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.
1. Foster: Ed, I was trying to figure out today how long we’ve known each other and worked together and I got up to about 40 years and then I stopped there.
Block: Well I think so because it goes back to the old discussion group that we used to have. And also the, the monthly dinners in New York. So it has to be 40 years.
Foster: And our offices were never that too far apart. You were in New York at that palatial building on what was it Madison?
Block: Well I spent most of my years in that semi palatial building at 195 Broadway. you know which was a
Foster: With that grand Ma Bell, AT&T, Ed, I’m going to take you back to one of the most important business stories of the century, the previous century. The break up of AT & T, which you had an absolutely critical and important part, because a lot of the viewers will be of a different generation. I want to give them a feel of what happened, when it happened, and let them take the story from there so they can appreciate the role you played.
Block: Well I think that there are some real lessons in that, that are contemporary. The story itself is an old story. It’s a, it’s ancient history by today’s standards. As a matter of fact it was, believe it or not, it was a quarter of a century ago.
Foster: Was it really?
Block: Yeah, so
Foster: Give us the year that would have been what ‘60?
Foster: I'm sorry. ‘82 yeah.
Block: ‘82 year, but I think it can be mined for some questions I mean lessons if you want me to talk about that.
2. Foster: Well, I’d like to I want to put it in perspective.
Block: I bet you want some context.
Foster: AT&T at the time I believe was the largest company in the world.
Block: That’s correct.
Foster: And at the time I believe you had about a million employees?
Block: Yeah I can still rattle those stats off for you.
Foster: Well, put that in context.
Block: Sure, a million employees.
Block: 90 million customer accounts.
Foster: 90 million.
Block: 90 million, three million shareowner accounts, 500,000 pensioners. If you look down a list as well it was a story. The break up of the old Bell Telephone System was a story that impacted every consumer in the United States virtually and some abroad because of our partnerships with, with typically you know government owned telephone systems in Europe and Asia. So we were so in the scale of the constituencies affected by it. There’s probably been very few stories, Pearl Harbor maybe, like that at all you know because of the of the many, many people who were affected by it.
Foster: Right, now the Bell System had a monopoly.
Foster: And it got into the courts and they ruled against Ma Bell and said you must break up. Is that?
Block: Well, it was a what’s called a consent decree, that is the two sides the justice department of the United States and AT&T agreed to a settlement which was then taken before the court, and following some other hearings, it was approved. So it wasn’t the court’s decision as such, but it would have been if it had gone all the way through. And the, so it was a, that’s another thing about it even though it was a big anti-trust case. It must have been maybe six years old by then. And, but it was totally unanticipated that it was going to end that way and before the judge rendered a decision. And before it had run its course. So as a consequence, it was page 1 news.
Foster: All over the world.
Block: Big time for sure and I can you know tell you a little bit about that if you want because.
3. Foster: Well again to put it into perspective. You worked for Charles Brown the Chairman and CEO of AT&T.
Foster: And I believe in addition to being in charge of communications for the entire corporation, you also were the assistant to the chairman were you?
Block: Yes, at that time yes.
Foster: That brought about a very close working and personal relationship.
Block: yes yes.
Foster: Where were you and where was Charles Brown when that decision was handed down?
Block: Well the story goes like this; that it was not a surprise to me or to any of my colleagues and senior management because what you do try to settle a case if you can. And so we had, so I knew that was being worked on. As a matter of fact this was in the Reagan Administration. We actually had achieved a handshake with the Carter Administration, but when President Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan, his guy said, “No last minute deals are going to go into the history book with our fingerprints on them.” So in any case so it was not. I had actually done a plan for that earlier with the Carter Administration. So this was not a big surprise to me, but anyway here’s how the story unfolded. I was sitting at my desk at 195 Broadway, not the palace on Madison Avenue. And Charles Brown called me on the intercom as he frequently did and said can you come into my office. It was right around the corner from his office. And so as I stepped out of my door, I ran into our vice president and general counsel, a man by the name of Howard Trienens, and it was evident we were both going to the same location so we went into Charles Brown’s office. And he said that now, by the way, this general counsel obviously led the AT & T negotiations on the settlement so it sure wasn’t any surprise to him. But in any event, we go into Charles Brown’s office and he said, he said I’m ready to recommend to the board of directors that we make a settlement with the Justice department. This thing can go on for another ten years, that’s a lot of lawyer fees, and worse in an anti-trust case, when the government is trying to break it up. We were no longer a 100 percent monopoly at that time, but we dominated the industry. You don’t know what business you are in, or may be in five years down the road, and so you know Charlie was aware of those kinds of considerations. We were running an annual construction budget of $25 billion, and how do you know what to invest in? How do you know what to tell the Bell Laboratories to invent, I mean you know. So anyway, Charlie said I’m prepared to recommend to the board that we accept, and then interestingly enough he turned to Howard and he said; Where do I go? How do I lay down my sword? And Howard said well it’s not as simple as you think it is, but it can be done. And he explained not to get into too much detail, but we were operating under a consent decree signed in 1954, so you had to go back to that court, ask them to vacate that decree and then take the new decree to the new court and get it approved. So you’ve got two different judges. and those guys have egos as it turned out, and anyway, then Charlie turns to me and he said, you have to demonstrate to me or you have to show me that we can plausibly explain this. Meaning all those shareowners and all those employees and all those customers effected. You know you can’t just send them a postcard. So is there, can we explain this plausibly, because we’ve been fighting that case you know as they say “vigorously.” You know and it had been running for some years, so anyway that’s what he said to me. So he said. “Ed get to your typewriter.” In those days we were still using two typewriters, dates it for sure, so anyway that’s how the news came to me. I went, we talked a little bit longer and believe it or not I went to you’ll recall we got an apartment in Manhattan on 52nd Street and I went home. In the laundry room I had a little desk and an old Olympia typewriter, and a lot of coffee. And so I did it, took me about two days I guess. I did the whole plan. How we were going to announce it. How it was to be arranged. How it was to be done, all of the details. And then came back to Charles Brown’s office a couple of days later. I worked pretty much night and day, because you know the biggest fear is a leak.
