Legacy Scholar Grant
The Page Center will award grants to support scholars and professionals making important contributions to knowledge, practice or public understanding of ethics and resposibility in public communication or other principles of Arthur W. Page.
Penn State Live
|A Conversation with Ed Block Hosted by Marilyn Laurie|
LAURIE: Hi, I’m Marilyn Laurie and here on the 25th Anniversary of the Page Society I’m sitting with Ed Block.
BLOCK: Hi Marilyn.
LAURIE: Hi. The original force and energy behind the creation of the Page Society and where we are today. So Ed, it’s the 25th Anniversary of the Page Society, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. When I was a puppy at AT&T and you were my vice president, up there somewhere, I used to listen to you give talks to the department and over the years, I began to realize that you were beginning to speak to me about someone called Arthur Page who I had never heard of. Tell me why Page was so important to you and what caused you to feel the need to bring him forward to everybody who ever worked at AT&T and then to this larger universe.
BLOCK: Well it happened in one of those “wow” moments in my life. I was working for Southwestern Bell in St. Louis, I’d come out of newspaper work—like most of us did in those days—I never heard of Arthur Page. And was working in this little regional PR shop, I think 6 or 7 people, and what went off in my head was the discovery that the way we were organized in that little 7 person, was the same way the headquarters was organized meaning, the functional and by golly, every other Bell company was organized that way and I thought, I guess this is the way it’s done and then I realized there was a similarity, there was a system and that everybody was organized that way. And I thought to myself, well that couldn’t have been the tooth fairy, somebody must have thought of this. And that’s when I began to ask, why do we do it this way and why are we organized this way? Why can’t I be moved from one job to another and everything goes smoothly along in the office, move people around, promote them, transfer them? And that’s when someone told me there was a man by the name of Arthur W. Page who was the first vice president of what we now call public relations, in the United States and that there had never been anything like this and he invented it. And he institutionalized it, he institutionalized it in the Bell Companies and it was a scheme that worked and it had never been done before.
LAURIE: And, for the content of what he brought to these functions, tell me a little bit about Page, what did he believe? What rule did he bring to public relations in the company?
BLOCK: Well, the best story I can tell is that the day he was hired, I believe it was 1926, he was a magazine editor in New York and he was contacted by the CEO of AT&T and they met. And the CEO of AT&T apparently wanted him to write a book about the Bell Telephone System. Mr. Page said, well that might be a nice ego trip for you people but I’m not interested in doing it. And so secondly, the conversation came around to, would you like to come to work for AT&T and put your ideas to work here? And Arthur Page said to the CEO, he said, if you’re looking for a publicity man, I’m not interested. I’m interested in policy making. And so the CEO of AT&T said, well come to work and you’ll get a policy making job. And the reason that’s important to know about Arthur Page, he didn’t see himself as a communicator—we can come back to that later, not that he demeaned it but his basing premise was that what you do is what counts. Your actions count, not your words. And that’s where the phrase that we use in the Page Society about, it’s 90% doing and 10% talking about it so his notion from day one is that if you get your policies right, most of you public relations troubles are not going to emerge. They’re going to go away—not all of them. So policy is what Arthur Page was all about.
LAURIE: Right, let’s go back to why that was so important. This is still the time when the Bell System is buying up companies like crazy right? Working toward, getting permission from the government to become a national monopoly.
BLOCK: Yes, yes.
LAURIE: So, how does Page fit into the policies that were needed in order to make that happen?
BLOCK: Page not only institutionalized public relations, in all the Bell Companies, he institutionalized the role of public relations as policy making. Not just in his office but all over the United States in every company. And more important than that, an approach to customers that kept them satisfied with the price and the quality of the service. And Page could concentrate on selling the whole management on the fact that public relations was not a department, it was a way of running a business.
LAURIE: Okay. So we get from that to what we call the Page Principles, elaborate a little bit on how you see those and what made them relevant then and why they’re still relevant today.
BLOCK: Well I think because anyone reading them can realize they’re plain horse sense and therefore any employee in a company from the lowest levels to the highest levels can understand things like, tell the truth.
