Thursday, April 21, 2011

Goodbye Chet. The Remembrance of a Remarkable Man

By his friend, Jim Lukaszewski

Thursday, April 21, 2011

From your first little note to me in 1975, complementing something I'd said that was quoted in a PRSA publication, to our last conversation in December of 2010, the power of your friendship, the insight of your thinking, and the profoundly pragmatic advice you so freely offered have guided my career and much of my personal life.

Your sense of yourself was such an interesting part of knowing you. In November of 1990 you opened a presentation to the PRSA Foundation with the phrase, “In the afternoon of my own life . . .” During that presentation you predicted that if your computer was right you would live until approximately 2010. You did a little better than that.

In a private note to me written last year after I had asked you a question and for some guidance, your reply began, "Sure, especially in the evening of my life.” Perhaps this is the most important lesson among the many I learned from you, the power of candor, which I have come to define as “Truth with an attitude, promptly given.”

Photo by Andre Burger, Chet's grandson and

lifelong photography student

When Barbara and I came to work for your firm in the summer of 1986 in New York, you had become an indispensable counselor to both of us, and the stream of complementary notes and letters continued despite the fact that you retired in 1987. I remember asking you at the time, “What did retirement really mean to Chester Burger?” Your response was so interesting. You said, “I will no longer work for money.”

And so you spent the next 24 years as a key civilian advisor for the United States Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, various New York City agencies, the Urban League, and countless other agencies, organizations and individuals who found their way to your door.

Whenever I made an important presentation in the New York area or received some recognition, you were in the audience. I've always felt that describing you as a management consultant, primarily in communications, words you chose, was so sterile and colorless. Your life and your work combined to be the very definition of friendship.

A compliment seemed always to be in the tip of your tongue, or on the point of your pen. In 1992, I sent you a copy of the speech I was about to present. As always, you combined instructive and constructive advice with the motivation to get something important done.

You said, “Once again, you have written a solid and thoughtful analysis of the problem and what can be done about it. It is very good. As we discussed, I still believe your speeches will be improved by more anecdotes and company names when possible and appropriate (but always in a positive and sympathetic way).

You continued, “Over the years, I have read a lot of peoples speeches. Yours consistently are among the very best because of the clarity of your content and your analyses of the problem.” Chet, you always had a useful suggestion tied to a compliment.

On another occasion, after having just arrived in New York, I discovered that because you walked to work everyday to 171 Madison, you arrived about an hour before the rest of us. So, my wife Barbara and I would get up early, catch a train from Westchester to get to the office early enough to talk with you almost everyday. I remember a great many of those conversations and have told stories about them and you for decades.

One of these early morning stories was about my attempts to get on the calendar of a very important New York City executive. I had prepared a letter of introduction which included part of my resume, part of what I wanted to talk to him about, and some lame language about the goals of the conversation, all in just under two pages, single spaced. You examined the draft, then looked thoughtfully at me and said, essentially the following:

“Why don't you tell him that I suggested that you and he could both benefit from having a brief discussion. Then, assure him that within the first 20 minutes he will be able to determine, from his own perspective, whether any further discussion might be useful.”

That is exactly what I did. I got the appointment, and a new long-time client and friend.

Another of my favorite stories is about you and one of your clients. You were invited in to analyze a set of issues and make recommendations for a company. In this particular case, you heard nothing from your client for a very long time. Your curiosity was getting the best of you, so you sent the CEO an amazingly short letter. The letter consisted of the salutation, a single question mark, and your signature. About one week later, as you told the story, you received a letter in response to yours. The letter opened, "Dear Chet,” followed by a single exclamation point (meaning they had taken your advice) and the CEO's signature.

So much of your advice remains clearly in my mind. In the middle of a discussion of some problem you said, “Tacticians are a dime or less a dozen in any profession. If you truly want to provide value and have real influence, help others achieve their objectives from their perspectives. Think up, start your thinking as far above the tactics as you can.”