Block: And so anyway, I bring it back to him and I say take him through it. He said okay to me, what’s next? So that’ how it unfolded, but if I may, unless you want me to stop talking about this, there were a couple of other.
Foster: No I want you to carry on, but it’s curious that one of the most dramatic and important business stories and press releases of all time, was written in the laundry room.
Block: On an old German typewriter.
Foster: On an old German typewriter. Oh that’s wonderful. Go ahead, tell me some of the
Block: I didn’t have any distractions as I was working on it. What I was going to say, some of the lessons that would be true today even though that case is history. And the irony of the whole Bell System is put back together again, in the form of two companies, the new AT&T and Verizon. So, but anyway, one thing I said to Howard in that first meeting, I said we have to have a joint press conference with the Justice Department. It’s, it’s very important and that has to be a condition of this agreement. And what was in my mind was, you would know and Howard got it and Charles Brown got it immediately. An announcement like that was going to set off media frenzy, and so what you want to do, is you get both sides together at the same time and the same place and tell the story. So that you don’t have reporters, you know, we announce it and then the reporter calls the Justice Department and says AT&T is saying so and so what do you say to that? And you know that goes on forever and to get a coherent story out of a zillion reporters you know doing that is you’re going to have chaos, so I did say joint press conference. Well, as it turned out, the assistant attorney general for anti-trust was okay with him. He was a by the way, he was a college professor at Stanford, and so we did have a joint press conference and that really helped the reporters get the story straight. But, it made it possible to tell the story one time, one way, one place, and stick to it. And that’s what we did on a Friday afternoon in Washington at the Overseas Press Club. There were about, as I recall, about 110 reporters attended the press conference. And that weekend I recall going from memory just in the AT&T PR department, not in the Bell companies but we fielded 4,000 queries.
4. Foster: Did you really?
Block: That weekend.
Block: 4,000, so anyway, you know lesson number one if you got a story with that kind of impact, it’s just, you have to find some way to tell the story one time, one place, or you’ll have a train wreck on your hands.
Block: And we were able to do that. I think another lesson. you inferred this earlier, but the, the my boss Charles Brown but the whole top management at AT & T and the board of directors, what we were able to do was really a credit to the public relations department, not to me personally. But to the PR department, that we presented a plan to announce that thing to the whole top management, all the CEOs of the Bell companies to our own board of directors and you know thinking back on it later I thought to myself. That’s amazing that no one said you’re not going to bring in an agency to do this or let me tell me that again. I don’t like that you know and blah, blah, blah. They all just said great plan, and that was so. And the third thing I think, Larry, is well, I did the plan in two days because of the danger of leaks. At least I had an opportunity to think it through. I mean it didn’t come flying in over the transom as it so often happens to chief public relations officers. That they don’t know until the last minute. I was in on it from the first minute. That made a huge difference. And we were also able to mobilize not only the chairman of the board as the principle spokespersons but person, but we were fortunate that we had a president, Bill Ellinghaus, you know him well. And two vice chairs, who were very polished with the news media, and they were good at it. So I was able to give them the talking points and so in fielding those, and by the way we all lived in our office building through that whole weekend, so it was impressive to a reporter who calls in and we say do you want to talk to Charlie Brown? Hang on a minute. Press the button, he’s on the line. And Bill Ellinghaus and what not. So we had four really good authoritative spokesmen and of course all the rest of us ink-stained wretches in the PR department who could, you know could handle whatever came in and we did augment our media relations group by hand picking people elsewhere who might have been on jobs elsewhere in the public relations department, but had plenty of experience. So, we were able to get through that weekend and the last thing I, in anticipating this train wreck or this media frenzy, I wrote an ad, a full page ad to run in the morning papers the next day, all the metropolitan papers in the United States, and I did that for fear that the story would not come out as clearly and as accurately as it did. And we, we hired different financial print shops in New York City, gave them each a paragraph or two of the ad so no one ever saw the whole ad, and then we had individuals get on airplanes and fly out to the markets and deliver the ad to newspapers. Well it turned out that the reporters got it right and got it straight and that really was superfluous. The other thing I think we did maybe not everybody who ever listens to this will have the same thing, but in a company that has a lot of different divisions and business units and what not, we, we call the presidents of the Bell companies into New York or New Jersey and I took them through the plant and Howard Trienens took them through the steps in the courthouse. And I asked each of them as soon as we had made the announcement to have their own press conference in their headquarters city, because they had the employees; they were theirs, not ours. They had the customers. They were not AT&T headquarters customers, they were the Bell customers, and but one exception, not one of those CEOs freelanced or made a boo-boo. I sent them a packet by courier the night before with everything they needed for a press conference and they had the conferences at noon the next day, and that helped a lot, because they were talking to their customers. They were talking to their employees, and they were talking to the news media that covered their company. And I think that sometimes we forget to do I don’t know whether it was me who thought of that or somebody else. But sometime we forget, thinking well the whole show is the chairman of the board. Well it’s not. If you are a big company with a lot of people scattered all over the place, employees and customers, it’s, it’s important to have the person they look to as the head guy, not the chairman of the board of the holding company.
