PRSA mourns the loss of Chester Burger, APR, Fellow PRSA

March 23, 2011

Chester Burger, APR, Fellow PRSA, in 1971
Chester Burger, APR, Fellow PRSA, in 1971

Chester Burger, APR, Fellow PRSA, a pioneering member of PRSA and the public relations profession, died on March 22 of prostate cancer. He was 90.

He attended his first PRSA meeting in 1955. As he wrote in the Fall 2007 issue of The Strategist: “It so impressed me that I immediately applied for a membership that has continued uninterrupted for [56] years."

In 1987, PRSA awarded Burger with its highest individual honor, the Gold Anvil. He was a member of the inaugural class of PRSA’s College of Fellows in 1990 and served as its first chair.

“The public relations profession would not have such a rich history, relevance or value to businesses and the public were it not for the immense accomplishments of Chester Burger,” said Rosanna Fiske, APR, PRSA’s 2011 chair and CEO. “His work advocating on behalf of public relations’ value within the television industry was instrumental in the maturation and credibility of the profession. We owe a debt of gratitude to Chester’s lifelong work, and he will forever be in the hearts and minds of colleagues and the PRSA family.”

Burger has long been considered one of the pre-eminent leaders in the public relations profession, shaping the discipline of public relations counseling at major global corporations. He is also revered for his personal dedication to generations of colleagues. 

“Chet Burger is one of a disappearing generation whose approach to the practice of public relations was founded on professionalism and integrity and whose objective was reconciling the interests of clients with the public interest,” said Harold Burson, APR, Fellow PRSA, chairman of Burson-Marsteller. “He was a person of Solomonic wisdom and a strong sense of humanity and gentility.  Among my most-prized memories are the many lunches through the years when we discussed the growth and nature of public relations as an increasingly critical component of the management function.”

Richard Weiner, APR, Fellow PRSA, first met Burger in the 1950s. At the time, Weiner was a senior vice president at Ruder & Finn (now Ruder Finn). Burger was starting his first job in public relations after leaving CBS.

“Chester was energetic, enthusiastic, intelligent and positive-thinking — an ideal personality for anyone in public relations, particularly in new business,” Weiner says.

The two remained friends for the next 50-plus years. “He always called me on my birthday and other times throughout the year, telling me about his work and complimenting me on my work,” Weiner says. “He retained his boyish enthusiasm.”

Friends and colleagues use terms such as “icon,” a “living legend,” a “hero” and a “mentor.”

“His source of strength and influence lies in his innate sense of curiosity and restlessness of mind. These are the two essential ingredients of a caring, thoughtful counselor. And that's why Chet's peers and clients and colleagues more often than not called him ‘the counselors' counselor,'" says James E. Arnold, APR, Fellow PRSA, former president of Chester Burger & Co.

“He was a master of the little things, the notes and clippings and cards and voice messages and pictures and birthdays and all the other ways one person reaches out to touch another in a caring way,” continues Arnold, now CEO, Arnold Consulting Group.

A distinguished career

Burger spent most of his career in the communications profession, establishing many firsts. He retired in 1988 from Chester Burger & Co. Inc., the nation’s first communications management consulting firm. Burger joined the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1941 as a page boy and left in 1955 as national manager of CBS Television News.

During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After V-J Day, the Army assigned him to experiment with the newly developed television. He produced the Army’s first TV broadcasts.
He returned to CBS and developed methods for reporting world news on the TV news broadcasts. Beginning in April 1946, he became the nation’s first television news reporter. He was the first president of the Radio-Newsreel-Television Working Press Association of New York.

Burger was a founder of the Black Executive Exchange Program and received the Outstanding Mentor Award “for 21 years of counsel and support to minorities in public relations.” The United Negro College Fund awarded him its Distinguished Service citation. He is a Life Member of the NAACP. Health Advocates for Older People, a New York social-service organization, designated him “a New York Treasure.”
The United States Information Agency presented Burger with its Award for Outstanding Service to America’s public diplomacy efforts.

In August, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley presented Burger with the Distinguished Public Service Award for his 15 years of volunteer service as an Air Force advocate under the Public Affairs Advisory Group in New York City.

In presenting Burger with the award, Donley said “I salute you as a lead figure in shaping the global broadcast news and public relations professions … and as a former World War II airman. The channeling of these experiences — of your extraordinary communication knowledge and skills — significantly improved our Air Force and contributed to our nation’s defense.”

He is the author of six books on management subjects, including "The Chief Executive.” His lifetime work in photography was acquired for the permanent collections of the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library. His lifetime papers are in the Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin.

He fulfilled his lifelong dream of producing a book about his beloved New York City with the release of “Unexpected New York: 87 Discoveries in Familiar Places” in January 2007. 

Burger was born Jan. 10, 1921. He leaves behind his wife, Elisabeth, to whom he was married for 40 years, and a large and loving family. His survivors include two sons, Jeff and Todd Burger; a daughter, Amy Downs; two stepsons, Michael and Hugh Owen; three grandchildren, Andre, Myriam and Olivia Burger; and 10 stepgrandchildren.

