Truth to Power: A tribute to PR pioneer and critic, Chet Burger

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Chester (Chet) Burger, 2009
Guest post by Ira Basen

I think the hardest thing for anybody in life, certainly anybody in public relations or among management consultants, is to tell truth to power.”Chet Burger (2008)

Chet Burger spent half a century in public relations speaking truth to power. And his death from cancer last March at the age of 90, represented not just the passing of a true PR pioneer, but the silencing of an important voice in the debate over where the industry’s future lies.

I met Chet Burger in the spring of 2006. I was in New York City doing interviews for my CBC Radio series, Spin Cycles. We spent a long afternoon in his spacious apartment on the Upper West Side he shared with his wife, Elisabeth. Chet was generous with his time, his stories, his personal archives, and ultimately—after my series was broadcast—his praise.

Journalism pioneer

As a journalist, I was particularly fascinated by Chet’s early career in television. He joined CBS right after World War II, at a time when the TV division consisted of 22 people and no serious journalist would ever consider leaving radio for TV.

In 1946, Chet became the USA’s first TV news reporter, except no one really knew how to describe what he did. Here was a guy telling news stories using film, still pictures, maps, graphs and sometimes even animation. Radio reporters weren’t convinced that what he was doing was actually reporting. So Chet Burger’s job title became “news visualiser” and he helped launch a revolution in journalistic story-telling.

He eventually became the national manager of TV news, and stayed at CBS until he was fired in1955. He drifted into public relations with all the usual misgivings that many journalists bring when they cross over to the “dark side.” But Chet brought with him an understanding of television’s enormous potential that few people at the time shared.

One company that did recognize TV’s power was the telephone giant AT&T. Chet wrote a manual for the company, called Telephone News on Television. It was about how AT&T could use the new medium to sell its telephone services. It was the beginning of a relationship with AT&T that would last 33 years.

PR pioneer

In 1963, he founded Chester Burger and Company in New York City. The company’s mandate was “communications management consulting.” He would offer advice and ongoing counsel, but he would not be involved in the actual implementation of the strategies he recommended.

In this career path Chet was following in the footsteps of the PR man he most admired, Ivy Lee. Lee had established the first independent PR shop in New York at the turn of the 20th century. Lee liked to describe himself as a “physician to corporate bodies,” and that was the role that Chet Burger assumed for himself beginning in the 1960s, which continued until his death.

Like Ivy Lee, Chet Burger believed that the key to successful public relations was not talk, but action. He was fond of quoting Arthur Page’s maxim that an organization’s reputation was 90 per cent based on what it did, and 10 per cent on what it said.

And the failure to understand this, i.e., the emphasis on talk, not action, lay at the heart of Chet Burger’s critique of modern public relations.

PR critic

As one of only five PR “pioneers” in the Museum of Public Relations, and the recipient of every imaginable honour, I expected Chet Burger to be a cheerleader for the industry that he had been his home for more than 50 years. Instead, I found a man troubled by what PR had become and the direction it was moving in.

I interviewed dozens of PR practitioners for my Spin Cycles radio series. I asked those practitioners for their thoughts about the word “spin” and how it related to public relations. Almost all of them told me that spin—placing self-interest above the truth—had no place in public relations. Chet Burger’s lament was that modern PR had become all about spin.

“The tradition that Ivy Lee started is completely or largely lost today,” he told me. “Today, everything is put in terms of not what the truth is, and here’s what we are honestly going to tell you, but rather how can we spin it to make ourselves look better than we really are.”

The public interest

Chet Burger was a PR purist.

He did not believe that public relations was about generating publicity. And he most definitely did not see it as a marketing function.

Chet believed that the primary job of the PR person was to reconcile the public’s interest with the interests of the organization he or she represented. This is not a radical definition of PR. The Canadian Public Relations Society, for example, believes the purpose of PR is “…to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.”

The problem, according to Chet Burger, was that public relations had forgotten about the public interest. “The sad thing to me,” he told an interviewer in 2008, “is that public relations people think of themselves primarily as communicators and they are very skilled at it. They know how to communicate a message.”