5. Foster: Ed from that point how long did it take for the break up to become operational?
Block: Well the judge believe it or not I mean the judge in the in the court where the anti-trust case was conducted, he gave us 18 months to get it done. And it was again Charles Brown whose belief was that we can do this, and the sooner the better. I mean the decision is made. Don’t drag it out. And the judge also said, another funny story, he said this is the judge in Washington. He said you have six months left to use the logo. And the Bell name and it’s gone. And you see we never. We always spoke in terms of the Bell Company or a particular Bell Company. I mean our whole communications, I mean strategy was not AT&T, so unless you were a shareowner, you didn’t know very much about AT&T, because we advertised as the Bell Telephone System. And you know all had the same logo, so the judge anyway said six months and I blew up, I, to our general counsel, not to the judge and I said that’s crazy. I mean we own that logo. It’s owned by AT&T, it has been from day one. What does he mean telling us we can’t we can’t use it anymore. And so anyway, so Howard and I went down and talked to the assistant justice department high command and they were dubious about it, but they said okay. We’ll join you in a petition if that’s the way you feel, and ask the judge to reverse himself. Took him about ten seconds to read that petition and say that’s the way it’s going to be, you don’t have a logo. So we scrambled around, I won’t get into the details of it because we. But our design firm was out in Los Angeles, who did our identity stuff, and so we told them we had to have a new logo and we discussed it with them on the phone. And they flew into New York on a Sunday afternoon and I had rented a hotel suite because I didn’t want to do this in the office where that kind of stuff lands in garbage cans and you find it on the front page of the New York Times the next day. So anyway, so we were in this hotel room and we’re crawling around on our hands and knees pushing layouts around on the floor and the Bell, the new AT&T, had modified it somewhat but that Bell is what emerged from our crawling around the floor.
Block: And somebody asked me well why do you like that. And I said well it strikes me and this is giving away my age again, but I said it strikes me that it’s durable. You know it looks like a guy in a blue blazer with grey pants you know and it probably will be in style for a while. So anyway that was the deal there But 18 months to get the complete job done and…
Foster: How many companies were there, Bell companies that…?
Block: Well there were 26 Bell Telephone Companies, plus a manufacturing company, which was Western Electric in those days.
Foster: Bell Labs.
Block: Bell Labs and of course each of those companies had subsidiary companies, so, but the people, the top of each of those pyramids was a Bell Company, except for Western Electric.
Foster: That’s absolutely great business history, told by someone who had a critical role. And I now want to take you to the formation of, well let’s talk a little about Arthur Page.
Block: Before you get to that there’s one last thing. If there’s anyone watching this who is crazy enough to want to know more of the details about the break up, there are two terrific books, one by Steve Call I think the book is entitled Last Call I think. Steve Call who was then with the Wall Street Journal, but he did not cover us, but he undertook that book and it’s great. And the other one is a scholarly book by two professors, one at Johns Hopkins and one at, I believe, the management school at MIT. And I believe that one is called the End of the Bell System or something like that.
Foster: Both good books.
Block: Excellent books and they are widely available in libraries so I just wanted to throw that in.
6. Foster: I want you to talk a little about Arthur Page, a brief synopsis of who he was. I know Page was born 1883. And I think he died in 1960.
Block: yeah ‘60 I’m sure of that.
Foster: But I want you to give us a brief synopsis of who he was and how the Arthur Page Society, which was an outgrowth of his philosophy, and now the, the Arthur Page Center at Penn State and these two important institutions are directly traceable to Arthur Page. So tell us who Arthur Page was.