LAURIE: And yet, we see in the headlines that there aren’t necessarily people in corporate life there to advise and stop people before they don’t tell the truth.
BLOCK: Apparently it’s a hard idea to sell. But fortunately for us, he was a writer and he wrote a lot. A lot of speeches, a lot of letters, a lot of memoranda and so that’s where we get the mother load of what his philosophy is, what he taught and out of all that, it’s no great service to his legacy because he’s much more complicated in theory than this principles. But we had to distill out of what he knew or what he taught when he did, those key principles. One of my favorites is the one that says, practice public relations as though the whole business depended on it. And what he meant by that and what he did, what he institutionalized was in fact, not a PR department but a whole company that everybody accepted their role in what we call public relations.
LAURIE: Right, I remember a phrase around the holes was that we used words to hold management hostage.
BLOCK: That was his expression. Hostage to performance. And that’s what he used, institutional advertising for.
LAURIE: What was he like?
BLOCK: He was a guy that came from a very distinguished North Carolina family who had moved to the New York area. He attended prep school in Lawrenceville, he attended Harvard—a gentleman c’s as they used to say at Harvard, he didn’t exactly burn up the academic track. His father was a distinguished journalist and he also was a confidant of President Wilson.
LAURIE: His father?
BLOCK: His father.
LAURIE: Son of a gun, okay.
BLOCK: And that’s why he was Ambassador to England, to the Court of St. James prior to and during WWI, that was Arthur’s father so, this was a family that was part of the elite. And by the way, his family also…Arthur himself…his father…Arthur’s sons, were very instrumental in creating the Foreign Affairs Council. Because, the state department in those days would fit in this set where we’re talking now and a lot of the hard work was done you know, private organization that studied issues and recommending them.
LAURIE: I never heard any of this before, I’m fascinated. You’re saying that Arthur Page came from a family that knew the value of the word, that wrote for a living that knew the value of influence and exerted that influence in a political sense, on the CEO of America, which is to say the president.
BLOCK: That’s right.
LAURIE: So when he comes into his first job in corporate America, I’m beginning to understand the attitude that he brought with him. After Page left AT&T, he had—in my mind—some spectacular exploits as a PR man that influenced policy, can you tell us about some of those.
BLOCK: Yes, first of all, before he was with AT&T, while he was with AT&T and then after his retirement, he remained active. He was a consultant to presidents of the United States. He was often called upon; in fact, he was very influential in getting Ike Eisenhower to run for president. And as nearly as I could see, he consulted with presidents from when he was a young man—Teddy Roosevelt to Eisenhower. But I think one thing that sticks in everybody’s mind about Page and what a celebrity he was in a quiet way in his field is when President Truman had the anguishing burden of announcing the atomic bomb and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. It was Page who was called to the White House to consult with the President and write the announcement that President Truman used so, he had that kind of reputation and it built up over a long period of years.
LAURIE: The ultimate PR guy.
BLOCK: He was. And he didn’t think of himself as a PR guy.
LAURIE: No, he defined what we all aspire to when we think of what we’d like to accomplish.
BLOCK: He was all about corporate governance. I don’t think he would have used a fantasy word like governance but that’s what he would think of himself as his contribution to the business. The communications stuff which he thought was important but he would not think of that as his legacy, communications as such. Policy, yes.
LAURIE: And imbedded in that policy with this understanding of public opinion, the concept that the success of that policy depended on its being in the public interest. Not just being seen as in the public interest.
BLOCK: But being
LAURIE: But being in the public interest as in, tell the truth, even to yourself when you’re assessing whether or not what you’re doing is in the public interest.
BLOCK: Yes. And by the way as you know but many here today would not know that AT&T under Page was doing national consumer opinion and employee opinion polling in the early 1930s and from that time forward, continuously polled public opinion about the quality of telephone service so that was done when no one else was doing that.
LAURIE: Which brings us to the Page Society. What did you have in mind with the founding of the Page Society?