Your rule for vivid expression, “Always say things and write things as simply as possible. Shorter sentences and colorful verbs always improve understanding and readership,” has guided my own style from the earliest days of our relationship.

You made me a disciple of your devotion to positive, constructive, sensible language. You taught me the destructive and distractive power of “I.” and you taught me the true power of being a strategic thinker, the key to be invited to counsel top management.

During the first Gulf War, in 1991, long before I knew how deeply you were engaged in advising our military leaders, I drafted an article and submitted it to the New York Times, “News is the enemy's greatest weapon.” At that time there was a great debate raging, as there has been during every war since, about secrecy, disinformation and delaying coverage of significant military events for security reasons. I sent it to you for comment and once again your insights were so powerful.

In May of 1991 to wrote me:

“Your piece for the Times is most thoughtful. You make many good points, specifically (among others) that truth delayed is not truth denied, the necessity for a commander to be able to communicate effectively, and your emphasis that war is not democracy (though war can be waged for preserving or establishing democracy).”

You continued, “There is no place where I disagree with you. But you make me wonder about two points: 1.) Disinformation is an important military tool. General Schwarzkopf spread advance reports of plans to invade Kuwait from the sea. This deception worked. Disinformation is essential. I would like you to write and speak about the “dissonance” between the needs of the military to tell the truth and at the same time, the genuine need to lie.”

You concluded, “2.) In war, there will always be conflict between military organizations and democratic societies. America has had both for 200 years. It is an interesting point. I would like to see you discuss this.”

It has been such a privilege to have this body of correspondence between friends for the last 30 years. It’s even more remarkable, since most of it has occurred during your retirement.

During our last lengthy face-to-face conversation in November 2009, talking about your life, your career, and your accomplishments, you made the most interesting observation, “The only thing I truly planned for and did intentionally was to start Chester Burger & Co. in 1964. Everything else that has happened was beyond my control, fortunate coincidences, lucky breaks, or just being in the right place.”

During this conversation you told some of your favorite stories. You observed that there is a statue of Nathan Hale, the famous American Revolutionary War patriot, located near City Hall in downtown Manhattan, although now inaccessible due to security precautions. This statue carries an inscription of Hale’s famous statement as the British were about execute him for spying, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

You went on to talk about the fact that there are two duplicates of this statute and its inscription, one in the lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and one on the Yale University campus in Connecticut. But then you mentioned there is actually a fourth lesser known version of this statue that resides in the Yale Club in the City of New York. “It’s smaller, but a replica,” you said, and carries only the simple description, “Nathan Hale, Class of 1773.” You were always a master at identifying important though seemingly inconsequential nuances of life, history and relationships.

Even last year, as you knew that your life was concluding, you managed to be on conference calls with Pentagon officials and commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But perhaps the most profound thing you said to me, which has turned out to be true in my career, as it was in yours, is the reality in public relations that, “Anything you learn today will have some future value that you cannot foresee at the time.” This to me is the definition of a life in public relations.

It's pretty lucky for all of us that you were so lucky in your life. You leave a legacy of civility; of intelligent discussions of issues and questions that matter beyond the tactical work of everyday communication; of helping two generations of leaders and aspiring leaders in the private sector, in government, and the military to lead with courage, integrity and conviction based on simple, sensible, constructive and positive principles.

We all have the legacy of friendship and accomplishment you shared throughout your remarkable life. Rest easy dear friend. The evening of your life, as you forecasted 11 years earlier, has come to a close.

With enduring affection and admiration,

Jim Lukaszewski


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When Should Lawyers Be Spokespersons?

With more and more PR people becoming lawyers and working for law firms there seems to be a growing push for having outside spokespersons, especially attorneys when crisis situations occur. But this approach is simply unacceptable in today's world. Whether it's Congress, the Legislature, Parliament, a neighborhood organization, or group of families who've lost loved ones, when bad things happen and there are victims it’s the CEOs backside that is on the line. Many if not most would prefer to defend their circumstances themselves, whatever the risk.

