Interviewer: Roger thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this oral history interview for the Page Center at Penn State University. You graduated from Ohio State with a degree in journalism and started your career as a reporter I believe in Marion, Ohio. What led you to choose ultimately public relations as a career field?
Bolton: It was an accident. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I did want to be a journalist but it was all I really wanted to do. And frankly I had trouble finding my next job after Marion. And I loved the work. But the next job just wasn’t forthcoming so I quit my job. Moved to Washington because I had a friend there and I figured I’d find something. Went to talk to the Congressman who I had been covering as a reporter just to let him know I was in town looking for a job. If you know anybody, make any introductions for me. He said how would you like to be my press secretary. And I said I’m going to have to think about that because I knew it probably meant the end of my journalism career. But at 25 years old the chance to be a press secretary of a U.S. Congressman was too good to pass up. Took the job and immediately discovered that I loved being on the inside as opposed to being on the outside looking in. And I used the same skills and the same focus on facts and truth and telling a story but on behalf of as opposed to covering.
Interviewer: And did you have any interest in politics before that point in time or was that the introduction?
Bolton: No I was hooked on politics from ten years old. That’s why I got interested in journalism because it was only to be involved in politics.
Interviewer: How did you transition from the Congressman’s office to the White House experience. What happened in that?
Bolton: That was a long path. I worked for the Congressman for eight years. I was his chief of staff ultimately. And after he left the Congress I bounced around in a couple of little jobs. Ended up working for the Reagan/Bush re-election campaign in 1984 which was just an incredible experience. And from there went into the Reagan administration. Served in the White House for a brief period and also served in the Bush administration.
Interviewer: What talent did you have at that point in time in your career that was desired by the political people that you worked with?
Bolton: That's a great question. I’m not sure I know. The fundamental skill that I feel that of which I base my whole career is writing but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s the ability to think clearly. To understand complex issues. And to really understand how constituencies react to the actions of major institutions. And that’s really what politics is all about. And it’s what public relations is all about.
Interviewer: I don’t imagine working in the Reagan White House was pretty much of a heavy atmosphere experience itself. At one time I think you wrote speeches and what were some of the other specific activities that you were involved with while you were there?
Bolton: I wrote speeches for the Reagan/Bush re-election campaign and my title was director of speech writing. Not writing for the President but really for a surrogate so when Senator Dole for example went out on behalf of the campaign or a cabinet member so and so went out on behalf of the campaign. They were provided with speeches by my office as well as talking points, issue backgrounders, we were a small group of writers who wrote basically all of the substantiate material that the candidates used during the campaign. When I was in the administration, I was assistant U.S. trade representatives for public affairs and public liaison. In essence the press secretary to the U.S. trade representative. Also ran an extensive group of advisory committees. We used the private sector and [inaudible] government trade making policy.
Interviewer: Did you have a specific interest in business or in trade before that happened or was that just something that evolved while you were there?
Bolton: Well what evolved Jack was when I was back on the Hill, the Congressman that I worked for was ranking on the Energy Committee during the energy crisis, the first energy crisis if you will. In the Carter years and was also ranking on the joint economic committee. So I found myself really drawn to economic issues and my first job in the administration was the treasury and then I moved to U.S. PR. And then to the White House where I was special assistant to the President with responsibility for economic policy issues. Public liaison on economic policy issues. And then back to treasury again. So my whole government career was really focused on economic policy issues.
Interviewer: I understand that you have been appointed by the President for the assistant treasury job or Secretary of the Treasury. Was that something that you had to be confirmed at. You go through. How was that experience.
Bolton: It was it was quite an honor actually to be nominated by the President of the United States to serve the country and my nomination required confirmation by the Senate. So I prepared brief remarks. I was introduced by a senator, and was asked a series of questions by a number of senators and then subsequent to that there was a vote in the Senate to confirm me as the President’s nominee for that role.
Interviewer: What would you say some of your major accomplishments were while you were in Washington in this variety of different experiences and jobs.
Bolton: Well there’s a lot. That was 16 years. But let me just pick one or two if you wish. The first one I think I would talk about is while I was at U.S. T. R. That’s the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. It was a really important time in the history of our trade policy because there was a growing protectionist movement in the United States. This is the mid ‘80s. The Japanese were very much on the rise. American business was very much under challenged from foreign competition. And we had an administration that was very very committed to a free and open trade policy and the belief that open trade would lead to economic prosperity. And yet the people were losing their jobs and there was significant concern within the body politic around unfair trade practices. And so the Reagan administration made the choice that it would begin to aggressively enforce Section 301 of the Trade Act which allowed the President to retaliate against unfair trade practices from abroad. So I was basically the spokesperson for the President’s trade policy at a time when this free market President began to put into place what some might view as protectionist policies and reaction to protectionism from abroad. And at the same time to use that policy to try to convince the rest of the world to come together with us to create a new round of trade talks that would further liberalize trade. So it was a real we had a lot of focus on trying to get the public not only the United States but around the world to understand what we were doing, why we were doing it, and why this sort of retaliatory action that we were taking to protectionism abroad was not in fact protecting it but was rather what we had to do in order to try to convince the world to move to a more liberalized trade regime.
Interviewer: In the course of working on that, did you have contact with the President himself or how did that tie-in work?
Bolton: No I did not. I had contact with the White House staff on a daily basis. And for example the office of the press secretary and my office were closely connected, we had constant interchange. Also with the White House speechwriters because I was working on issues that the President spoke on so I would provide paragraphs for the President’s speeches.
Interviewer: Was the atmosphere in Washington at that time would you describe it as being collegial or was there a lot of tension. How did things go day to day]?