Block: Well Arthur Page was, I think, the reason he’s a big star in the history in the galaxy of public relations is that he, as the head of that function at AT&T and the Bell Telephone System, he really institutionalized public relations in a large corporation on a large scale. Of course, his ideas are the most important but I mean that’s. Now who was Arthur Page? Well, he, the Page family, were very distinguished and at one time I guess wealthy North Carolina family going back before the war you know before the War between the States. His father was one of the founders of a publishing company in New York called Doubleday Page. Doubleday is still in print as you know and so he founded that company after having been editor of the old Harper’s Magazine. This is Page’s father. And he was very much, you know, a political journalist as well. He was a confidant of President Wilson, and he was the U. S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James and our ambassador.
Foster: The father was…?
Block: … the father was so very well known, an important family. Arthur Page was graduated from Harvard made gentlemen’s Cs, and went to work in the family business, Doubleday Page. And did very, very well, not because his father was on the masthead, but he was a very gifted editor. In one of the books magazines that he edited, which was his personal joy, was called the World’s Work. It was about business and commerce, but another thing about him that was the first inkling of his development as a public relations counselor, was the fact that when his father was the ambassador in England, that was during WWI or lead up to WWI, and during WWI, Arthur Page would write him letters interpreting the mood of public opinion in the United States on various issues. Those letters were classics, and were spread around the state department and in subsequent years long after his father had retired, U. S. Ambassadors all over the world asked him to write them letters explaining the effect of the U. S. policy here at home, polices abroad or actions abroad, and polices what the effect was here, and it was brilliant stuff. Very little of it remains, unfortunately, but are the letters themselves but there are some. Anyway so that’s his background. He was a journalist. He was an editor. And he had a pretty good feel for public opinion. In his book, the World’s Work, he wrote an editorial in each edition. I mean magazine. And he frequently wrote about the accountabilities of management of businesses. And as a matter of fact, the line that the Arthur Page Society uses in its printed material is about all business in a democratic society. Actually, that was a lift from one of Arthur Page editorials. It was not something he wrote at AT&T. Anyway, the president of AT&T, this would be now up to about 1926 I guess, the president of AT&T who knew of Arthur Page, didn’t really know him well, asked, called up Arthur Page and asked if they could meet. And when they met, the president of AT&T didn’t use the chairman title in those days, that was before inflation gripped American corporations, so president was good enough. So anyway, they met and the president, I’m vamping because I can’t remember the president’s name. It will probably come to me after we finish talking, but in any case, he said to Arthur Page, you know he read his magazine and he was very impressed with his notions about the management accountabilities and that kind of thing. So he said to Page, he said, would you write a book about the Bell Telephone System, would you write a book for us, on those, and capturing those ideas. And Page, a little more politely than I’m going to say it, but he his response was, look if you’re looking for a flack you’ve got the wrong guy. He said, you know a book is nice and it’s good for your ego, but I’m not going to write that book for you, find somebody else. So I don’t know if it was in the same conversation but shortly thereafter, the president of AT&T said to him, “Well I’m very impressed with your ideas and about management accountabilities,” And he said, “so how would you like to come to work here and put those ideas into action?” And Page again responded, yes he would be interested in doing that, but he said “It has to be a policy job. I have to be involved in making policy.” And so the president of AT&T said you’re on, and on the spot made him a vice president. He went from zero to vice president in one conversation, and remained vice president until he retired, so I think it was 20 or 22 years.
Foster: Let’s say I thought he left AT&T about 1960.
Block: No maybe a little before ‘60.
Foster: A little before.
Block: He was on the Board of Directors by the way. He remained on the Board after he retired, but in any case I want to emphasize that. You and I have talked about this through the years, not about Page, but our own views. You know, public relations is about policy, it’s about making policy decisions. It’s about getting it right. You know, and that was the cornerstone on which people like you and me who came along behind, you know, saw our job in the corporation. And it’s not to say that we sat around slinging policies out like Zeus’ thunderbolts. It’s not exactly like every policy we ever suggested got adopted, but I mean that was the cornerstone of our job.
Foster: And it’s also critical where you are positioned. I was fortunate enough when I joined Johnson & Johnson in 1957, to begin working with the chairman and then two succeeding chairmen over the next 30 years, and you had worked for how many chairman at AT&T, Three, two, three, four?
Block: Well let’s see as a direct report, I worked for three.
Block: But I, I worked with others.
Foster: But Ed that’s the critical part of where you are positioned, close to policy making. You can’t be stuck down the line reporting to some marketing executive and expect to influence policy. Right?
Block: Exactly, exactly.
7. Foster: Um
Block: Can I tell you a little bit of a story about that?