The legal position that lawyers as spokespersons can prevent further damage is simply unfounded. Where is the evidence of nothing happening? The job of the attorney is, like the job of a communicator to advise the people in charge how best to work through the situations and problems they may have caused, and probably may cause in the future, as a part of the response process

I do agree that if the matter is criminal, that is one of very few times when I believe an attorney spokesperson is essential. There is a fair amount of slack in the civil justice system for mistakes. There is no slack in the criminal justice system.

One of the reasons it's the operators who get the big bucks is because they are the ones who also carry the big risks and big responsibilities of failure. Along with those duties comes the absolute obligation to stand up, stand out, and speak up. Yes there will be consequences, it comes with the territory.

It is always best to have competent, trusted, legal counsel, but the leader's job is first and foremost to set the moral tone for the crisis response, second to make certain that any barriers to successful response are smashed promptly, third, to look after the victims and survivors to make certain their needs and requirements are met, fourth, to be accessible, visible, and engaged with those who survive, are responding, and to commit random acts of leadership continuously.

The most powerful antagonists, and aggressive and relentless pursuers and litigators are victims and survivors poorly attended, or ignored.

Today's CEO spends probably 50 percent of their time on non-operating issues, topics, and problems. That's because more of these non-operating issues are landing directly on their desks. They are getting better at it.

The CEO of any major organization today knows that sometime tomorrow, perhaps even this evening they may find themselves in front of a group of angry people, government officials, or employees and the CEO will be microphone in hand, answering for themselves and for others. This is what we expect of leaders, sometimes when they do it well we fire them, sometimes when they do it poorly we fire them. In either case they get paid handsomely and they move on to the next task in their career.

The one thing you can count on almost all CEOs to do in these emergent situations is to reach out to a wide variety of voices and sources to accumulate rapidly as many action options as possible. And, those around the CEOs will be trying to batten down the hatches to keep any outside voices, or inside voices for that matter, besides theirs from being heard.

The most powerful role any staff advisor can play in these urgent situations, communicator, lawyer, financial advisor, even security is to be an originator of options, and additional sources of options from which the CEO and other operators can fashion solutions.

Every crisis response will be flawed in many ways. It’s a crisis. Every crisis situation causes a management crisis no matter how competent their staff resources. All managements act initially with over confidence and over optimism. These realities mean that the expectations of the media for instant responding perfection will be met with failure in most respects every time. But the communication must take place. Silence is the most toxic strategy of all . . .to the leaders rather than the spokespersons.

An organization can outsource any service, advice, manufacturing, execution, even customer service and crisis response. The two things that can never be outsourced in a crisis are leadership and responsibility. Both belong to the person in charge.

And there’s one thing leaders should have learned for sure, bad always news ripens badly.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Joke Is On KDWB

Minneapolis radio station KDWB is the latest organization to feel the sting and power of victims angered by an inadequate apology. The radio station’s pain comes from loosing advertisers because the station still refuses to take adequate responsibility for its gaffe of broadcasting a parody of Hmong. One advertiser left saying the apology was “Inadequate.”

The most powerful action in reputation recovery and rehabilitation is to apologize. If you want or need forgiveness, you’ll need to apologize. “Wait a minute,” you say, “The lawyers won’t ever let me apologize.” Well, let’s talk about apology, understand it, and then we’ll get back to the attorneys.

Management avoids apologizing by using an amazing array of avoidance strategies. There’s self-forgiveness: “It’s an industry problem, we’re not the only ones,” “Let’s not blow this out of proportion.” There’s self-talk: “It’s only an isolated incident,” “It’s never happened before,” “Not very many were involved,” and “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Look for self-delusion: “It’s not our fault,” “It’s not our problem,” “We can’t be responsible for everything,” “It won’t happen again,” and “Life can’t exist without risk.” Or how about lying: “I don’t know,” “We’ve never done that,” “It won’t ever happen again,” “I am not a crook,” and “I did not have sex with that woman.”