Bolton: You know it felt like tension at the time. But if I looked at it in the context of the atmosphere in Washington today I would have to say it was quite collegial. We fought hard for the issues that we believed in and our political opponents fought hard for the issues they believed in. One of my favorite recollections is when I worked on the Hill. The guy I worked for as I mentioned was ranking on the Energy Committee. The chair of that committee and he would go at it just hammer and tong during the hearing; each one fighting hard to try to win. And then as soon as the hearing was over they would walk down the hall. They were great friends. Put their arms around each other. Laugh, slap each other on the back. Tell stories. And it was it was a different era. You don’t see the same kind of collegiality outside the hearing room or the Congressional rooms that you did in those days.
Interviewer: What characteristics of yours worked most effectively for you? Was it your ability to write clearly? Speak clearly or how do you get your viewpoints really across in that kind of general atmosphere.
Bolton: Again I think writing is the critical skill that I brought. But I think to be a good writer you got to be able to think clearly and express yourself clearly and so the ability to communicate orally also comes into play. But I think its understanding and having the appreciation for the complexity of issues, respecting a wide set of points of view, being able to understand and assimilate those points of view and look for common ground that really is the critical factor.
Interviewer: You left Washington to go to work for IBM. And I believe as the director of corporate affairs for IBM. Tell us about what caused that to happen. I don’t think it occurred as a change in the administration but it might have.
Bolton: No that’s correct. I was halfway through the first Bush term. I was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury that Senate confirmed job that we had spoken about earlier. And from my perspective it was the job of a lifetime. When the IBM offer came along, it was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make to leave Washington at that time. As it turned out, my timing was good. The President was not re-elected. And thousands of my friends were thrown out of office within two years of my departure. But I was already firmly ensconced in IBM fortunately for me.
Interviewer: Was the transition from the government in effect to the corporate world easier or difficult to make?
Bolton: Well it was easier than I expected it would have been. I found that the same skills, the same sensibilities, the same ability to understand the needs of constituencies, and to assimilate issues and try to find common ground and communicate effectively it was basically the same thing. On the other hand, some very fundamental differences. The most profound of which is that in the private sector, there is not, I don’t think or at least, let me just say, there is not the same appreciation for the need for communications of public relations as there is in the government sector.
Interviewer: That’s an interesting observation because a lot of groups need public favor. Business certainly would be. The politicians recognize that. Do you think the time will come when businesses will finally figure out that the need to communicate with constituencies just as effectively as the government people have?
Bolton: The best business leaders understand it today and always have. And I think that there is a growing appreciation for the need. The almost crisis in confidence in public institutions and private institutions is leading private sector leaders to become more and more aware of the fact that stakeholders of all sorts do have points of view and need to be listened to and need to be responded to. And so I think there is actually a change occurring and business leaders are becoming more and more atoned to the reality that they have to think beyond the traditional constituencies of direct customers and shareholders.
Interviewer: What prompted you to leave IBM to join Aetna?
Bolton: Well I left IBM primarily because my path to the top job there was blocked. When Lou Gershner came in brought his own guy in with him. And appropriately it was very clear that he was going to be there for a very long period of time. And I aspired to the senior most role and found that opportunity elsewhere. But I left IBM knowing that the company was in good hands with Lou Gershner and was going to be turned around and with some level of regret. It’s a great company and I still have a great amount of affinity for it and a lot of friends there.
Interviewer: What were some of the challenges that you faced when you first went to Aetna?
Bolton: Well Aetna was a sleepy old-line insurance company which has found that just going along was no longer an option. It had sort of clunked along doing its thing for many, many, many years. But the environment was becoming not unlike the one facing IBM. It was rapidly changing. And Aetna had to change radically in order to survive. And I was actually attracted to the opportunity when the chairman at that time Ron Compton described to me the challenges as he saw them and the changes that he wanted to make. So he sold a major business line. Made a major acquisition. And set Aetna on a new path.
Interviewer: Well it’s certainly true that after you arrived, Aetna did change a course of direction and became quite an accomplished business. What were some of your contributions or would you say some of your major accomplishments that you achieved while you were at Aetna?
Bolton: Well I really would point to the last five years. The first five years the Ron Compton and then subsequent era. The company actually stumbled and ran into some serious problems. In the last five years under dynamic new leadership, we’ve accomplished one of the remarkable turnarounds in corporate history. And I am very proud to have been a part of that.
Interviewer: Well you played a major role in one of the things that helped in that turnaround which was the creation of the Aetna way. Would you describe how that came about? What the implications are of it?
Bolton: Sure the Aetna Way came out of a feeling on the part of the senior leadership that we needed to give the company a sense of direction. We were a 150 year old company. We had wonderful traditions of success. We had a dedication to integrity. And yet in the previous few years we had lost our way. Our leadership had taken us down some paths that were not appropriate. We had made some major acquisitions that had not been fully assimilated. And we had a culture that was really difficult to understand and yet when the new leadership came in, there was a very strong feeling up and down the company that they wanted to follow this new leadership. But where? And to what end? What do we believe in? Where are we going? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we act? How do we operate? And I was asked to head a group of senior executives to think about culture and organizational effectiveness. While others were focused on strategy and operations we spent our time thinking about how can we prepare the people of Aetna to move forward with success to implement the new strategy and execute the operating plan. And we saw a need for just a fundamental set of principles. So we created the Aetna Way. And it includes a new mission statement. Values which were based on the fundamental values of Aetna that really already existed but had not been encapsulated in quite the same way. A set of goals for each of our constituents which was critically important because we looked at each of our constituencies as important and talked about our obligations to each of them not just shareholders and customers. And finally some operating principles that really became the way that all of us together became certain of who we were, what we were trying to accomplish, and how we would get there.