Block: When I came to the AT&T headquarters in 1964, I think it was something like that, the date is not important. My boss, one step removed, who didn’t know me particularly well nor I did I know him, and so he, in this conversation over in his office over coffee or whatever, he said, you’ve come in here from one of the big Bell Companies from out in the field, and he said, you probably think that you know this is the pinnacle, you know of this great and wonderful Bell Telephone System, that all the brains are here. We thought of everything, we’re on top of everything, and he said some of that is true, from day to day. But he said, let me tell you something, he said, this outfit works like a mom and pop corporation/business, even though it has an address in New York City. And he said, I’ll tell you something, he said, you can make it do anything you think it needs to do, or that you want it to do, you just better be right most of the time.
Block: That was his message, well that was like saying free at last to me, because at that point, I was kind of in mid-career I mean I wasn’t …
Foster: … you were at Southwestern Bell at that time?
Block: … yeah and so you know, I found that was absolutely true. You know, if some problem came up and one of the department heads and not the PR, other departments you know, called up and said need a little help and you’d stride into his office and he’d state the problem. Okay here’s what we’re going to do about it, you know you didn’t ask. You know and by the way, that’s another lesson, is that, don’t bring problems to bosses, bring solutions. But anyway, so I, you know that was wonderful so in due course I was transferred back to Southwestern Bell on a promotion and I was a Holy Demon when I got back there, because it worked there too. You know, you could, whatever you thought was a solution to an issue or problem, or what needed to be done, you just did it. You know and no one every said, who gave you the authority to do that? So big lesson, big lesson and that was my first big boss at AT&T said this is a mom and pop outfit. You can do whatever you want to do.
Foster: That was encouragement that you didn’t expect.
Foster: But you knew what to do with it.
Block: Well I had great mentors. You know there’s no question about that. And the culture of the business of that business encouraged mentoring. I mean it wasn’t a class you went to. It wasn’t some kind of a school. But bosses were expected as they were from what I’m told at Johnson & Johnson, they were expected to and were rated to some extent, on how well they brought along subordinates, you know, and made them better than they were and fitted for higher jobs, you know, so I certainly benefited from that.
Foster: If you were a follower you quickly got lost in the crowd. You had to try to emulate a leader.
8. Foster: Ed before we jump to the beginning of the Page Society which I want your version of it. Let’s give a capsule summary of Page. He didn’t finish his career at AT&T, he went on to other things, and he became a counselor and to the White House…
Foster: … and Truman I think he worked closely with …
Block: … he this is probably, I’m chastised from time to time for saying this or pointing this out, like it’s a great triumph, but the fact of the matter is that he was called down to the White House to write the announcement about the atomic bomb. But he …
Foster: … the dropping of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki…
Block: … Truman’s explanation, yeah, but he was a familiar figure under many presidents at the White House, as a free advisor, you know like every White House has, its kitchen cabinet as they say. And he was one of those people. He did, when he took his retirement at AT&T, he had been on the Board since some time in the early ‘30s I think, so he remained on the Board for a couple of years, and did some, some for hire counseling. He also was on the Boards of three other corporations, that Chase Manhattan Bank was one of them, so he was, well you know, well known in the corporate world and he also, his one of for a guy that made Cs at you know, gentlemen Cs, at Harvard he was very interested in education and was in very much involved with the Teachers College at Columbia University, and with Columbia itself so he had a wide ranging intellect.
Foster: Very career, but it was pretty much channeled in policy writing and…
Block: … he was the go-to guy, he was the wise man.
9. Foster: Ed, the Page Society, the Arthur Page Society did not get formed until the mid ‘80s. I want to know, and I’m sure our viewers do, how that came about. Page had long since left AT&T. What was the motivation? What was the driving force and the inspiration that, in the mid ‘80s, prompted you and I believe Jack Koten and a few others to form the Page Society.
Block: Yeah well let me take one small step backward from that. One of my early bosses is the one who introduced me to Arthur Page. He had some of his letters and memos and what not and I thought ah ha, this is, this is golden stuff. I mean, all these things that we do around here in the name of public relations, which I hadn’t given any thought to who thought them up or where they came from. Suddenly, I find out there’s a person and his name is Arthur Page, and he instituted most of these things. So then, I started looking for more Page writings and began to collect them myself. And as the word got around, I was doing this, this was very early in my career, but people would send me stuff, you know that they had in their personal files and what not. So somewhere, I think it was about the time that I was vice president of Illinois Bell in Chicago and I had been making many talks to the public relations department and in management meetings out in Chicago, about Arthur Page. And he was as much a mystery to other people, I mean he had come and gone and he had institutionalized all this stuff that we were doing, but very few people were around who really knew there was such a guy. So I thought, you know, I think we need a patron saint you know so let’s resurrect Page. And so Jack Koten was working with me in Chicago at the time and we instituted Arthur Page Awards for, in different categories, annual awards for employees in the PR department who did a job that was an excellent reflection of Page principles, as they came to be called. So that was number one. Then, when I moved from that job to the head job at AT&T, we made that a national award. So okay, so that’s, so we had something going in the name of Arthur Page. Then at the time of the break up, the Bell break up, the last meeting that we had of the, it was an old tradition of the vice presidents, public relations in all the major Bell Companies came together in a conference, sponsored by the AT&T vice president. So one of the people in that conference said. You know this is a sad day. This is the last time we’ll be together. So let’s form an Arthur Page Society. Now, what he had in mind was some place to go play golf, and lie to each other, tell stories. So, so this particular fellow, he incorporated. I mean with the consent of everybody, but he incorporated the Page Society and that’s kind of what it was for.