What gets lost in the compulsion to spin messages to win public support is any consideration of whether the organization actually deserves the support of the public. “Public relations is not the same as communications,” Chet argued. “Communications is part of it, but it’s the 10 per cent of it, not the 90 per cent…. There’s nobody worrying about the relationship between the right policy and the right communication.”

The right policy mattered to Chet Burger, because he had a very large social conscience. He was a lifetime crusader for civil rights, and worked hard to bring African-Americans into PR.

In a speech to a PR group in 1983, Chet described public relations “as one of the last almost-lily-white professions in America,” and warned that unless that changed, employers would no longer accept the claim that PR could effectively communicate to their employees or the larger community.

It was just one example of Chet Burger speaking truth to power. He cared deeply about public relations and believed it could be a force for progress and social good. But that could only happen if it abandoned its contemporary obsession with spin, hype, messaging and the other dark arts of strategic communications.

This PR pioneer was also one of PR’s most cogent critics. He was the conscience of his industry.

His voice will be hard to replace.

Photo of Chester (Chet) Burger (2009) courtesy of PRMuseum.com.

*  *  *

After reading Toni Muzi Falconi’s recent interview with Shelley Spector about the Museum of Public Relations, Ira Basen contacted PR Conversations and offered to write a personal tribute to Chet Burger, based on his in-person 2006 interview and other candid conversations about the PR industry.

Besides the award-winning Spin Cycles: spin, the spinners and the spun (July 2007), Ira Basen’s CBC Radio documentaries include News 2.0: The Future of News in an Age of Social Media (October 2009) and, most recently, Engineering Search: the story of the alorithm that changed the world (December 2010). Basen was interviewed about Engineering Search on PR Conversations, but his first appearance on this blog was the publication of his 2007 CPRS Toronto AGM speech, Ira Basen addresses challenges facing both public relations and media representatives.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Ira,

    The meeting of two intelligent and savy minds like Chet and yourself always produces superior outcomes.

    It is interesting that you say :

    I expected Chet Burger to be a cheerleader for the industry that had been his home for more than 50 years. Instead, I found a man troubled by what PR had become and the direction it was moving in.

    Personally, I have never met any pr professional or scholar who acts responsibly as a cheerleader that is not troubled about what PR has become.

    This not so much because of the direction pr has taken (spin in its worst interpretation has always been a realistic factor of our profession…. as much as us ‘oldies’ tend to say that things were better when we were young…) but because, -as you have indicated in his stimulating analysis of our profession before on this blog- for many different reasons, today pr has a much greater impact on the public interest than it has ever had in the past.

    The term ‘public interest’ in today’s society is not easy to define and of course professionals tend to use this is as an alibi not to be concerned. I wish we could eliminate such alibi.

    For me the public interest is the sum of two variables: the existing norms and regulations plus the specific expectations of active citizenship.
    I wonder if you would agree to this.

    Another interesting point has to do with the ‘direction’ you refer to. As much as I am biased, I wish to cite a short excerpt from a very recent article of Jim Grunig that will in the next few weeks appear in its entirety in the Central European Journal of Communication.

    He writes:

    In June 2010, the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, an association of national public relations associations, issued a set of principles for public relations professionals to “administer on a sustained basis and to affirm throughout the profession, as well as to management and other relevant stakeholder groups” (p. 1). These Stockholm Accords resulted from the “collaborative effort of leaders of the global public relations profession from 32 countries” (p. 1). The Stockholm Accords affirm that public relations should play a major role in organizational governance and management as well as in communication programs for internal and external publics and that its value comes from increasing the organization’s sustainability “across the economic, social, and environmental ‘triple bottom line’” (p. 2). …

    a few lines further he adds:

    …. (the accords argue)… that contemporary society requires public relations professionals who can deal with global interactions, relationships, and responsibilities and who can manage relationships among organizations and stakeholders in a global, digitalized world where issues and crises related to poor organizational governance have become commonplace. However, if one were to ask journalists or people in general if they believe the public relations profession delivers such value to society, most would express surprise that such a description is what public relations is all about. Likewise, if one also were to monitor the typical discussions among public relations practitioners in trade media and online discussions, he or she would find much more talk about messaging, publicity, media relations, media monitoring, and marketing support than about the roles and responsibilities of public relations in organizational governance. In the minds of most people, public relations has become institutionalized as a messaging activity whose purpose is to make organizations look good in the media or to sell products, usually through devious means, rather than as a management activity that improves relationships among stakeholders and organizations.’