Interviewer: Could you describe your relationship with the CEO Dr. Rowe (Jack)? How did you two work together? How what kind of teamwork two of you?
Bolton: Sure Jack is a remarkable man. Kind of an unlikely leader for Aetna at that time in that he had never run a major for-profit company. He had been the CEO of a major institution, Mt. Sinai NYU Medical Center in New York but he’s an academic medical physician. He’s a doctor. He’s a guy who is founder of the gerontology department at Harvard. Ran Mt. Sinai NYU and then was asked to lead this $20 billion company. And he came in knowing very little about insurance. Very little about running a big public company. But a lot about leadership. A lot about health care. And a lot about communicating. He’s just a gifted natural communicator and understood the need for it.
So I became. I had this wonderful gift of a guy who was new to the work who really wanted to lead and who was just an expert communicator. And I was able to help him become both an internal communicator and a leader for the company but also an external spokesman for the company. And as I mentioned he asked me to take on this broader role of focusing on culture. So we spent a lot of time together on both communications issues and culture issues.
Interviewer: When you say you spent a lot of time together. Is this like a daily thing? A weekly or how was that done?
Bolton: Well you know it would depend. I would say daily more likely than not. But sometimes a week or two would go by without a lot of depends on what was going on. But whenever I needed him, I was able to get him on the phone instantly. He liked being interrupted. He likes getting phone calls. And he would call me out of the blue and in fact one of the great things about Jack is he’ll just come down from the ivory tower and wander around the building and come wandering into my office just to see what I am up to. So it was a nice easy and kind of informal relationship.
Interviewer: Were the other senior officers comfortable with your relationship with the CEO?
Bolton: I think so. Yeah. I think that there’s certainly nothing threatening about it and it was a relationship that I think added value to the company.
Interviewer: Were you had to have a degree of credibility with the other officers and actually with your subordinates? What do you feel contributed to the fact that you had that kind of relationship [inaudible] and had credibility and were accepted that your ideas were accepted?
Bolton: Yeah I think the fundamentals first thing is you really have to spend time understanding the business. And I learned in my government service as I moved from energy policy to trade policy to international economic policy of treasury, the savings and loan crisis, the third world debt. You’ve got to be able to move from issue to issue to issue and not do it at a superficial level. You’ve got to be able to drive down deep. You’ve got to be able to understand the fundamentals and understand the critical success factors for that organization in order to make a contribution. So you have to be able to engage the business people where they live which is in the depth of what’s important to the business. And then secondly you have to be willing and able to speak up and have a point of view. And it’s not always the most popular point of view. But one where you are willing to in a nice way. You don’t have to be disruptive. You don’t have to be outrageous. But you do have to be strong and firm and to have a perspective and a point of view that you are willing to offer. And if you are wiling to do that consistently and you understand what you’re talking. You know the business and you understand your field, you can you will be respected. I see too many people who are afraid to speak up for fear that their advice won’t be welcomed. And in fact it’s not always welcomed. But if you sit back and sit on your hands, you will not be respected. You’ll never have an impact on the organization and you’ll sort of wander off into irrelevance.
Interviewer: How large was your staff? What did they do? What were their responsibilities?
Bolton: Well I’ve got a total of about 90 people in my organization today. But we’ve got responsibility for most of the communications at Aetna. Obviously we have corporate communications including both media relations and internal communications. I also have reporting directly into me the people who do communications on behalf of the business units, both PR and internal communications. I have advertising, brand management, and a creative services division that provides collateral materials for our business areas.
Interviewer: What functions do you outsource? Do you have to hire agencies specifically to do? How does that work? As far what’s your internal versus external groups.
Bolton: Well we have an ad agency obviously for our advertising. For PR we do the vast majority of it internally. The only time we go outside for PR is for a specialized major acquisition or divestiture and even then we’ve done so many of them that we do most of it in-house these days. We also have an outside PR firm that we’re using for a consumer PR campaign that we’ve been conducting for the past two or three years. But the vast majority of work that we do is in-house.
Interviewer: How do you measure success for your programs? What are the criteria by which you think that you’ve actually done something good or maybe that you’ve followed up.
Bolton: Well public relations is all about opinion. It’s about what people believe and it’s about how they act. And so the how they act part is harder to get at than what they believe part because you can survey them and ask them what they believe. And so if you have goals that are associated with communications, you can measure what a constituent group believes over time and you can see if you are making progress so we do that. But we also try to get to the how they act part which is, are they buying your stock? Are they buying your products? And we put into the communications department’s annual scorecard some actual business measures. So we put our necks on the line with our business partners in terms of sales in certain markets where we have campaigns going on and that sort of thing.
Interviewer: Does that mean that you are expected in terms of spending X number of dollars for advertising that you expect some kind of financial return from that or not?
Bolton: We’re not able to measure direct financial return on advertising but we just simply say as a part of our scorecard that membership which is our primary goal is sales in essence in certain key local markets is part of the way we’ll be measured. Now at the same time, we’re also measuring ad effectiveness in terms of recall and what people think about our brand and we’re also measuring media effectiveness; how many stores we get, whether they are positive or not in the key local markets. So we’re doing the more traditional closer end communications measures but also trying to get some of the close to bottom line measures as well.
Interviewer: Ethics is a very big subject these days in the corporate world. Does Aetna have an ethics program for its employees or do you have one for your department or how is the company view the whole subject of ethics and the importance of it across to the employees and others whoa are associated with it.
