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
|Martin Interviews Ed Block - Page Principles|
MARTIN: The Page Principles are not a recipe for running a PR department; they’re the principles for running a business in the public interest. Arthur Page was AT&T’s Vice President of public relations from 1927-1946. I’m Dick Martin and I was privileged to work at Page’s desk for five years when I led public relations for AT&T. Page didn’t leave any notes in the drawers, or at least none that I found, but I did have access to something better, one of his successors, Ed Block. Ed was Public Relations Senior Vice President at AT&T during much of the 1970s and 80s when the company was the world’s largest corporation. He isn’t old enough to have known Page personally but is one of the founders of the Arthur W. Page Society. No one has done more to preserve Page’s legacy. Here’s what the Page Principles mean to him; #1 tell the truth.
BLOCK: Seems obvious because it is. The problem is that we don’t always tell the truth in the corporate world. We do dissemble; we do half-truths. The other thing about truth telling from my perspective, I don’t know about Mr. Page’s but mine is that in being a chief public relations officer is that when you’re hashing out a policy at the top level of a company or you’re making plans to respond or taking to an issue that comes up or you maybe create an issue…that people in top management have different views of how that should be undertaken so when you get down to specifics of the general counsel, thinking of what should be done in view of potential litigation you know…may say, say nothing. Or be careful what you say. Don’t give people an easy suit. Labor relations executive may say don’t do that because you’ll hear about that when bargaining comes around, and it’s going to cost you several million dollars. And on and on through the management specialties. So one of the problems that a public relations executive has is that it isn’t so much truth—it’s truth, in whose perceptions are we talking about? And the PR executive is the one who has to think long term and has to think about an action or a statement by a company, what the various constituents, stakeholders—whatever you want to call them—will think about it. And so it becomes a very, very messy game in top management to take actions, to make statements, develop policies that the outside world will perceive as fair and just—despite perhaps the short term consequences in the courthouse or wherever else of that action. So when Page said tell the truth, I’m sure he had the same problems in his day as we have had in ours. It’s not so much a company saying well, this week we’re not going to tell the truth. You know, I mean that’s silly. That’s not going to happen but it’s, can you get at the truth. And as you would know from your experience as much as I do mine, there’s another dimension of it, many times you have to take decisions, important decisions, when all of the facts are not yet available and you have to go on your gut—or your instinct…or the principles that guide the business, take your pick. So, telling the truth is axiomatic in the sense that if you don’t, your credibility sooner or later is going to be destroyed. And worse, the first people that know that you’re not telling the truth are your employees. And that’s bad.
MARTIN: Then the jig is really up.
BLOCK: It’s really up.
MARTIN: Prove it with action.
BLOCI: Well, actions speak louder than words, that’s all Mr. Page was saying and who can challenge that? And that, by the way, was why he so often was heard to say and wrote in speeches that public relations is 90% doing and 10% talking about it. Some of our peers and our colleagues might not like that appraisal of percent in value of their job but that’s what he said. But it really is, actions speak louder than words and we see so many times—and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it where you frame a policy or a practice properly in terms of the customer, and you announce it. And you go on to the next problem and no one was left behind to follow-up to see that in fact that that policy made it to the field.
MARTIN: Listen to the customer.
BLOCK: Well, listen to the customer was a major, major thing with Page, and with me. And I assume with you, having been brought up as disciples of Page is that, how are you going to know what policy needs to be changed, what policy needs to be modified, abandoned, if you’re not listening to the customer? And what Page did, his way of listening to the customer, was public opinion research I mean, that was major tool. How do you know what they think if you don’t ask them in a scientific sort of a way and he insisted on that and it was done constantly by AT&T and by the Bell companies and by all of them together. He had other ways of—one just personal anecdote, when you said I’m a direct descendent of Page, it turns out I did report to two people who in their day had reported to Arthur Page so I had that direct communication from bosses who were shaped by him and trained by him and had a lot of his papers, that’s where I got a lot of them originally. I remember one of those people telling me, complaint calls come into the main switchboard and usually want to talk to the president’s office…or the chairman of the board, whatever. He said, go make a deal with the chief operator of the switchboard, the main company switchboard to send every eighth call to your office or every tenth call. Well, he had learned that from Page. I mean, if you want to know the degree to which every day we abuse customers, personally take their complaint calls. So I mean, he taught many people to do that and not just presidents of companies but, that was a common thing. He also was very influential in putting in the measurement systems; we call them indexes but, the measurement systems that measure performance at the customer interface. And it seems quaint in our day now but one of the measurements was overtones—literally was called overtones. Meaning, with a monitor on the line, did the employee treat the customer politely and with courtesy? Whether the right answer was given or the wrong answer, there was a different measurement for overtones and I think that’s lovely. Can you imagine how life would be so much more wonderful today if every business we dealt with measured overtones?