Foster: That’s how it got started?
Block: As a Bell alumni association, but it was Jack Koten who was the first to recognize and say persistently, this has no future. What there is a need for, is an organization for chief public relations officers who view their jobs as Arthur Page did his, as counselors and …
Foster: … from various companies.
Block: … and various companies. So then, with probably chutzpah than reality would have suggested we incorporated it and opened the membership up and that led me to one Lawrence G. Foster to say that to give this outfit any credibility we need a president of the Page Society who is not a former Bell Telephone guy. And you generously agreed and that’s what turned the big corner for the Page Society and it lost its beginnings as an alumni association and became a serious…
Foster: … yeah that took place, well, you made your sale and I wasn’t too reluctant because I recognized the importance of the Page Society, of what it could be.
Block: We knew each other well.
Foster: And we knew each other well. You’re a tough guy to turn down anyway. But ‘90…
Block: Nice person. It works the other way too.
Foster: … the other way right exactly. ‘90 to ’92, those two years and what we did was we went out and we went to the top PR people in the country and said the Arthur Page Society is, was, born and bred in the Bell System, but now we’re expanding it nationally and opening it up to other countries, companies, and would you join and be a part of it? I can’t remember a single turn down. The top people in the country, in our business, public relations, wanted to be a part of it.
Block: Yeah there is nothing, there is still nothing quite like it, exists as you know there was another organization that you were also president of. It was a once a year conference of top PR people, that it was called the Public Relations Seminar, and you were also president of that.
Foster: No actually…
Block: You were not?
Foster: No, I headed Wise Men in New York, but not the seminar.
Block: Well, see what happens to an old man’s brain. I don’t remember everything accurately. Anyway I think it was not. If Larry Foster called you up and said you ought to join the Page Society, a lot of people said well, if he thinks it’s good, I ought to join. But the other part, I think, was it does fill a need for many, not all the chief public relations officers, more so than the seminar or any other organization, because it operates its issues focused, and it operates at the intersection of the CEO’s job and the chief public relations officers job, that’s the focus of the conferences.
Foster: And it has become, over the years, the most prestigious public relations organization in the country.
Foster: With now, I think, what? 330 senior level people, but the program boggles my mind, the programs that they have been able to put together. What we were doing is out selling people to join, they have created a very sophisticated agenda.
Block: Absolutely. I mean, it’s for most senior PR people, it’s a must be there organization.
10. Foster: Let me jump quickly to another subject. Values - the subject of integrity. A responsibility truth telling and give me our view of what is needed in those areas and I know here at the Page Center which is why we’re gathering at Penn State at this time. The Board of the Page Center, trying to figure out how best to carry out our responsibility and to elevate the Page Center to an even higher standard. But give me off the cuff thoughts about values, responsibility, and integrity. What do you think about when you focus on those issues?
Block: Well I’m going to come at that question from a couple different angles. One is that, public relations as a skill set, if you want to call it that, has grown enormously. And it has morphed into communications communicator and I think my idea of integrity and values and what not, has to do with the counseling function. Not as the resident Saint, for goodness sakes, but to be in that policy-making loop that includes the communication of policy but also the making of policy. So, I think from my mind, the big role that the Communications School at Penn State is going to play in locating the Page Center here, is that I think a prestigious academic institution that gives you great leverage, and gives you the right to talk about integrity and ethics. And so I think that, that the Center here at Penn State, the Page Center, can be enormously influential. Now as to, you know, what is integrity and how you do it and the business we’re all in and that sort of thing which my hope will be the output the “how to’s” will come out of the Page Center as well. But to my mind, it’s, it’s pretty easy to think in terms of, of some old fashioned horse sense. Companies that do right do better. I mean that’s been documented through almost a century now, and it’s not when I say do better meaning their bottom line they make money for the shareholders and they do it consistently which is really important, not in peaks and valleys so that’s kind of a glib way to say it but the ones who do right, do better, but it’s documented. The other thing is there’s some simple rules and they pretty much come out of the Page Principles but they are, you know, other people have said them in other language and using other words. The new hot button, as you know, is transparency. Well that had old-fashioned meanings, but it meant you know, all business in a democratic society, blah, blah, blah, you know. Your customers, your shareholders, your constituencies have a right to get an explanation of what you’re doing when they want an explanation. So you know what’s so magic about that. And yet we have gotten away from it too much, I think, in modern times where the, it’s almost as though slickness of communications will pull you through. You know, whether it’s marketing or whatever. It’s in PR and we know it doesn’t, it doesn’t. You may get away with it for a little while but you know sooner or later you are going to slip on a banana peel if it’s not real. So it’s telling the truth. It’s being upfront with your employees, with your shareholders. Employees by the way, you know this from your J & J days, and I know this. The first people who know that the emperor has no clothes are the employees. And once they decide that, it’s down hill, because they will let that be known to everybody. So if you are a company that employs a lot of people, the transparency thing, the upfront thing really you I think you build it off of your internal, internal communications.