Bolton: We do that Jack. We have integrity as one of our basic values. I mentioned the Aetna Way. There are four fundamental values and integrity is one of the four. It’s the first one by the way. It’s the one we always mention first and we do have corporate ethics program. We have a required annual certification that each employee has to take. You have to read the code of ethics. You have to engage in some online sort of learning episodes where you have to understand how to apply the code in practice. You have to take the test basically and you have to certify on an annual basis. We also have conversations about it and we make it a critical point of discussion.
Interviewer: As you look back on your varied career, what activity or what was the thing that you did that gave your career the biggest boost? What caused you to really feel like you’ve done something good and got recognition for?
Bolton: I think I would say the announcement that we made of the settlement of a major lawsuit against Aetna by a group of physicians. We were the first company to settle that lawsuit. The lawsuits were brought by state medical societies against Aetna and against all of our major competitors in the late 90s. When our new leadership came in, it made the decision to basically become the first company to settle that lawsuit. And we did so out of the view that we needed to fundamentally change the way we operated with physicians. That we should see them as our partners and not as our adversaries. And so you might have found in another company where a lawsuit had to be settled an effort by the PR team to kind of down play it. To emphasize the fact that we’ve admitted to no wrongdoing and to try to, you know, slide a press release out at 4:30 on Friday and hope that it’d be buried in the Saturday paper. We took a different approach. We said this is a ground breaking thing. Yes we’re settling a lawsuit. Yes we’re paying damages. However, what’s represented here is a fundamental change in the way we do business that’s critically important. And so we’re actually proud of this. And we hired a room in New York. We got the head of the American Medical Association, the Connecticut State Medical Society and the California Medical Association to come with us. We put up a big banner up behind the stage that said New Era of Cooperation and we stood up there and we talked about our desire to work cooperatively with the physicians going on. It was live on CNBC. And the next day above the fold in the New York Times there was a story that said Aetna announces new era of reform. That was a pretty critical success.
Interviewer: I tell you that’s a great story there in more ways than one. What qualities do you think the CEOs look for in someone who holds a senior public relations job?
Bolton: Well I mean the traditional ones of being good at the fundamentals of communications. I think they also look for a sense of calm in crisis. A wise ability to think clearly about difficult issues and the conviction to offer strong and sound advice, sometimes advice that they may not even want to hear. And you can sense when they don’t want to hear it. But you know you don’t throw it in their face but you have to kind of quietly and persistently be a conscious. And I think they want that actually and they look for it. And again I think some people are afraid to speak up and not say what they really believe and to say what they think is right and it doesn’t work out over time.
Interviewer: You touched on something that’s a favorite subject of Larry Foster [inaudible]. He’s uses a term royal opposition.
Interviewer: Can you disagree to what extent with a CEO and still maintain a relationship.
Bolton: You can. You can if you do it out of respect for him or her, and a conviction that there’s room for disagreement, there’s room for multiple points of view. And offer your perspective with respect I think you can and should in fact have an obligation. And if you don’t, you’re not doing your duty and I think if you’re not doing your duty over time they recognize that. Nobody wants a lackey who you know just does what they’re told. You’re hired and paid at these rates to think clearly and to offer sound advice.
Interviewer: You have a wide acquaintanceship among the senior public relations people and know quite a few of them. What characteristics do senior public relations people have that are sort of self-defeating tendencies that they [inaudible]? What’s your observation on that?
Bolton: Well you don’t see it often, but there are some who seem to let their own ego get a little bit in the way and they start to become the story. Or to see themselves as being maybe bigger than they really ought to be. It’s a staff role after all and you’ve got to recognize that ultimately you’re not the decision maker. You’re the advisor. And I think it’s important to take that role on seriously with some degree of humility. But also with a centered calmness and conviction that is not, that doesn’t waiver from day to day and issue to issue.
Interviewer: You mean you may think that they were kind of wandering around [inaudible]. Based on your experience in both the government world and in the business world, what were some of the major differences that you see in the work environment or similarities because you’ve had your feet in both camps? What are your perceptions on how they are and how they operate?
Bolton: Yeah well one thing is that I think people in government don’t get as much credit as they should for being smart, dedicated, hardworking people. And I think they are equally so as the people in business. I had when I was in government a healthy respect for the corporate world and I think that was merited. Since I’ve been in the corporate world, I’ve seen much less respect for people who spend their years in government. And I think that’s unfortunate and inappropriate. Because I think that people in government do work equally hard in many cases and are equally dedicated. I also find that in government there is perhaps a better appreciation for the need to be focused on public opinion. It’s just inherent in politics. There’s an election and you got to be elected. And in the private sector sometimes a narrower view is taken of who your constituencies are and one of my favorite Arthur W. Page quotes is the one about existing with public permission because I think that really is important. It is true of I should say has been true of the corporate world as it is of the government world.
Interviewer: Success and being successful in business particularly at the senior level really depends on learning a lot about the business that your operating in . If you don’t know the business, you have minimal chance of really being a success in it. The [inaudible] is different from writing a news story but you need to know that too. But there’s a great emphasis on what we’re moving into is the field of public relations education. [inaudible] How much do you really need to know about public relations as a discipline from an educational standpoint to be successful as you do about business and human nature?
Bolton: Well I think you need to know both and I don’t know that you necessarily have to have formal training in public relations to be successful at it. I had journalism training. And I think it’s close but not the same thing. And but I think I learned the basics of public relation on the job and I think yeah I think you do have to know about it. Where you get the knowledge isn’t as important as the fact that you have it. And I think you need to be as you suggest very deeply acquainted with the fundamentals of the business or you won’t be able to operate effectively. But you also have to understand the essence of public relations in order to be a professional leader of your function.
