CHESTER BURGER

October 23, 2009: Ten Years Into the Future

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

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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Ladies and gentlemen, my friends, this is kind of strange. We're not even at 2000 yet, and already you’re asking me to tell you where we all may be ten years from now, on October 23, 2009. As the very first member of the College of Fellows, if I'm still around then, I hope you will invite me back that evening if my forecasts tonight prove accurate. Even tonight, it seems to me that the broad outlines of the future already look pretty clear. This is because our world ten years from now will necessarily be shaped by the culture, the science, the technology and the society that already surrounds us.

Let's talk first about communications. Some of our colleagues foresee a world deluged by communications. I think they're wrong. I foresee just the opposite, a world from which a large part of the communications clutter will have disappeared. This trend continues away from the mass media — away from lowest-common denominator television, away from mass magazines that appeal to broad public tastes, away from general interest Internet websites. These mass media will diminish, or perhaps even disappear, because even their most ardent fans don’t watch all their program, or read all their articles or visit all their pages on the Web. The parts that don't interest them, that they don’t watch or don’t read, may simultaneously, equally fascinate and absorb someone else.

     “...communications will become more personal during the next ten years.”

There are many different publics, and people have differing tastes. In the world of 2009, advertisers won't have to waste their money on messages that go unread, whether on the Web, on TV or in newspapers and magazines. By that time, the media, using computer technology and inexpensive massive memory will have tailored themselves to your unique tastes and separately to those of your neighbors. You won't get junk mail, you won't find unwanted sections of your morning newspaper on your doorstep each morning. I'm not talking html. I'm talking just plain common sense.

The media cleanup shouldn't surprise you. On your websites right now, you preselect the kinds of news you want to receive. Even within the category of financial news, you select the particular stocks you are interested in and no other. That same selectivity will accrue to all media long before 2009. If the media can't let you choose, and instead appeal to everyone, they just won't survive.

So communications will become more personal during the next ten years. It seems equally certain, however, that your personal choices will diminish in other areas of our society. I have in mind especially transportation. Ten years from now, communication will have substituted for much transportation. Right now, above all in Southern California, nothing surpasses your personal automobile for convenience.

But our cities are choking with congestion. More cars are on the road than there is space on the freeways and streets to drive them. In major cities, we have simply run out of space to accommodate automobile traffic.

So I foresee an opposite trend in transportation, away from the personal convenience of door-to-door, point-to-point, that your car now provides. You will use mass transportation more than you do now. Mass transportation will thrive, especially better airline service. Probably the awful hub-and-spoke service we see now will end. You've heard the story of the commuter who lay dying, and the priest came to administer the Last Rites and Sacraments of the Church. And he said, "Son, have you thought where you’re going?" The commuter replied, "Father, I don't care where I go as long as I don't have to change planes in Atlanta." But where on earth can you find enough space, close enough to where people live, to build another major airport? In New York, JFK Airport is already as large as all of Manhattan Island south of Central Park. More or larger airports aren't a realistic answer. They won’t happen, not even begin to happen, in the next ten years.

     “Increasingly, communication is replacing the physical action of getting you from here to there.”

We'll surely have better railroads, like the high-speed services about to begin in the Northeast. Better municipal transit systems too, as an alternative to using your own car. You can be certain that public mass transportation will improve. But it will take a lot longer than 10 years, probably more likely 50 years, to see significant change. Nevertheless, that's the direction in which society will be forced to move.

Of course, using your car less may not make much difference to you, because you will be traveling less to begin with. Business travel is starting to decline. This is due, of course, to teleconferencing, both by telephone and using internal corporate video networks. Increasingly, communication is replacing the physical action of getting you from here to there. It is simply becoming easier, more convenient, and a lot less expensive to communicate rather than to travel.

