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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.