Interviewer: [inaudible]government world and the business world. And I think you’ve basically answered that. Because the next aspect of that would be getting into the subject of ethics is people in the business are expected to be ethical. And I think we expect people in the government to be ethical but there seems to be a perception these days that neither one is doing too good a job at it. And so from your experience is there a sense for an awareness of the need in this area to be highly ethical or is it just we do what we need to do to get it done.
Bolton: Well I feel that I’ve been very fortunate to work in companies that have been very focused on operating ethically and I’ve worked with people both in government and the private sector who believe that that is just a fundamental critical factor. More than a critical factor. It’s sort of the price of entry. It surprises me and alarms me when I see people in politics or in business who are willing to do whatever it takes to get whatever it is that they want. And unfortunately they do seem to exist. It’s shocking. And I don’t know where it comes from. I think that we’ve got a wonderful system of government with a lot of checks and balances. And we have an appropriate amount of regulation that requires disclosure. And I think that transparency and disclosure are the critical factors in allowing constituents to see what it is that political leaders do and what it is that business leaders do. And that’s why I think the public relations function is so important because we I think not only speak to publics on behalf of our clients’ desired communications needs but also become a voice within the corporation for openness and transparency to constituencies. And I find myself often times advising the business. We have to tell people about this. This is something that we have an obligation to talk about. People have a right to know. We’re a large corporation. We earn $20 billion a year. We’ve got thousands and thousands of shareholders. We affect the lives I’m talking about Aetna. Twenty-five million Americans who rely on us for their health care coverage and other things. And we have an obligation to operate openly to give people insight into what we’re doing and why we’re doing it that it’s our obligation and we take that obligation seriously.
Interviewer: Okay, on selecting people for your department, what characteristics and abilities do you look for?
Bolton: Well I look for several things and I think I would start with integrity and ethics. And you know we were just speculating a moment ago kind of off camera about how where does it come from that some people seem to have it and some don’t. I don’t know that I can answer that question. But I do think that you look for it. And particularly in public relations you have to have a respect for and a dedication to the truth and a willingness to say this is what’s right. This is the way we see it and we’re going to stand up behind that. I think you look for that. I think it’s one of the things you hire for. You also hire for sort of basic communications ability with writing skill being the single most difficult commodity to find and yet the most critical that you must have and so I look for that. I hire for it. I also look for and hire for strategic thinking. I find that there are people who are actually pretty good reasonably good public relations professions who are able to execute well but aren’t able to think critically and strategically about business issues and business problems. And for senior roles I’m looking for the latter. I really do want people who can understand strategic objectives and help a business think about how to accomplish its goals.
Interviewer: Well you’ve answered my next question because I was going to ask you if it makes any difference when you are hiring at the senior-level or an entry-level position. If I heard you correctly you no you look for pretty much the same thing on an emphasized strategic level.
Bolton: Yeah more emphasis on the strategic thinking at a senior level I would say. But you know what I want strategic thinking all up and down my department. Even at the most junior levels. I’ve got people who are advising businesses on important PR considerations. And if they don’t understand that business and if they don’t understand how to think critically about the business needs and about how to apply communications skills to help the business accomplish its goals. And at the same time be strong enough to stand up for truth and doing the right thing. And have a broad perspective on the need of constituents that person’s not likely to be very successful. People who are good at writing and can write press releases but sort of sit there and wait for someone else to say oh go write a press release about such and such aren’t of much value.
Interviewer: I can say amen to that. What about education experiences. Do you look for any particular type of educational experience either in new hires or senior people?
Bolton: I love it when I find journalism experience and journalism training. But I don’t necessarily think that formalized public relations or journalism training is critical to success. I think that experience is and if you’ve got a law degree or an economics degree or a business degree and yet you’ve proven that you can function effectively as a communicator, I think that that’s just fine.
Interviewer: I was going to ask you if you preferred any particular type of business experience or any kind of experience in addition to the educational and personal trades and I gathered that you were saying that you did to some degree like people who have financial background or something else. Are there other ingredients that you would add to that mix as far as prior experience goes?
Bolton: I’m actually pretty open you know. It’s always nice from an Aetna perspective if you can find someone with healthcare experience. But it’s not it’s not essential. I think talent. Strategic thinking. I think an ability to understand business and economic issues is pretty important. But we need a variety of people who understand consumers and consumerism and all those sorts of issues as well.
Interviewer: What would you do you have any way you would assess a public relations experience. If you put them on a layer I’ve heard you put journalism sort of on top and I wonder if you put public relations or advertising or mass communications if there’s any room for somebody. How would you rate those?
Bolton: I don’t you know what no I don’t think you do. I think you hire for what for the role that you are looking for. I mean if I’m looking for a speech writer or an internal communications specialist, it’s nice if they have some background in that. A media relations specialist may have been a PR person for an agency for for a company or may have a journalism background or both. I actually don’t like to hire journalists directly. But people who have a journalism background or training who have been in PR with an agency or another company are often prized.
Interviewer: You sound like an old timer.
Bolton: I am. I am an old timer.
Interviewer: What about mid-career education for your employees or others. What’s most useful for more public relations training or maybe learning about finance or law or history maybe even going back for a liberal arts. What would you suggest would be most useful to somebody who is aspiring to a top job?
Bolton: I think it depends on what you’ve got and what you need. So I mean it really would depend. If you’ve got somebody who’s got a really strong business or legal background who doesn’t have as broad a PR understanding as you’d like, then you’d want him to get some PR training. Contrary wise if you got you know a real whiz at PR who doesn’t really get the business stuff, then you’d want to get the business or financial training. I’d really say there’s no way to generalize it. It’s and I think there’s a real important point here and that is that each individual has development needs. Each individual has strengths and development needs and we spend a lot of time trying to individualize our approach so that each person has an opportunity to sit with his or her manager, make an assessment of strengths and opportunities and to create a development plan that’s right for that person. And it’s going to be different for each person.