Foster: The person in charge of public relations for the company, the person who has access to the chairman, they are in a wonderful position to be the reminder, to be the keeper of the principles that the company is striving for, right?
Block: Absolutely. And I think a friend of mine by the name of Larry Foster used to talk about that a lot. That the, the chief public relations officer, by whatever title, is the only one in the top echelon of senior management whose job it is to think like the CEO would think. The others whether it’s chief financial officer or chief marketing officer or whatever, are advocates, as they should be of what they’re doing. And you and I know that in some of the discussions, we called it the “office of the chairman” but the executive committee whatever the problem in making bad decisions and opportunity to make good decisions is not a matter that you got a bunch of crooks in the room who all want to do something bad. It isn’t that. You are trying to thrash out a strategy, or a decision, or a way to present a decision, and so it’s not people sitting around a table trying to figure out how to get by with something, it’s people advocating different solutions to the same problem from their point of view. And the one person in the room who can be useful to the CEO is the chief public relations officer, because he’s no,t he or she is not invested in any of those advocacy positions at all, and also, as you know and I certainly know often times the chairman needs someone in that room who will speak the unspeakable, you know and say you can’t do that. You can’t do that. Okay it’s going to cost us some money to not do that or whatever the implications are, but and the chairman in many cases he knew that all along, he just wanted somebody in the room to say to say it, and then he can say well I agree.
11. Foster: I got labeled as being the loyal opposition, and that didn’t become too difficult because I had come out of a city room where there was a lot of loyal opposition. And when I went to New Brunswick to Johnson & Johnson to help form its first public relations department, I had a lot of influence from the city room carry over into the Boardroom. And obviously you have to be careful how you present the loyal opposition. You can’t be a recalcitrant constant nag unless you are right more often than you are wrong.
Block: Well as I said earlier, don’t bring problems to the boss, bring solutions so you can be the loyal opposition.
12. Foster: Ed, Cinda Kostyak and her associate put together some very interesting questions for this interview. One had to do with today’s role of the public relations executive, as opposed to the way it was when you were reigning in your job at AT&T. Would you like to comment on that? What you know, there’s been a lot of changes, so many have changed to communications and the advisor role has diminished. What’s your view on that?
Block: Well I can give you impressions. Obviously I’m retired and so perhaps can take what I say with a grain of salt as we used to say, but oh, first of all, the field of corporate public relations, business public relations, is clearly far, far more complex today than it ever was before and continues to become more so. And that’s had one, on the one side, I suppose it’s good for jobs in the field and the kinds of work that you have an opportunity to do wasn’t’ there before. But the dark side of that to me, is that it is distracting from what the core notions that public relations were in our day, so in our predecessors, because it was much more the counseling, counseling function as really a continuing day to day job. And now you have marketing communications and you have all kinds of communications. You know, I’m waiting to see in the Wall Street Journal any day now it’s going to say how somebody’s been has been elected vice president, blogs you know, and but you’ve got the whole Internet stuff. The skills necessary to keep a fresh website and or websites. So it’s really stretched but in the stretching I think some of the core benefits – values, not as a moral thing but values in terms of the corporation getting what it is paying for, are lost when too many people in the public relations organization, including the chief, are spending too much time doing other things. Now, another piece that I think has made the job more, more difficult is the globalization. When you’re trying to be a counselor in a cross-cultural environment, it probably can’t be done without, without a lot of help or a lot of associate counselors. But in any case, in the customer base, tends to be different. The CEO’s travel schedule is double the monster it was when you and I were there. So I think some of my impressions are yes, it’s changed vastly. It continues to change. I want to see it come back with a little more emphasis on the counseling function without, you know, without necessarily giving up some of these other functions. I do think in some PR departments there are too many functions that really don’t need to be there. I mean, they’re there because it makes a great looking organizational chart, you know, but it’s not anybody else can do some of those things, or they could be done somewhere else. Also, the decentralization has been another problem for, for the CEO’s advisor by whatever title, because you have these very large discrete and rather independent business units, that really are in business for themselves. I mean too much so, I always marveled at General Electric. How could they do such a good job, which they have mainly done through the years of, of a coherent face to the public and a definable character? You know when you are building jet engines. You are building, you are building refrigerators, light bulbs, medical imaging, locomotives; you know that’s quite a feat. You know because those, those businesses really don’t for the most part have any overlap. I mean they are different industries you know. And yet General Electric has been able to be GE.