    There is much food for thought here and, of course, Jim is correct and this explains the reasons that are behind the Accords.

    After one year since their approval, the BRIEF (this is their correct description) has been taken on by many associations, companies, professionals and agencies and are under implementation. In Italy alone, under the coordination of the national association, sixty professionals, ten companies and as many universities are actively doing this. The results so far have been surprisingly positive, but more on this one can find on the accords digital HUB http://www.stockholmaccords.org .

    The reason why I brought this up is that, like Chet Burger, many of us are deeply concerned and many of us are deeply involved in ‘cheerleading’ (to use an Ira expression) our profession towards a more responsible activity.

    It would also be interesting to ask you, but I don’t want to impose too much, if you have an opinion on the public regulation of our profession, similar to other liberal professions.

    10 countries now have this (with more or less success) but the movement is gaining momentum.

    This was, by the way, the last lost battle conducted by another ‘cheerleader’, Eddie Bernays, and in the museum of pr website one can read all about it and why it was lost. Maybe its time to have a second look?

    • Toni:

      Thanks for your interesting comments.

      On your first point regarding “cheerleading”, I think one reason for our different experiences on that front stems from our different perspectives. In my experience as a journalist covering the PR industry, I find that many people in PR are understandably reluctant to air their dirty linen in front of me. So while this might not always take the form of cheerleading, it does result in some degree of defensiveness that probably does not reflect what is actually happening inside the industry. By the way, I think that is a perfectly appropriate response, given how poorly PR is often treated by journalists.

      In general, I find that PR are people are more likely to engage in self-criticism than journalists, who can quickly default to a tone of moral superiority that so many PR people rightfully find rather tedious. What I found unusual and refreshing about Chet was his lack of defensiveness when it came to the industry’s challenges.

      As for the “public interest”, it is indeed a tricky concept. To me, one of the great challenges in PR is balancing the idea of serving organizational needs with serving the public interest. It would be nice to think those two ideas are always in harmony, but we know that is not the case. So where does the loyalty ultimately lie?

      I think one of the reasons for PR’s ongoing PR problem is that in the eyes of many people, including most journalists, PR is all about serving the paymaster, and the needs of the public are too often a secondary concern. This may be an unfair characterization, but I think it is pretty widely held.

      As for greater regulation of the industry, I realize this has been an issue for a long time. I believe Bernays was advocating for it about 80 years ago. I have always been skeptical, just as I am about greater “professionalization” of journalism. I simply don’t see how the enforcement mechanism can work.
      Take the example of the recent ethical breach by the two Burson-Marsteller employees regarding Google and Facebook. Should those two lose their license and be drummed out of the profession because they clearly violated the PRSA guidelines about disclosure and transparency? What would that hearing look like? How high up in the organization would the inquiry go? I just don’t see it happening in the North American context, but as you indicate, it may be working elsewhere.

      • Thank you Ira for the reply.

        On the ‘public interest’ issue:

        a) in 2002/3 a working group of the Global Alliance, led by Canadian Chair elect at the time, Jean Valin, conducted a major effort and in the 2003 Rome First World Public Relations Forum, the assembly approved an ethics protocol that, in its appendix papers (we were not yet ready for this in the official part, but today we are way late…). explicitly said:

        ‘when there is a conflict between the interest of the employer or client organization and the public interest, the professional will advocate the latter’.

        Mind you some 180 thousand professionals in the world -whether they know it or not, being members of one of the 67 professional associations who have signed the protocol to be able to be part of the GA- are formally bound by this….
        (honny soit qui mal y pense..).

        b) very recently IPRA, the most ancient and senior international association of public relations professionals (more than 1000 senior and reputed professionals from many, many countries), has reviewed and approved its code of conduct that derives from the 1961 first-ever international code of Athens. I am not sure if this is already a public document, but I can ensure that it is a very telling document.

        I of course agree that one thing is a code and the other thing is the practice.