Many consequences are unpredictable. for example, when The New York Times first went on the Web, it published its full daily contents during the night, as soon as the paper went to press. But soon, it discovered, that wasn't enough. Within a few hours, its news had become stale and obsolete, while its competitors on the Web kept their news reports up to the minute, Now The Times does too. Once-a-day update has been changed to 24-hours-a-day update. What changes will that cause in their staffing, their management needs, and their operating budgets? Can you foresee what will happen in your firm and in your personal life, in a 24-hour day?

The Internet will drastically change our society in the next ten years. It will squeeze out middlemen fro every field: distributors, wholesalers, bankers, retailers -- almost anyone who comes between the manufacturer or owner and the final customer. If I can find on the Web the best terms for a mortgage loan, why will I need a local mortgage broker? I'll still want to try on my new suit in the store before I buy it, or test drive a new car. But I won’t need a department store or a franchised auto dealer to get the best price on the exact item I want. Carry the analogy into yow own situation and estimate the impact on your business and your life.

Many of you work to influence public policy for your employers or corporate and non-profit clients. You prepare your messages after careful research. You use focus groups. You fine-tune your message based on public opinion studies. You use computer systems to target your audience precisely. Yet, even if you are the very best, the most skilled at the are of persuasion, you are seeing only glacially-slow changes in public opinion. Because your opponents are using your same techniques, with equal effectiveness.

Public opinion is almost impossible to influence by communications these days. Only actual real-life events like wars, bombings, crazy gunmen running amok in schools, and the like, change public opinion. If you know someone who thinks she or he can do it, all I can say is, when that person’s IQ reaches 50, sell!

So, if you will find yourself increasingly powerless to influence public opinion, how will you be able justify your existence? What will you be doing?

You may not agree with me. You may tell me that you've successfully conducted product introductions and brand extension campaigns. You may tell me that public relations is more effective than I am suggesting. But on important social and cutural issues, consider, 60 years have passed since those pioneering researchers at Johns Hopkins first linked smoking to cancer. It took 60 years before public opinion crystallized against the tobacco companies. And the feminist movement didn’t begin with Betty Friedan, but was organized in 1848 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. Seven or eight generations later, women still fight to end discrimination and glass ceilings. How many years will it take to convince Congress to enact gun control, or to simplify the Internal Revenue tax code? Don’t hold your breath.

...all governments...will weaken and shrink by 2009....some government services will surely be privatized...”

Social change always moves imperceptibly, but today, we also see government policy at all levels increasingly paralyzed by deadlock. That is an inescapable result of the freest and most democratic society the world has ever known. Everyone has the communications ability resources to express her or his viewpoint in opposition to everyone else. This democratic deadlock is only one reason why I believe that all governments, both dictatorships and democracies like ours, will weaken and shrink by 2009. And the political process in a democratic society almost guarantees that governments — good or bad — can't provide public services as well as can private industry. Public officials need the votes of public employees to get reelected, and sometimes that employee self-interest conflicts with the broader public interest. Taxpayers in narrow self-interest often resist adequate funding for many essential public services. So some government services will surely be privatized by 2009, probably beginning with the FAA's antiquated network of airport control towers. The Postal Service won't be privatized, but email and the Internet will just keep fading it away, continuing the trend that caused it to lose Parcel Post business to UPS and Federal Express.

The most intriguing question about where well be in the next ten years is the quality of our leadership. Will strong leadership somehow emerge to unite squabbling public opinion and to harmonize some conflicting interests? In earlier eras, there was an Abraham Lincoln, a Franklin Roosevelt. No such potential leader has become visible today on our national scene. But history tells us that those leaders and many others did not emerge until war or crisis gave them the opportunity to lead. Where we'll find this leadership, and who it will be, is utterly unpredictable.

Looking ahead to October 23, 2010, I conclude by quoting exactly — verbatim — the stirring words of President George H. Bush as he uttered them in August 1990, and just as true today: "Now is no time to speculate or hypothecate, but rather a time for action, or at least, not a time to rule it out, though not necessarily a time to rule it in, either."

On that inspiring note, let’s move ahead into the new millennium.

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