Foster: So you have companies that have become infinitely more complex and you have public relations vice presidents who have a lot of eggs in their basket. Some of which probably shouldn’t be there because if you are going to sit on that basket, and keep track of all that’s going on, you don’t really have time to spend with the CEO in an advisory capacity.
Foster: And then you have the situation of the CEO who might have been weaned away from the counseling and is either getting it elsewhere …
Block: … find someone else.
Foster: … or not getting the counseling that he should. Some of them, major headline stories that we’ve all suffered through in recent years, you rarely find the public relations person having had a culpable role in those situations. Enron. Did you find it that way too?
Foster: That they weren’t among the …
Block: They weren’t in the loop.
Foster: … indictee or they weren’t.
Block: they weren’t indicted. Yes that’s good.
Foster: That’s a positive.
Block: But they weren’t in the loop.
Foster: They weren’t in the loop, yeah.
Block: I just, you know another thing in talking about this basket of eggs that a chief PR officer has to deal with, and pulling that person away from the other job. The same executive that laid the one on me about this is run like a mom and pop corporation, another canny thing that he said to me in a whole different context, different situation, he said when he was, then in this episode, he was assistant to the chairman which is a job when he retired that I took on in addition to the PR job. But he said, when people ask me what I do he said what I do, I am paid. I am paid to think about things the chairman of the board doesn’t have time to think about. Meaning that the CEO was pulled and tugged here and there, and there are so many balls in the air and there are potential problems down the road, and what he was saying is that I have the luxury of seeing the world through the lens of a CEO, my boss. But I have the luxury of being able to think ahead about things that he needs to be aware of, and I’m not talking about crises, but just things that he needs to be aware of, and plan for, we planned for it together. And I thought that was a pretty good way to put it, so if you’re, you don’t need to have a separate job, but assistant chairman of the Board. I’m not arguing for that but if that’s in the chief public relations officer portfolio and it should be, don’t let it get crowded out. You know and I think that’s part of what happens or has happened and also the CEO’s job changed. And, and I’m happy to say now that I’m encouraged that it sort of changing back again with some of the new breed of CEOs, but what also happened along the way was that in too many cases, the CEO became the chief salesman to Wall Street.
Block: Every 90 days, and …
Foster: Trying to meet the quarterly.
Block: Yes. And so the CEOs also got off the rails, in many cases. And but as I said I’m somewhat encouraged. Some of the new ones that have come in on the scene, some in the wake of scandals, and some not, seem to be a different breed. That they are, they are running the business and therefore they are open to, to the kind of PR person that we’ve been talking about here to help, help provide the counsel to run the business. These, there are two, I probably here shouldn’t get into the books, but there was about three years ago a wonderful book called Execution written by the CEO I think, what used to be Allied Corporation, Allied Bendix is it? (AlliedSignal Corporation – Larry Bossidy), or something like that. And he, he straightened that company out one time and then he retired, and it went off the rails and they brought him back. This book was the piece about that. And he said, he said when I came back he said everybody was rushing around going to conferences and meetings and there were these big charts up on the walls and all these new opportunities, and he said, I looked at that and said. Stop it, we have a business plan, execute it. Do it. You know and we’ll change it when we need to. And so what I see in some of the new ones I’m thinking about, the new CEO of Hewlett Packard and others that are picking up on the fact that, that when you get too big in the head, when you’re, when you’re salary or your compensation is what most people know about the company. You are headed for trouble. And what you need are executives with a longer-term view, and executives who, who know where they want to take the business. And it’s not down to Wall Street. You know.
Foster: Right there’s another aspect that we haven’t touched on and that is the personal relationship between the CEO and someone who is aspiring to be a counselor and my advice on that would be if, if you sense that the CEO doesn’t really like you like you or if you always seem to be on divergent path it’s time to look for another job. Ed I …
Block: By the way, just a footnote on that. The counselor, one piece of a good counselor’s character, you have it. I think I had it, is humility. I mean, understand my job is different from the CEOs job.
Foster: Well, I always knew who was CEO, but I get low marks on humility, I’m afraid. I, unless my interpretation is different than yours, but Ed, there’s no lack of humility sitting here listening to one of the outstanding legends, if I might use that term, in the field. It’s been 40 some odd years that we’ve known and worked together. It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity to conduct this interview and I hope that in the years to come as Cinda and her staff and crew repeat this interview that they will learn from you as I have through the years.
Block: Well I share that our legacies will follow to other generations, but I bring that up because the Arthur Page Center at Penn State is the best idea that’s come along in public relations in the last half century. And if it becomes what you saw the opportunity for it to become, and the thing that others of us on the board see, it’s really, really going to be influential in a very positive way.
Foster: Well we have our work cut out for us and we look forward to it. Thanks again.