        Yet, the public interest or common good is surely and firstly composed by the existing norms and regulations (if you don’t follow them you are committing a crime).

        But as certain as the other, this is not enough as many existing rules and regulations are simply wrong and do not necessarily interpret the public interest and the common good.

        And this is one of the reasons why public affairs and lobbying activities are celebrated in the first amendment through the legitimate representation of ‘grievances’.

        But these activities clearly represent the private interest of the individual ‘griever’ (corporate, public sector, non profit).

        Clearly, and today even more than yesterday, for a number of reasons of mostly economic nature, there is a growing gap between the power of large organization’s ‘grievances’ and those of activist and active citizenship groups.

        To balance these two one needs to consider the public interest as the respect of existing norms summed to the understanding of active citizenship expectations.

        This does not mean that one is more important than the other and of course it is the public relations professional who needs to make the decision on whether,when, if and how a certain action should be taken.

  2. When I moved into PR in the early 1980s, I searched for the thought leaders whose philosophies inspired. After hearing Chet speak, his model for a ‘strategic’ firm provided direction for me for years. John Francis of the Francis, Williams and Johnson (Calgary Canada) was another; his “triple bottom line” article in the old PRSA PR Journal in 1989 spoke to how a ‘PR agency’ work was, as Ira said, to “reconcile the public’s interest with the interests of the organization he or she represented.”

  3. “Truth to Power” has an ennobling ring to it and a heady air of professional independence, but it carries with it a number of practical difficulties for the organizational practitioner.

    Those who follow that path are frequently characterized as not being “team players.” There are questions about their loyalty, and suspicions that they actually may be working in concert with the people they are supposed to be fending off.

    Most professionals would tell you they place loyalty to the principles and standards of their profession above loyalty to whatever organization happens to be employing them, but public relations people have no professional standards and no enforceable code of conduct. They can’t lose their license because of unethical or unprofessional conduct, nor can they be disciplined by an organization like PRSA because they aren’t even members, as was the case of the two Burson-Marstellar employees in the recent Facebook dustup.

    So PR people operate in a kind of no-man’s land, largely on instinct and self-direction. They must use their own judgment and rely on their own moral compass in resolving ambiguities and walking the line between serving the public interest and the interests of the organization.

    Of course, one way out of this dilemma is to become a consultant like Chester Burger and answer to no one except God and the tax man. But that life isn’t so easy, and it certainly isn’t for everyone.

    • Bill,

      Your comment raises a couple of thoughts for me. First, the idea of the “truth to power” resonates with Holtzhausen’s proposition of the corporate activist. This is an interesting idea and one (to an extent) that I have heard some very senior PR practitioners who have become CEOs advocate as a role they adopted and wish to have more often from their PR advisors. This is about being the grit in the oyster, or playing devil’s advocate, in terms of raising “what if?” questions or presenting the viewpoint of others before they do so themselves. Surely that is a valid aspect of PR’s boundary-spanning role. There’s no point in being informed about what the external (and internal) world is saying about an organization if you then sugar-coat it for senior consumption.

      Secondly on the licensing question. I too am skeptical about this for various reasons. But I do take on board the point about how having a solid professional compliance is a good “defence” when asked to do things that you think should not be done. In the UK, PR practitioners in local government frequently use the code that applies to them to prevent elected councillors from crossing the line between the PR role being to communicate policies and not to promote a particular party or politician.

      At the least, if we are relying on instinct and self-direction for PR’s moral compass, then we do need to help equip younger practitioners to know what is not appropriate and how to respond when challenged to do morally questionable things. They are taught about ethics at University in the abstract, but rarely given direct case studies or taught how to respond themselves when facing such dilemmas.

      BTW, the BM example was of senior ex-journalists behaving badly – so not just a ball in PR’s court there!

  4. Ira, you mention in this guest post (thank you so much for offering to write it) that you interviewed “dozens of PR practitioners for [your] Spin Cycles radio series.”

    I’m curious to know why Chet Burger was one of them. Did you already know him by reputation (journalism or PR) or when you asked other PR leaders and educators, was he recommended?

    • It was Stuart Ewen, the author of “PR: A Social History of Spin”, who suggested I talk to Chet. Stuart had interviewed Chet for his book.

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