Interviewer: You had an opportunity to observe the public relations practice over the last twenty years or so. Do you notice any differences in the way public relations is practiced these days as opposed to 20 years ago or ten.
Bolton: Well I think that the obvious answer that it’s so true is that the pace of the new cycle has changed dramatically. And when I say that I don’t necessarily just mean the external new cycle. But even inside the company. The pace of communication is so much more rapid than it used to be. When I got to Aetna just 11 years ago we still had a printed company magazine. We don’t have such a thing anymore. It’s all on online and it’s updated several times a day. This is our internal communications vehicles. Several times a day new stuff is being posted and we’re constantly feeding information. Obviously the same is true externally. Where you’ve got a 24-hour news cycle and you can find yourself working on a different story in the afternoon than you were working on in the morning just because the news cycle has changed that rapidly. And it does change the way you think about the speed with which you have to make decisions, the clarity with which you have to think, the need for calmness is I think emphasized. And it’s also I think fundamentally changing the way constituencies interact with institutions. Some of the things that we were talking about earlier in terms of the crisis of confidence, I think, stem in part from the fact that constituencies are able to sort of self-form in the bloggisphere if you will and rise up and take points of view that have to be taken into account. Those points of view were always there historically but it wasn’t’ as easy for constituencies to sort of self create and become relevant in a relatively short period of time. So it requires for people w ho are practicing public relations to be very adept at understanding those changes, relating to those constituencies, and being open to them. Business I’m sorry to go on on this. But I think there’s some important stuff here. Business organizations historically tend to be a little insular and sometimes even a little arrogant because they feel that they can dictate their own terms. That’s less and less true as stakeholders who may not even be direct customers or suppliers rise up and have points of view that can be influential on regulators, on legislators and on the consistencies that do buy your stock and buy your products and so the ability to on a very rapid and sort of 24 hour a day basis stay in touch with multiple constituencies with multiple communications going in lots of different directions requires the same skill set but operating at just you know a much higher and quicker level than historically is the case.
Interviewer: That was a good answer. I was thinking about the emphasis on marketing communication and public relations called integrative marketing whatever. In one sense it’s an old thing but now there seems to be a new thing called marketing public relations subset of marketing as opposed to being the reverse of that. Does that trouble you or what is your reaction to that at all?
Bolton: When I got to IBM about 15 years ago I was asked to head corporate public relations. And yet the vast majority of people at IBM who are in PR were in product PR. They were pushing product. They were marketing PR people. And we had corporate PR and we had marketing PR and we had dotted lines from the marketing PR people to the corporate PR people. But the corporate the marketing PR people reported into marketing people in the businesses. I’ve been really blessed since I’ve been at Aetna to have all the PR professionals at Aetna report direct line ultimately into me which means that the people who were doing marketing PR who are in essence pushing product if you will are directly reporting into corporate PR and so what I’m looking for there is people who understand how to sell product, how to present our products and services in the best possible light to our customers and yet at the same time adhere to the principles of public relations that are critically important, i.e., to tell the truth, to be accurate and to be sensitive to the broad needs of various constituencies as you think about how to communicate.
Interviewer: In that connection you believe that the purchase of public relations firms by advertising agencies is a good thing or a bad thing? Or does it make a difference or? Or will it have any impact on ethical behavior at all? You have public relations firms owned by really profit oriented organizations.
Bolton: Yeah you know I'm not sure that I know the answer there. I will tell you that I think to me the alleged promise of that which is for these companies to offer a more integrated set of services. I don’t really see that developing. It appears to me that they are still pretty separate and you know they’ll come in and make a pitch about how they’re aligned with our PR firm is aligned with the ad agency and the direct marketing agency. And but they don’t. They seem to have met each other the week before they came in to make the pitch. They don’t really come across as being integrated. So I’m not sure that I see the value of particularly from that standpoint. Besides I’d rather be the integrator. You know I may want to procure different kinds of agency services but if there’s going to be an integrator, I don’t want it to be somebody sitting over there in the top echelons of some agency that doesn’t’ understand my business. That’s my job. So I’m not really looking for that. And it may be that there are inappropriate, inappropriate is the wrong word. But there may be influences on PR agencies once they are brought into these larger conglomerates that aren’t conducive to the pure conduct of public relations as I would like to see it done. But my guess is those firms won’t survive long if they don’t continue to meet the needs of their clients. And a client like me is going to demand pure unadulterated public relations expertise and if I don’t get it, I’m going to move to an independent firm where I can get it. So I don’t know I think the marketplace will dictate the value that these firms are able to provide. And if they start to run astray and it’s not a valued service, then they’ll have to fix themselves.
Interviewer: Do you think that the so called scandals use the word that comes to mind affects [inaudible]. Is that effective or polluted environment for public relations per se or?
Bolton: Well it hasn’t helped. And yet I think public relations has suffered over some longer period of time from a broader set of problems than just those more recent ones. And really I think one of the things that concerns me is that the term itself has fallen somewhat out of favor. I happen to like the term because I think it has the value of having word public in it. And again going back to Arthur Page and his view that companies exist with public permissions and this idea that you have to operate in the public interest is conjured up by the term public relations. And the fact that public relations has been perceived broadly as being all about spinning and weaving an unreality as opposed to what it really is is quite troubling.