Failed and phony apologies happen constantly, take Whole Foods Market®. The company’s Web site issued Co-founder, Chairman, and CEO John Mackey’s non-apology (on July 17, 2007) after an enormously embarrassing public to-do. First the CEO denied the allegations. Then, he attacked those who exposed him. Next, he tried to explain his action, saying, “Everybody does it.” The Whole Foods Board has announced a “Special Committee to conduct an investigation.” The Board also shut down Mackey’s blog. Mackey then begged for forgiveness from his shareholders.

What was wrong with Spitzer’s apology, or Mr. Mackey’s apology, or the Pope’s, or John Kerry’s, or Mel Gibson’s? There was no admission. They simply never apologized at all. They forgave themselves first, protected the people around them and, in many cases, never directly addressed the pain they caused others.

The perfect apology has three components: First and foremost, the perpetrator has to have an attitude of humility; then an apology strategy, which leads to sincerity of action.

Here are the elements of an apology strategy:

  • Ongoing expressions of regret and empathy
  • Continuous explanation of how behavior will change
  • If serious enough, third party oversight of new behaviors, reported independently, to the public’s concern
  • Encouragement of public discussion, especially by the victims about the perpetrator’s mistakes and callousness
  • Commitment to overcompensate and complete restoration of damages and injury
  • Resolve to maintain contact with the victims and survivors until they lose interest

The most constructive structure for apology I’ve seen is in The Five Languages of Apology , a book by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.

Here, with some paraphrasing and modification based on my experiences, are the ingredients of the perfect apology.

  • Regret (acknowledgment) – A verbal acknowledgement by the perpetrator that their wrongful behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering, and hurt that identifies, specifically, what action or behavior is responsible for the pain.
  • Accepting Responsibility (declaration) – An unconditional declarative statement by the perpetrator recognizing their wrongful behavior and acknowledging that there is no excuse for the behavior.
  • Restitution (penance) – An offer of help or assistance to victims, by the perpetrator; action beyond the words “I’m sorry”; and conduct that assumes the responsibility to make the situation right.
  • Repentance (humility) – Language by the perpetrator acknowledging that this behavior caused pain and suffering for which he/she is genuinely sorry; language by the perpetrator recognizing that serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage was caused.
  • Direct Forgiveness Request – “I was wrong, I hurt you, and I ask you to forgive me.”

The most difficult and challenging aspects of apologizing are the admission of having done something hurtful, damaging, or wrong, and to request forgiveness. Skip even one step and you fail.

Do apologies matter? Twenty-nine states seem to think so. These states have enacted legislation exempting voluntary expressions of regret and apology at traffic accidents from being considered by juries when setting auto liability damages. Legislation is pending in Congress to mitigate the impact of liability on malpractice insurance claims against doctors and medical personnel who apologize immediately, or very quickly, and sincerely.

The biggest problem with apology is the attitude among leaders and their attorneys that apology is “sissy” stuff. My advice is, “Get over it.” There’s mounting statistical evidence in health care that apologies, even if they are required by insurance companies (which they more frequently are), are having a dramatic affect on reducing litigation.

So now we’re back to the attorneys. When the lawyers say you can’t apologize because it’s an admission of something (which it is), you can tell them (with nearly absolute certainty) that an apology will, at a minimum, mitigate and, at a maximum, eliminate litigation. An apology may be the trigger to settlement. Failure to apologize is always a trigger for litigation.

Today’s legal reality is that only one in 200 civil cases filed ever get to trial. Instead, these cases will be settled, dismissed, or resolved by some other mechanism such as arbitration. Empathy is where “actions speak louder than words.” Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. Failure to apologize is an integrity lapse that causes the corrosive destruction of your reputation, and creates an impression of you as arrogant and callous.

Turns out, the joke was on KDWB as they learned the Cardinal Rule of crisis: Bad news ripens badly. Failure to act sensibly, positively, empathetically and constructively immediately assures that things will just get worse.

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