Author's Note: I first met Chet in Chicago, January 1982, when he spoke at a breakfast meeting of communicators from an insurance trade association. As was his custom, he had a handful of newspaper clippings from the morning’s papers which he used to illustrate the points of his talk. He never spoke very long, preferring the give-and-take of questions from his audience. He spent time after the program talking to all who wanted a more private moment. I asked him to join me for a cup of coffee and we began a professional relationship that became deeply personal and changed the direction of my life.
Within two short months I had moved to New York to handle an assignment for a client and Chet invited me to use his offices. Within the year, I became a partner in the firm, and three years later, president of Chester Burger & Co as Chet planned for his retirement at age 67. When I began my company in 1991, he joined me as “of counsel” and remained active in the business for 7 more years.
He continued to live on W 67th street with his wife Elisabeth for the next 23 years, pursuing his passion for photography and the history of his home town, New York City. During his retirement Chet continued to be an advisor to the CIA and took up a new assignment counseling the Public Affairs Office of the Secretary of the US Air Force. On January 10, he reached his goal of living to age 90, but he knew the end was near since he had been suffering from stage four prostate cancer for some months.
He died at home with his family and friends on the afternoon of March 22, 2011.
Knowing Chet was an incredible experience, like having a friend who had been in the right place at the right time for much of the history of the 20th Century. He grew up in Brooklyn, a child of the depression. He got a job as a page for CBS, but in those days, that meant CBS radio, where all the stars were. For a long time, he carried his first pay stub from CBS in his wallet to remind him of those days. He was curious about the new thing, television, and wrangled a job working in the newly formed CBS News.
When he went into the army, his brief background in television, plus a letter from his boss, got Chet various postings using his experience as a civilian, including running a television studio for the Army in California. He returned to CBS News at war’s end and became a “visualizer” (a news reader)—there is a wonderful black-and-white photo of a very young Chet and Douglas Edwards reading the news of the presidential election returns in November, 1947.
Broadcast News Pioneer
He was the first “reporter” for television news in the country, and in time he became the first national manager of CBS Television News. He was the first President of the Radio-Television-Newsreel Working Press Association of New York.
In those early days, operating out of makeshift studios on the Mezzanine of Grand Central Terminal, Chet and his associates were “making it up as they went.” For example, Chet helped develop a technique to create a visual map showing various parts of the country and world, something never needed for radio. He and his camera man devised a method to use a camera in a car with an attached microphone and recording device to shoot video with sound of President Harry Truman taking a stroll down Park Avenue from his rooms at The Waldorf Astoria.
From his early television news experience, Chet developed an understanding of the visual context of a story and an appreciation for the importance of telling it briefly, clearly and with impact. His writing was always easy to read, punchy copy, short sentences, brief paragraphs. And from those heady days when he and a merry band were inventing television news, he became fascinated with technology and how quickly it was changing, reinventing itself in ever shorter cycles, and transforming the ways we communicate and relate to each other. He rode the wave for the rest of his life.
Chet had the innate curiosity that is characteristic of a good reporter and a great consultant—he wanted to know how things worked, mentally taking an idea or a concept or a process apart and looking for ways to put it back together more effectively or efficiently. He was always searching for the next new thing and was always delighted when he found a major step forward in technology—in computing, applications, the internet, the fax machine, word processing, desktop publishing, telephony, he never lost his desire to know about and understand how it would work.
Chet left CBS at an early age when he was fired for “getting too visible in the press for what was happening at CBS and overshadowing my boss who didn’t like it one bit.” Last December, Chet returned to CBS Broadcast Center at the request of CBS executive Gil Schwartz to sit for a two hour interview in one of the antique control rooms specially activated for the occasion. This footage will be maintained as part of the corporate archives and is available on line at the Museum of Public Relations (www.prmuseum.com).
Chet’s first efforts to find work after television were based on the assumption that a lot of people in advertising or public relations would be interested in knowing what he could teach them about television. He discovered he was wrong. The one firm most interested in hiring him was Ruder Finn, but they wanted him to work solely on acquiring new clients for the firm.
Chet was given a target of new clients and revenue to be brought in annually, and then he would set out to land the business. He was not involved in servicing clients, just getting them in the door. His success as a new business generator got the attention of Marion Harper at Interpublic who recruited Chet to lead Communications Counselors, the company’s public relations business. Chet was again let go when Harper was no longer running the business, and this time he decided not to work for someone else but to go into business for himself.
Chester Burger & Co.
Chester Burger & Co. was founded in 1963 using the model of a pure management consulting business: it would offer advisory services and ongoing counsel but would not get involved in the execution of its recommendations on a long-term basis.
Chet discussed his plans often during this time with John Hill, who doubted this would be a successful operations “because we found at H&K that we made the money on the services we offered such as media relations, collateral materials, and not the short term advisory projects.” Chet described his business as “communications management consulting” and the early years were lean. Because of his success as a new business developer previously, he was in time also consulting with the heads of many public relations firms offering advice about new business and business practices.
Chet wanted very much to have AT&T as a client, and he had gotten to know some of their executives from his days in television. He found that one executive in particular “would have him to lunch and pick his brain about this new medium television” but it never led to any business. He told me once that he was finally invited into this individual’s office and told that “they at AT&T were not sure what a communications management consulting firm would do, but they had a project that he might help them with.”
Across the table he pushed a stack of folders that proved to contain the bios of senior executives of the Corporation. Chet’s first assignment with AT&T was to rewrite the bios—and thus began a 33-year relationship with the senior management of one of the world’s leading technology companies, with its famed Bell Labs, that continued for 33 years until his retirement.