BLOCK: It was our custom to bring together the vice presidents of all the Bell Companies and my staff and myself for periodic conferences to talk about policy and so at the very last one of those meetings, only months before the actual physical breakup of the Bell companies, one of the people present at that meeting said, why don’t we create an Arthur Page Society as a basis for holding this together. And on that sort of semi-teary occasion, everybody thought that was a wonderful idea so an Arthur Page Society was incorporated in the State of Pennsylvania because the man who agreed—Irv Zimmerman was the man—who agreed to organize the first meeting and so it was incorporated as not for profit and that was the start of it and we began to think about what would be sustainable and once we were on that track it was pretty easy to say, well it’s the Page legacy. That’s the substance. The legacy applies to every corporation in the United States for certain so why don’t we reconstitute the Page Society and adopt that as its mission. And so we basically cut the ties to a company that we once revered and worked for and friends and what not and built a new mission, with membership, from all top-notch corporate executives and at the end of that story—not the end, the beginning of that story is Larry Foster. He knew about what we were doing and I called him up.
LAURIE: Excuse me; is this before or after Tylenol?
LAURIE: After Tylenol, so Larry at this point has very special stature.
BLOCK: He had probably had as a good…more stature than any other executive in the corporate world and so I asked him if he would be president of the Page Society—be the first non-Bell alumnus as president. And #1, with enthusiasm he said he would. Secondly he said about others and I suspect you did as well but we determined the criteria for membership and Larry started making phone calls and I made a few and Larry likes to say that the idea resonated so well with the corporate executives he said, no one ever turned him down and I had the same experience. So it was very easy to begin to build a new membership from the top corporate public relations executives in the country. He was the first; every other president now has come from some other—
LAURIE: Somewhere else. So after me what’d they lose? Ed, you’ve often said that Page’s ideas are not about developing professionals or professional communicators; they’re about something else. Tell me about that.
BLOCK: The man is our inspiration but it’s the principles, it’s the legacy that we are selling because we want this society to be concerned with the issues, the problems, the opportunities that occur at the intersection of the chief public relations officers job and the chief executive’s job. That’s the Page territory, that’s our territory. There is no other organization that I know of that is explicitly dedicated to where public relations officer, the chief officer and the chief executives where their jobs and their responsibilities and their accountabilities come together—that’s where we operate so that’s what we set out to do from the beginning and obviously are still trying to do. That’s not—in one sense not an easy thing to do. On the other hand I think anyone who has attended our conferences through the years know we’re getting better and better at providing that service to our membership.
LAURIE: What do you attribute the success and strength and growth of the Page Society to now—25 years later?
BLOCK: Well, Page’s ideas. The Page Society is all about, are these fundamental ideas that Arthur Page—not the Bell Telephone—Arthur Page articulated and showed us how to make them work in a big organization and he also showed us—that’s the policy part—showed us how to make them work in what we now call public relations departments. So it’s not only just the ideas but how to put them into action.
LAURIE: Right, you remind me that there’s something else that a lot of public relations senior people lust after. That was part of the way Page thought about organizing which is that all the functions reported to the PR person so that the PR person had the control and the capacity to influence policy and to execute it across all the functions.
BLOCK: Yes. And that had never been done before. Before Page, there was no comparable job in any other corporation to what Page created when he was invited in there and modeled for everybody else.
LAURIE: And there are a lot of companies—a lot of CEOs today who still see that as the job. And I remember you telling me, ‘if you screw up media, you don’t get a chance to do everything else.’
BLOCK: That’s correct.
LAURIE: But the key to the Page legacy is the capacity to influence because you have the full palate.