Interviewer: Well, I would agree with you in fact, you know recently there are many people that call PR people spinmeisters and in fact somebody wrote a book in public relations, the art of spin. Is that reflective of the overall integrity of the public relations profession? Or do you think these are isolated because when many people use the term PR they use it pejoratively.
Bolton: They do.
Interviewer: Do you have any sense to that is kind of leading up to your role as guru of the Arthur Page Society.
Bolton: Yeah well you do see it used pejoratively. And I have to believe that it is the exception and not the rule. Just as I believe that the Enrons of the world and the WorldComs are the exception and not the rule. They are very high profile. I understand why they are. I think it’s appropriate that we broadly exhibit concern about issues of corporate trust and issues about malfeasants in public relations but that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of corporations are not to be trusted or the vast majority of PR practitioners are badly motivated. I don’t believe that’s the case. In fact I think that public relations when it’s performed well and effectively, it’s done with that dedication to the truth. Because over time, you know what, it won’t work if you don’t. Because people aren’t stupid. Publics are smart. And publics deserve and will get the truth and if that’s not what we’re about, then we won’t last long.
Interviewer: Do you think that public relations will ever be recognized as a profession comparable to say accounting, legal, or finance. Does it make a difference if we are accredited or not or whatever it seems to some people believe that we need to have or we will never be fully recognized. Is this something that bothers you or that you think much about?
Bolton: I haven’t thought a lot about it. But my off the top of my head answer would be. I don’t see accreditation as being critical to the success of the profession. I fundamentally believe that enlightened corporations or institutions let me broaden it from public corporation. Enlightened institutions inherently understand the need to practice public relations effectively. And leading practitioners will always find a home in those institutions.
Interviewer: Let’s talk for a little bit about your relationship with the Page Society and the vantage point that you have as President. One of the hallmarks of the Page Society is its so called Page principles. Can you describe for you personally how meaningful Page Principles are and what their value is now and to the society itself but to business and public relations in general.
Bolton: I think that we are incredibly fortunate in the Page Society to have Arthur W. Page as a rallying point. We could be you know named the you know the senior corporate public relations officer forum or something like that. But if we did, we wouldn’t’ have a person who stands for a set of principles as our kind of founding anchor. And it’s critically important to us as a group to be able to rally around an agreed upon set of principles that are enduring and unassailable and give us an anchor a center a reason for being that is meaningful.
Interviewer: One of the things that the (Page) Society takes upon itself to do in recent years is to help corporations improve their reputations by putting an emphasis on building trust within corporations. What other things can the Page Society do from your standpoint that helps elevate the reputation of corporations nationwide or even worldwide?
Bolton: Well that’s a great question and we’re thinking hard about that right now in fact. The book project that you were instrumental in bringing forward Jack is just a wonderful contribution not only to the Page Society but more broadly. And under my tenure what I’ve asked our senior leadership group to do is to think about how we can create programs with other C suite organizations possibly including the business roundtable or CEO organization but also perhaps including organizations involving HR, legal, and finance professionals around the issue of corporate trust. Because I think that is his a shared issue and a shared problem and I think there is an opportunity for us in communications or in public relations to work with the other members of the C suite on this issue of corporate trust.
Interviewer: You mentioned your experience at Aetna with the creation of yet a way which has obviously been a very effective thing for that corporation. I was wondering if there are other things that have occurred to you as you’ve seen it work effectively at the Page Society or other groups could be instrumental in helping to establish like a training in ethics per se or other things that you have helped corporations function better particularly American corporations known throughout the world not only for their innovativeness but their productivity being but for being just great ethical operating companies you want to do business with. You are in sort of [inaudible] you know far better than I do. But you know the current situation is that. Are there things you think you could do to help American businesses to improve their “ethical reputations” besides the building trust activity. It’s a kind of rooted question.
Bolton: Well you know again I think that’s what we’re searching for and I appreciate your reference to the Aetna Way. Because I think that the Aetna Way, the J & J credo others like it really are something that can distinguish corporations and make them become more trustworthy. Not because they have them and they put them up on the wall and that should somehow be admired. But because if they’re done correctly, they can actually change the way you operate. And if they do that, and leave you to be institutions that are not only dedicated to ethics and integrity but also dedicated to understanding the needs and relating to the needs of public constituencies. Then that’s it’s sort of who you really are as opposed to what you say that is critically important and if a credo or a set of values can make you fundamentally operate that way, then that’s how you earn trust. It’s day by day in the marketplace in the way you conduct your business with a compass and set of ethics.
Interviewer: I want to pick up on a phrase that you used in the answer which was and I’ve heard you talk about this recently. When you said they can be effective if they are done correctly. What is that?
Bolton: Well it means just that that they more than just up on the wall. I think Enron had a sort of widely known that they had a set of ethics or corporate principles in one sort or another that weren’t really part of the fabric of the way the company operates. It has to be something that is truly embraced by senior leadership. Not only talked about by senior leadership but lived by senior leadership. And it also has to be something that is embraced up and down the company. And if I may let me just tell you a little bit about our experience at Aetna when we introduced the Aetna Way there was such a hunger for it. People wanted it so badly that without us even mounting a campaign. We did put up some graphics on the internet site that this is what it looks like so people can. People were printing those out and putting them up in their cubicles. People were having posters made and putting them up in the service centers. People had mouse pads made. And it became just something that became a rallying point for us up and down the company. Jack Rowe and Ron Williams are two senior executives haven’t given us internal speech in the last five years where they didn’t show it on a slide and talk about it. And we’ve woven it into our training so that we give people training courses on how what the Aetna values and the Aetna Way really means. How to incorporate the understanding of it into your daily operations so that you are actually thinking about it. And I’ve been really gratified to see us in the middle of very difficult business meetings someone will make reference to it. And say the problem here is we don’t have a focus on the people who use our services who we put at the center of everything we do. And so the references to it come out in the course of doing our business. It’s become part of the fabric of who we are. And it really requires that kind of dedication to it and belief in it and I think J & J has a long much longer history than we do of having that kind of focus on it that makes it makes it real.
