to do hardly more than proclaim National Peach Month. In addition to a widespread sense of futility, millions of people see that leaders in every part of our society lie regularly — business leaders, labor union leaders, religious personalities, trade association officials, elected officials and so-called community leaders. The credibility problem of any communicator is immense.

So it seems inescapable that those who are skilled at communicating — those who know how to identify the right channels of communication to reach those who are important to them; those who use research to identify and understand the underlying currents of public opinion; those who know how to present their case most persuasively and credibly — will surely have their work cut out for them in the years ahead.

I believe that the public relations professional who begins work that morning of January 3 in the year 2000 will be vastly more important than she or he is now. This is because public relations professionals will be more skilled at influencing public opinion than we are today, and because public opinion will be even more decisive in influencing corporate and public policy than it is today.

We all love to talk about the blessings of democracy. And we are right in doing so. The opposite of a democratic society is one in which someone, whether a king, or a dictator, or a despot or a religious official who believes he is acting on behalf of the Deity, orders us and compels us to do things we might not wish to do. Whether the king, or dictator, or despot or religious official is right or wrong, we have no voice in the matter.

Public opinion develops, changes and crystallizes very slowly. In the case of the communists, it took 70 years for the Soviet people to say, "Enough'" For the bungling King Louis XVI, the French Revolution ignited in the 15th year of his reign. Martin Luther meditated for 12 years before he nailed his Theses to the church door at Wittenberg and began the Reformation. Public opinion very rarely changes overnight.

There was a wise public relations professional who understood this. He was the very first corporate public relations officer, incidentally — Arthur W. Page, vice president of AT&T, who in his retirement years, was asked by Walter Straley, one of his successors, "How do we keep out of trouble with our critics in government?" Mr. Page replied:

"A business of our size will always have critics in and out of government. We should expect to defend ourselves from time to time, as best we can. But if we want our enterprise to live for a very long time, we must decide what kind of changes we will need to make in our business over coming years. Then if our future depends, as surely it will, on permission and approval of government bodies, we must ourselves devise the laws and regulations we believe to be in the public interest with respect to our enterprise. We must place them before government people and public leaders, and make clear why those laws or modifications are in the public interest. And listen to this: we should let the strength of our ideas lobby for us."

"This is the slow way to do it. But it is the way to keep our system alive. Government people are not our enemies. They are as interested in what is best for the public as we are. When we recommend laws, they are naturally suspicious. But if we devise and present good ideas and sound specifics, a few people will take them up, or perhaps pieces of them, and in time, politicians will even use our ideas to become re-elected."

"And after five years, or 10 years or even 20 years, some of what we want to happen, if not most of what we want to happen, will happen. We must do our most important planning before the public knows what it wants. By the time it makes up its mind, we are too late."

Arthur W. Page's message has a special meaning for us today. Nine years from now, you will be going to work on Monday morning, January 3, 2000. Today is the day public relations professionals should begin planning to deal with the problems of public opinion that surely will determine the survival of each of our organizations.

Today — November 4, 1990 — isn't one day too late to begin.

* * *

October 23, 2009
Public Relations Society of America
College of Fellows 10th Anniversary Dinner
Costa Mesa, California, October 23, 1999