MARTIN: Managing for tomorrow.
BLOCK: Well first of all, these concepts that we call the Page Principles, you want to know the truth? They’re horse sense. They’re commonsense, that’s what they are. And so, managing for tomorrow, he always meant a couple of things. One is that you wanted to—a business wants to succeed over time and therefore, you manage on the basis of how you can prepare and execute your business plans overtime for success so that’s a part of what he meant. Another part of what he meant was that, what you do today may compromise what you can achieve tomorrow or what you do today may facilitate success tomorrow so, back to the policies you know, get the policies right. Get the business plan right. Don’t be greedy. Cover your debt. Pay your investors a fair return. Pay your employees a fair wage so, it was really two kinds of concepts but one is; what you do today is going to affect you tomorrow, for good or for bad so why not you just do it for the good?
MARTIN: Manage public relations as if the whole company depended on it.
BLOCK: That’s one that many of our peers, I think, don’t understand fully what he meant. He wasn’t speaking of public relations as a department. You see again going back to his notion that the best resource for influencing public opinions are your transactions with your customers. Or it could be transactions with your community or whatever but it’s at the interface where the company meets a public or the public, mostly customers. And I want to tell you something, if I may, about the public opinion research that he had established in which you and I have carried on through the years. And our expert researchers saw to sort through a huge pile of data to see what really is significant and what isn’t cause as we all know, you can ask questions of a respondent and it may be the wrong question or it may frame a question that the respondent could care less about you know, or didn’t care about that day or you know, whatever. So the statisticians have a technique called regression analysis in which you wrote you hold one question still and you rotate all the other questions and study around it and see what correlates. And guess what correlates? Never failed, last contact with a telephone company employee. Once you hear that and you say, that makes sense because that’s why I got mad at Bloomingdale’s yesterday or whoever else—my General Motors dealer or whatever else so of course that influences or shapes public opinion, he understood that and measured it. So, year after year we would come up with the same measurement and it does…the same outcome. And it really does pain me that too many companies have cut back on their investment and public opinion research that, here’s a truth that was demonstrated the beginning of the 1930s and is still true today, is the customer interface and boy, the public relations departments that are the same companies don’t even know what’s going on at the customer interface but they’re communicating like crazy.
MARTIN: Well then the last principle which I’m going to paraphrase I think a little, although it’s one of my favorite, no matter what happens remain calm, patient, and good humored.
BLOCK: Yes, that seems like a nice idea doesn’t it? And if you’ve ever been in a situation in top management where the pickets are marching through your lobby, if not around the block in front of the building where newspapers were editorializing against you, it creates complaining. Congress is looking at legislation that you say, surely this is the end, and we’ll be terribly crippled. There’s a tendency obviously, management human beings to say, sue the son of a guns, get rid of them. You know, take that editor to lunch, show him where he’s wrong.
MARTIN: Cancel their advertising.
BLOCK: You cancel the advertising, we’ve done that. The corporate statesmanship is so beautifully crafted and CEO speeches are simply not apparent in the conference room or the bosses office where you’re trying to decide what to do about the criticism so I think in that sense, and Page meant a couple of other things I mean, obviously he meant literally what it says but, in your communications through your employees. Your communications with your customers, to the public you know, count to ten. Get your blood pressure down. And it’s apparent as you read his speeches that he wrote for the CEO of AT&T, there really is a calm…an American sort of way of looking at the issue. There are times when he said and did things that were not provocative when they might otherwise have been in the face of criticism so I think under his watch and I think those of us who have succeeded in his footsteps, there’s a style. And you see it in many other companies as well, it may not be exactly the same as Bell, it doesn’t have to be, it has to be appropriate to the principles that guide that company but there’s a style about these things and a way of talking to the public—whether it’s in print or in a press conference. How the CEO responds to a tough query from a reporter and you see some of them, every once in a while they lose their cool and of course, the television loves it you know, great picture right? So you know, people have to be trained not to do that and to be consistent with the character of the company and style of the company even in the face of adversity so. I spent ten minutes to explain what Arthur Page said in a sentence—be patient, calm and good humored. Good idea.
MARTIN: Good words to live by as well.
BLOCK: Yeah I’ll say.
MARTIN: All the panelists join me in hoping you found this discussion profitable and even more importantly, that you find a way to continue it where you live and work in the real world.