Interviewer: Have you ever had situations where the bottom line and making an ethical decision came into conflict with one another? Any come to mind maybe not but maybe they have or doing the right thing or something that ultimately wasn’t done.
Bolton: When doing the right thing was not done?
Bolton: Well I don’t I don’t know that I want to give an example of that but let me give an example of the opposite. We were in a meeting not too long ago at Aetna and we were talking about some of our policies or on medical management some of the things we pay for and one of them was mammograms. And someone was saying well these pay for themselves because you do the mammograms and you save not only lives but you also save medical costs. And the chief medical officer said well actually no. They don’t pay for themselves. They are more expensive than the costs that we save. And somebody said well why do we do them. And the answer was because it’s the right thing to do. And that is why we do it. And we do do it. And so there are ethical corporations. There are people who make decisions based on doing the right thing and it isn’t always about the bottom line.
Interviewer: That’s a good answer. You’ve been president for the Arthur Page Society for a while now. What do you see as the Page Society’s future?
Bolton: The Page Society is and has been for some time now, a place where the leading professionals in corporate public relations can come together with a few leading people from agencies and academe to engage in ongoing learning, continuous learning environment, and networking. In the context of a set of principles which we all embrace, And I think it can and should continue to be that rallying point for the appropriate practice of public relations. It also I think has the potential to make a broader contribution even to engendering corporate trust and I think that’s what we’re looking for today is how can we work with CEOs and other C-suite organizations to advance corporate trust by helping corporations operate more in the public interest in in a way that’s consistent with the Page principles.
Interviewer: You’ll be interested to know that we’re getting into the final stage of these questions. I know but you are familiar with the work going on here at Penn State in conjunction with the Arthur Page Center.
Interviewer: How do you see these two organizations: The Page Society and the Page Center working together. What do you think the Center can do to make a big contribution for its furthering fiscal or trying to improve it’s integrity on public communications. How can these two big entities come together and do something really constructive.
Bolton: Well I'm about to attend my first Page Center Board meeting, so I hope to learn more about the Page Center and what it does and how we can work cooperatively together. I think that the research that the Page center is beginning to fund has the potential to significantly advance the knowledge in the profession of how to operate ethically and operate consistent with the public interest. And I think that what I would hate to see is for this research to not be exposed to the people who can really benefit from it who are in the practice of public relations and so what I would like to see is a connection between the Page Center and the Page Society so that the academic work around ethics and PR that is being sponsored by the Page Center can be brought to the senior professionals in the Page Society who are operating today and can become a conduit for bringing that research and that learning to the floor and bring it to the attention of the people who are practicing.
Interviewer: What are some of the most important issues or enduring truths if you will you have learned during your career?
Bolton: To tell the truth. Curb it with action. Keep a sense of humor.
Interviewer: I will let you think about that. I’m going to these are just some quickies to wrap this up with. Who are some of the people that have been the greatest influence on your career or your life?
Bolton: Well I’d like to say Arthur Page. And actually although I don’t know him I would have to say he has had an influence by virtue of the group of professionals who have come together. Secondly I would say a group of people including yourself who have been mentors within the Page Society and have helped me learn. I can’t imagine how lonely the job I’ve had for the last decade or so would have been had I not had the opportunity to have this networking environment that the Page Society has provided me.
Interviewer: If you had an opportunity now to take a one-year all expense paid sabbatical what would you do?
Bolton: Well, I’d write a book about the Aetna turnaround and about the importance of the Aetna Way to the success the company has had over the last five years.
Interviewer: Is there a book or a writer or a teacher who has made a difference in your life for the direction you’ve taken.
Bolton: Not a book or a writer or a teacher. But I have in addition to people like yourself who I’ve known who are in the profession. I’ve had the great privilege of working for some great government and business leaders including President Reagan including Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady including Clayton Yeider at USTR (United States Trade Representative). John Acres and Lou Gershner at IBM. Jack Rowe at Aetna. Just a series of incredibly wise business leaders and government leaders who I’ve been able to benefit from in terms of my association with them.
Interviewer: Is there a historical figure living or dead that you liked or would like to emulate or have emulated?
Bolton: Yeah I do. I would say they tend to be political the people I admire and I would mention Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.
Interviewer: If you hadn’t had the career that you already had, what would you have liked to have done? Being a cowboy or [inaudible]
Bolton: No you know what. I started out to be a journalist. And my career went this direction and I don’t regret it for one second. But if I could have seen my journalism career through and seen where it would have lead, I that would be interesting to me.
Interviewer: How would you like to be remembered?
Bolton: Gee I don’t know how to answer that Jack.
Interviewer: A really nice guy. Brilliant. Hard charging?
Bolton: Not brilliant or hard charging. I guess as somebody who tried to do the right thing.
Interviewer: That winds up this particular session. I want you to know that we’ve been recording your thoughts and questions May 15, 2006. And your answers will be used by the Page Center as we see fit. You will receive no direct remuneration for this particular effort. So from my standpoint it’s worth an awful lot to hear your absolutions and we appreciate your taking the time to do this. I know the Page Society does and particular the folks here at the Page Center who will make great use of the tape that we’ve made. They’ll appreciate it for years to come. So thank you.
Bolton: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you Jack.