BLOCK: Yes. And, it’s difficult for me to describe how you infuse that into an organization but early in my career a couple of things, they come to mind. One is that, I was an entry level employee and I was with my immediate supervisor and we were in a meeting with the vice president and it got a little heated as my immediate supervisor actually was pointing his finger at the vice president in a meeting. Remember, this is maybe a second level of management and he’s pointing his finger at the vice president and they were having a venomous argument. Of course I’m looking around for the exits you know, if my boss is going to go I’ll be right out the door behind him you know. Well it didn’t end that way; he convinced the vice president that what he was proposing was right. And I walked out of there thinking, I’m going to like working for this outfit, if you can do stuff like that and get away with it and win. This is a pretty promising looking place. And I’ll tell you the other story that comes after that, still working at that same little regional PR shop, I was transferred so I guess the boss’s boss decided well maybe it’s conventional or appropriate for him to say something nice about me in my departure and so what he said was this, he said, ‘one thing I’ve learned,’ he said, ‘when that guy Block shows up in my doorway, I know to drop what I’m doing and see what he wants or what he needs.’ And I thought to myself, gosh that’s kind of a nice compliment. And that thought lasted about ten seconds. And what came to mind was, that’s how they regard public relations. Not me but, when there’s a problem or something that needs a decision, you show up. And you show up with a solution. Or at least a solution, an array of solutions. And the more I thought about that, the more I thought, in a bureaucracy, in a hierarchy, that’s really remarkable and how did we get that way? Well we got that way because the role model was a guy named Arthur Page and he taught everybody and rewarded everybody for behaving in the same way and I can’t tell you how many times in my life and in your life you know, we have ended face up to that when we weren’t the big boss, where it was important to. So we were brought up that way. That’s Page. That’s different, and you can train and reward people to do that or not, it’s a culture thing.
LAURIE: Let’s turn for a minute to the awards. Particularly the Hall of Fame Award. You actually started as chairman of the awards and awards have come and gone and you’ve thought a lot about them, tell me a little bit about where that started. What it means.
BLOCK: Yeah, what we sought to do was to get living, breathing, public relations executives who did something or do something continuously that’s in the Page tradition, that was the idea. How they started was—we started them in the old Bell system, I started them when I was vice president of the all mighty Bell as a way of helping our public relations staff people there understand the Page principles in action so we can reward for when they did something that was consistent with them.
LAURIE: Excuse me, that is a really interesting idea that I don’t know that we’ve thought about that could spread inside the Page Society into member companies because that was—I remember that, that was a potent motivator.
BLOCK: Then when I came back from Chicago to AT&T we started doing it, asking all the Bell Companies to do it and recommend people for the awards, we had criteria. And then we’d have a big dinner or lunch and then have the chairman of the board show up and say nice things and get their picture taken with.
LAURIE: It would also help the chairman of the board be reminded about the Page principles.
BLOCK: Yes, strange you would say that, that’s not occurred to me more than once.
LAURIE: I am so surprised.
BLOCK: So then when the Page Society came along of course, we again established for the big annual award, the same kind of criteria, and then since then other kinds of awards have been developed for people whose contributions to the Page idea have been significant. That makes it open to academics and so on and so forth so it was a kind of a natural progression from starting out small and ending up with trying to acknowledge something really important in terms of an individual member of the Page Society so that’s where they came from and I still think they serve as good reminders of what this society is all about. You were asking me earlier and I failed to say to—why has it succeeded as Page society. And I think, our membership doesn’t think so much about this, the way the society has grown, the gifted people that we have attracted. I mean it’s the crème de la crème of corporate executives. It’s focused on an enduring kind of objective and everybody can say, ‘that makes sense to me—that stuff’s right, it still works today.’
LAURIE: It’s bigger than I am.
BLOCK: And it’s bigger than I am. And I think the biggest recent milestone is the creation of the Arthur W. Page Center in Penn State University. Now yes, that idea got a pretty good nudge from Larry Foster but the fact that what is now the biggest school, communications school in the United States, which is at Penn State, leaped at the idea of creating an Arthur Page Center. So much so that the promos put money in the budget to create offices and conference rooms for the Page Center in the main building of the communications department. And the associate dean runs that program as a staff of couple people—if a university like Penn State and the dean and the associate dean and others in the faculty are offered this opportunity and they jump on it. How many societies do you know from the twin-headed dentists of Rocky Mountains to whatever else or the CPAs, how many do you know that a major university like that would say, we want that here. And of course it’s the power of the idea so I think that with good stewardship by the board of directors sticking to selling those ideas or reminding people of those ideas, rewarding people for their creativity to those ideas, the Page Society can be as big as it wants to be. I don’t think it wants to be very big—it’s not the PRSA but it can be—it can go on forever and now with an anchor at Penn State, which provides this scholarship to—
LAURIE: Good point.