Chet’s office became a show room for the latest in gadgets, devices, technologies, and business machines. His desk always faced the wall away from the door, with his chair in the room not on the other side of the desk. He would often, after greeting a guest and some brief social amenities, offer his own chair at the desk to his guest, saying “you sit here, I want to show you something I’ll bet you haven’t seen before.”
A Counselor's Counselor
Chet’s approach to new clients was based on his early experience selling the services of others: “the prospect is not really interested in you but rather in what you can do for them.”
Chet believed the first step in establishing a business relationship with a prospect was to listen and learn: what’s bothering them, what’s on their mind, and then to respond not in terms of “how great my firm is” but rather how we might be able to help you. Every proposal and every business letter was to begin with the pronoun “You” as the subject of the first sentence, and conclude with the assurance that “you can check us out with some of the clients we have served whose names are….”
Chester Burger & Co. prospered but never grew to be more than a highly respected boutique consulting firm snagging the occasional large corporate client such as Sears, Texas Instruments, Firestone, Honeywell, and of course AT&T. His growing reputation as a counselor and confident of CEOs and other senior executives made him a new business magnet for such major non-profits as AARP, The American Cancer Society, ASPCA and others.
Chet and his team of senior consultants (no juniors or interns) created a unique philosophical and consulting niche: public relations must be a senior management discipline and a part of the strategic planning process if an organization is to survive in the attitude intensive modern business environment. He argued that “stakeholders” was a more accurate term to describe key publics, not merely shareholders, employees and customers.
And he always presented his recommendations in terms of finding “shared mutual interests” with
stakeholders and the more narrow private interest of the shareholders, employees and customers. Chet taught his consultants always to “speak the language of management, use examples relevant to the client—show them we understand who they are.”
Chet’s success as a new business developer made him a compelling speaker, writer and advisor to the owners, large and small, of public relations and marketing firms. He fairly quickly became active in the Counselors’ Academy of PRSA and over the years was the “Wiseman” sought out to deal with agency management and growth issues. He got involved in succession planning and other standard business practices.
“How much is your public relations firm worth” was one of Chet’s publications that became the bible for 20 years to conduct the valuation of a public relations business. He became the industry “dealmaker” for mergers and acquisitions—he managed the sale of Carl Byoir to Foot Cone & Belding Advertising, and then latter, sold Byoir again to Hill and Knowlton. In time he had to choose whether to work for sellers or buyers because the market wouldn’t let him do both—and he always preferred the seller to the buyer because he always identified with the seller. When he retired, the Counselors’ Academy awarded him a one-time only recognition as “the Counselors’ Counselor.” He was very proud of this honor, and kept it close to his desk always.
An Active "Retirement"
Chet gave freely of his time and advice to professional organizations and public service organizations such as PRSA, PRSSA, IABC, Arthur W. Page Society, Institute for Public Relaltions, the USIA, United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League before he retired from business. He was honored by the highest award for leadership and support by all of these organizations, and in some cases more than once.
After retiring, Chet continued continued to advise the CIA and took up a new responsibility with the Office of Public Affairs of the US Air Force. Consequently, in the last months of his life, Chet received the highest national honor awarded by the CIA and the Secretary of the Air Force recognized him with its highest civilian award. Until he became too ill, Chet would always take calls and keep appointments with almost anyone who sought him out. He was beloved by many in the public relations profession by his accessibility and candor.
Chet’s passion for technology was equaled by his love of travel. For years he and Elisabeth spanned the globe in search of the quaint, the beautiful, the exotic and the interesting. Chet was an avid and talented photographer and took thousands of pictures over the years, most of which are now in the archives of the New York Public Library. At one point in the 1980’s, Chet had made a deposit for a seat on the first space shuttle to go up carrying civilians. Chet’s papers are housed in the archives at the University of Texas in Austin.
Chet led by example. He never asked anyone to do something he did not profess to do himself. He lived through many interesting times and witnessed many changes but was never overwhelmed by change, in fact welcomed it, relished the new. He never really retired and he never stopped learning until the life left his body.
I saw him barely three days before he took a turn for the worse and passed, and at that time, I left Chet sitting in a wheelchair reading the morning’s New York Times on his iPad, with his iPhone resting on the table by his side. He rigged his iPhone to read at the bottom “sent from the personal iPhone of Bill Gates” which I thought was clever. The last iPhone message I got from him said “sent from the personal iPhone of Alex G. Bell.”
Lately Chet has been variously described as “a legend, an icon, a pillar, a guru, maven, the counselor’s counselor” and many other terms.I prefer to think of Chet as a “mover and shaker” because he loved to make things happen. I am reminded of O’Shaughnessey ‘s Ode written about the Irish people:
We are the Music Makers, We are the Dreamers of dreams;
Wandering by lone sea breakers, sitting by desolate streams.
World losers, world forsakers on whom the pale moon gleams.
Yet we are the movers and shakers of the world, forever it seems.
For his 90th birthday Chet’s friends in PRSA Foundation, Arthur W. Page Society and Institute for Public Relations created the Chester Burger Excellence in Public Relations Scholarship Fund. Chet was delighted that his memory will live on helping graduate students have an opportunity to continue his work making public relations a part of the policy-making process of organizations. Donations to the fund are tax deductible and may be made by sending an email to [email protected] indicating a pledged amount, and PRSA Foundation will send an invoice.
About the author: James Arnold is CEO of Arnold Consulting Group, management consulting firm that helps corporations, non-profits and government agencies enhance their strategic planning and policy-making processes to include public relations strategies, tactics, systems and operations. He is also senior managing director of The Torrenzano Group, a member of the executive council of AARPNY, a director of Specialty Wine Retailers Association, and for 17 years a Trustee of the Arthur W. Page Society.