On Jan. 10, Burger’s 90th birthday, The PRSA Foundation announced that is it partnering with the Arthur W. Page Society and the Institute for Public Relations to provide the initial grants to establish the Chester Burger Scholarship for Excellence in Public Relations.

Pledges to the scholarship fund may be made to the PRSA Foundation by contacting Philip Bonaventura.

Details of services will be available shortly.

Ed Note: We encourage readers to use the comments section (by clicking the "View Comments" link below) to share your favorite memories about Chester Burger and pay tribute to his life.




amanda brown olmstead says:

In the early days of my firm it was Chet who taught me how to run a firm. My husband George and I had delightful dinners with him here in Atlanta and in New York. We loved him. I will always be grateful for his friendship and advise!!

March 23, 2011

Dave Meeker says:

Chet had more influence on me than anyone, as my lifelong mentor and adviser. Each year, we would sit down and review how things were going and he would share his thoughts on what we could do better. He was a wonderful man and a great public relations professional. I will miss him very much.

March 23, 2011

David L. Shank, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

I had only one opportunity to meet Chet and that was at my induction to Fellows. He was a kind, gracious gentleman and as many have said, a true public relations icon and pioneer.

March 23, 2011

Mary Deming Barber says:

Chet was one of a kind and someone I have always admired. His accomplishments are one thing to admire but what is truly remarkable is his love of life and pure enjoyment sharing it with others. He was a true trail blazer and mentor to so many, some of whom just admired him from afar. He will definitely be missed.

March 23, 2011

Liz Oliphant, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

I always referred to Chet as "the PR counselor's counselor". He was generous both with his time and expertise. He will be greatly missed.

March 23, 2011

Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

The bad news is that Chet has passed. The good news is that we all have fond memories of the man. I spent many hours with him over the past several months, along with his close friend Jim Arnold, and we had great talks about the profession and his views of the world and human nature. He was as sharp as a tack right to the end. The conversations were enlightening to say the least. He was a leader, mentor and consummate PR professional. Today, his son Todd told me that he left us peacefully. Kathy Lewton said it best when she got the news: "Good night, sweet Prince."

March 23, 2011

Terri Johnson says:

Chet took a group of us on a charming walking tour of the New York Financial District at a Leadership Rally a few years ago. What a delightful and charming man with a wealth of knowledge of New York, of public relations, of life. He will be missed.

March 23, 2011

Carter A. Prescott says:

Chet was a mentor of mine since the 1970s, helping me move up the ranks at AT&T and then launch my own firm. But even more important, he was a first-rate human being and friend whom I will miss very much. They just don't make them like Chet anymore.

March 23, 2011

Cheryl Procter-Rogers says:

In 1983, Helen Goss introduced me to Chet at a PRSA event in Los Angeles. He began mentoring me that evening and continued to share his sage advice over the years until he could no longer take calls about four months ago. I never made a move in my career without him. I will miss him so. Our profession has lost one of its most passionate advocates. Our nation has lost one of its most inspiring leaders.

March 23, 2011

Sally I Evans, APR says:

I met Chet at PRSA National Conference in Honolulu in the 1970s, when I was still new in the profession. We shared a bench seat on the water taxi to the Arizona. He carried two old cameras, the kind that took side-by-side photos (like the old-fashioned postcards) that one looked at through a viewer. Those cameras started a conversation that continued intermittently over the following decades, until we exchanged our last email in January 2011. Chet mentored me even when he didn't know it, as I have often been concerned that Chet would be disappointed in me when I didn't live up to the potential he saw. He was a great gift in my professional life.

March 24, 2011

Robert Grupp says:

Chet had many friends among our Trustees at the Institute for Public Relations. How nice - and fitting - that we could join with the Foundation and Page Society to initiate a scholarship in his name on his 90th birthday in January. He will be missed.

March 24, 2011

Richard Claeys, APR, Fellow says:

When I encountered some organizational problems after assuming a new position, Chet provided sound advice--clear, direct, no holding back. He was a source of counsel and support throughout my career, through good times and bad, on both coasts. The memories will stay forever.

March 24, 2011

Lucy Siegel says:

I met Chet only once, when he and I were both serving on an advisory committee to my college. I'll never forget that meeting - his wisdom left a big impression on me as well as his generosity and kindness.

March 25, 2011

Anita Kelso Edson says:

I only knew Chet for a few years, but he made an impression that will last a lifetime. What a wonderful and inspiring person!

March 28, 2011

Faye LeBlanc - Halifax, Nova Scotia says:

My life has been changed by Chet. He kindly allowed me to enter his world. A world full of grace, wisdom and laughter. I will always remember his kindess and his ability to leave such an impact on the world. Chet kept truth and respect alive in Public Relations and mentored me and many. He will be remembered forever - by many.

April 5, 2011

Tim O'Brien says:

I met him once and had some interesting email exchanges. He used every oppotunity to teach, and I valued every one of those opportunities. I knew I was dealing with a giant in the profession and appreciated that he was so generous with his time and insights. Thoughts are with his family.

April 22, 2011

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