BLOCK: —to enlarge those ideas—and the stature. I think those are all obvious evidences that the Page legacy is powerful and useful.
LAURIE: You’re not only obviously right, but it seems to me, we have to be vigilant—to go back to something you said earlier about the difference between the Page ideas and professionalism in communications. We have to vigilant in keeping this flame of, it’s about policy, it’s about doing the right thing, it’s about influencing the outcomes of the corporation. It’s about the integrity of what is done across the institution as well as the integrity and coherence of what you say. It’s about the inside and the outside, both having the same idea of what the company is about. It’s about the content of what we look back on later and say, that was a great performance. That we have to be careful that we keep that right at the center of what Page is and as we go on, not become another professional society…if you will.
BLOCK: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more obviously but there’s ways in which you do that, I think one is you need a few grumpy old people like me around to keep reminding that you know, let’s keep our eye on the ball. You obviously need a strong board of director’s staff and leadership at the top positions which we have had all along who keeps the organization focused because it’s tempting to get trendy. There are a lot of things in the corporate world that—almost everything in the corporate world is…action of any kind has a component of public relations in it so you could chase every one of those opportunities. You could bring in the latest gurus to talk about that, but that’s not a society that’s keeping an eye on the intersection between the CEO and the chief public relations officer and building our programs and our communications in that target because that’s the Page territory and it’s unique. And it’s a big enough mission for anyone.
LAURIE: You bet.
BLOCK: And we don’t have to do all these other things.
LAURIE: Ed, let’s go back 25, 26, 27 years ago to the actual formation of the Page Society. What in particular can you tell me about it?
BLOCK: Well, it occurred about the time of the breakup of the Bell Telephone System, and that was 1984. So, prior to that physical breakup, we had one last conference in which we brought together all of the vice presidents of the public relations of the Bell Companies, my senior staff, myself. So one of the guys in the room—it was Irv Zimmerman—who proposed that we should form an Arthur Page Society. And at that nostalgic moment—so everybody said, hey that’s a great idea Irv. And why don’t you do the groundwork to establish it. So that was a start. We had our first meeting which Irv organized in Pennsylvania. We had a business meeting we elected officers. Jack Koten became the first president and set dates and you know, so on and so forth. It was pretty soon after that—in my recollection—it was Jack Koten who first said, an alumni association is not sustainable but in talking about it we said well, there is something that represents a real mission and a mandate and that’s the Page Legacy. That is an enduring thing; it’s sort of an accident that it’s connected to the Old Ma Bell cause that’s where he worked. But these were original ideas by a man named Arthur Page and they’re as relevant today and in the future as they ever were. So we said alright, let’s build a new organization with that kind of a mission and we set about doing that. Bringing Larry Foster aboard as the first president outside of the old Bell family.
LAURIE: What was your role in that?
BLOCK: I called Larry we were good friends and said, we need a president who is not of the old Bell system, and you’re the guy that has the stature to do it. And he responded with great enthusiasm. And so then we set about recruiting members out of the corporate world. We cut our ties to the Old Ma Bell and Larry and I and I believe you and others made phone calls to top executives in public relations and other corporations and began to build the cadre—the new membership and the new mission.
LAURIE: And my memory, as we begin to recruit people from outside the AT&T empire was that we were very focused on who they were and what kind of public relations did they seem to practice as opposed to what their rank was or what particular company they came from. Do you have that same memory?
BLOCK: That’s my recollection too. We wanted people who got—who would get the Page idea you know, that’s who we were looking for.
LAURIE: We’re looking for the person.
BLOCK: Yes, the person.
LAURIE: You used to tell me a story about what Page looked like at work.
BLOCK: Yes. We don’t really…very few pictures of him survived but from what I was told by those who worked for him is that he was kind of a frumpy guy. He didn’t—wore off the rack gray suits and no fancy tailoring and often would be seen around his office with one of his collar points sticking outside of his suit jacket and a tie all askew, maybe not quite pulled up around the neck, he had no interest in being a fashion plate. So he was not a physically pre-proposing man but his ideas obviously were. In the way he asserted them, in the way he wrote about them. But I did have one story about him I just love to tell because it’s right on and that is that the old AT&T headquarters was on the corner of Broadway and Dye Street in downtown New York City and so Page’s office overlooked Dye Street, and across the street there was a business executive who could look out of his window and look into Page’s windows. And as the story goes, he was troubled by what he saw going on in Page’s office so he knew the CEO of AT&T so he called him up and said, you have a fellow who’s working for you who, as far as I can tell he never does anything. I’m not sure he’s somebody you need to get rid of. He said, I can see into his office and he sits at his desk and he smokes his pipe, gets up occasionally, paces around the office. I don’t see what he’s doing. And the CEO of AT&T said, oh that would be Arthur Page. He said, he’s my very best man; he’s the only one around here who thinks.
LAURIE: By the way, just for the record, you never knew Arthur Page.
BLOCK: I never knew him, no. I had the very good fortune of having two immediate bosses who had worked for him, and were very helpful to me, not only in understanding him but digging up documents, speeches and letters. And of course I did know his son, John.
LAURIE: Well, wait a minute, so the two guys who worked for him, he would have hired.
BLOCK: Correct. Or found somewhere in the Bell Telephone Company.
LAURIE: Who were they?
BLOCK: One of them was Douglas Williams. He hired me. He was the vice—
LAURIE: We thank him for that.
BLOCK: He was the vice-president of Southwestern Bell and he too was kind of short, stocky guy—not fat but stocky—ex-newspaper man, St. Louis Post Dispatch. Had too many pencils and pens in his pockets, drove a rattletrap, four-door, gambled too much, was a madman. But what he, I’m sure Page reacted to him and he took Page because he was an innovator. He was an innovator. And in many ways—not only in what we do but in hiring practices, he was a risk taker, like you don’t particularly find in a corporation. And of course he was accessible. He was with the troops, so he was an exception. The other one was Walter W. Straley. Walter W. Straley was an Iowan—brilliant man, absolutely brilliant. An innovator interested in public policy issues outside of the business and involved himself in them. Literacy. And by the way he was a terrific writer. Colorful writer. And some of the editorials he wrote for the Pacific Northwest Bell company magazine, employee magazine—he was president of the company—are legendary in their non-corporate language. And criticisms of the company’s own practices and here he is the president. So, with all of that said to me about these two guys—Williams and Straley was that, why would they emerge among the people that Page mentored and I think they were not cookie cutter images of Page himself but they were bright, interested. They were literate; they were good writers in their own. And they were innovators. And they would take risks. They really ran their jobs and I think that says something too about Page to me, that he’s more interested in results. And by the way, neither of these were Harvard types I can assure you. Those are the kind of people that prospered working for Page because they were innovators, they were risk takers, they would try things. And they weren’t afraid of problems. A problem to them was an opportunity. And by the way, at the time Williams and Straley were vice-presidents. They were policy makers in the companies where they worked. The point is those were the people that shaped me and shaped you and shaped so many people. They may have been crazy, they may have even not dressed properly but out of the Page legacy comes a lot of people that weren’t afraid of the public relations job, its tasks, and weren’t afraid of getting in policy arguments with the general council or the personnel and vice president. They were working at it everyday and that’s what Page really infused into the business and from those people all the way down into the ranks so that second level supervisor who’s my boss, can stab Doug Williams in his chest with his finger, and end up winning the argument. And we need more of those people in the business today.
LAURIE: Amen. Ed, thank you. Thank you for sharing on the 25th anniversary, where we come from. And thank you on the part of all of us, for driving this Page legacy from the time I was a tot in the business and first heard about him from you, all the way through to today. So, we’re lucky.
1986 Ed Block annual meeting (sound interview)