Oral Histories

Bob Ehinger

Interview Segments on Topic: Arthur Page/Principles/Society/Center

Bob Ehinger Biography

Though born in Saco, Maine, Ehinger spent most of his early years in Dover, Delaware.  From there he attended Dartmouth College and graduated in 1943 with a degree in economics.  After graduation, he joined the Navy as an Ensign in the Supply Corps and served as supply officer on a destroyer in the Pacific.

After the war, Ehinger was hired by Western Electric as a buyer's clerk in the Purchasing Department in New York City.  (Western Electric was the purchasing agent for the Bell Telephone companies).  After advancing to senior buyer, he transferred to an operating job at a large service center in Los Angeles, and eventually became the manager.  With about 1,100 employees, he thought Western Electric should be better known in the Southern California area, so he hired the first-ever public relations professional.  Eventually, the P.R. Vice President in New York transferred him to New York as Director of Community Relations and Public Affairs.  This job was followed by assignments in personnel, defense activities, and finally Ehinger became Secretary and Treasurer of the company (Western had an outside board of directors).  From this assignment, he became Vice President of Public Relations in 1973.  In 1982 Ed Block, AT&T P.R. Vice President, asked him to come to AT&T on January 1, 1984.  With Ed, Ehinger established the AT&T Foundation and the Arthur W. Page Society.  The first annual conference was held at the Hershey Inn in Hershey, Pa.  At that time, the Society's membership came primarily from the telephone companies that were being divested from AT&T.  Ehinger comments that it has been a source of pride to see how the Page Society has grown and become the leader in the profession.

Transcript

INTERVIEWER:  Why don’t you talk to us about how you became involved with the Page Society.  How did that all develop?  Start at the beginning.

EHINGER:  Well it was Ed Block’s idea.  We’re going to break up the Bell System he thought, we didn’t want to lose the Arthur Page Legacy if you want to call it that.  And so, it was his idea to set up a foundation or a society, and the key members would be people from the Bell companies that were spun off like the Jack Kotens of the world, people like that.  But I was transferred over there at his request, he asked me if I’d put together the thing so I worked with our lawyers and we had a vice president out in Pennsylvania—Zimmerman, Zimmy—and we had our first annual meeting out there at the Hershey Inn.  It just thought that, what Arthur Page said and what was written was the way public relations ought to be done.  And if we could get people to embrace that, the public relations profession could maybe get maximal respect.  It’s still tough sometimes; PR is not always sitting on the elbow of the chief executive.  But we thought this would be a good—and we would only allow people that were the top decision makers.  We’re not going to be like Public Relations Society of America where if you’re the newsletter editor you can join so, we kept it that way.  We never thought it would be very big but it’s now what—300?

INTERVIEWER:  It’s more than that.  350 maybe.

EHINGER:  But I think as more and more people have been exposed to the conferences and the kind of speakers we’ve got.

INTERVIEWER:  And the publications.

EHINGER:  And the publications.  In fact, some of our friends were the editors.  Jim Bronson, you probably heard his name.  And then Ed Neider and his wife, they did pro bono really.  We didn’t have any money.  I was the guy trying to get the money you know, you’d get somebody to say hey can you get a thousand dollars out of your budget?  We didn’t have a professional secretary at that time, we couldn’t, so we did it all in-house.  But I’m just delighted the way its evolved and the Bell System is a minor part.  Lucky to have any ex-Bell people on there anymore except—I guess Koten may still be on.

INTERVIEWER:  Yes, Koten is on the Page Center Board.

EHINGER:  Marilyn Laurie, I think got involved which is good.  Dick Martin, is he?

INTERVIEWER:  I have a lot of videos of him interviewing scads of people.

EHINGER:  Dick Martin became executive vice president, PR for AT&T, he started with Western Electric and he was one of the people we hired when I was there and one of the others we hired was Kathy Fitzgerald who became the head of public relations for the Bell labs, when it became Lucent, you know Western Electric.  And she was also hired by Western Electric.  So the two top people in those two spinoffs—Lucent and AT&T, were ex-Western Electric people.  Quite a ways down the line when I retired but, we thought they were bright and they were.  They were great additions.

INTERVIEWER:  What were those early meetings like with the Page Society?

EHINGER:  We had speakers and we had a few of these, founders you might say.  Early—what do you call those people who are?

INTERVIEWER:  Pioneers?

EHINGER:  Pioneer types, Harold Burson, Lou Harris, people like that, we kept because they were working for AT&T in the Bell System on occasion we were able to get them, I’d have to look at the agenda to know which ones but they were there.  We’ve got a couple of academics on, one of them at least is still there, he’s up at Boston University now.  Starts with a W.

INTERVIEWER:  Wright?  Don Wright?

EHINGER:  Yeah, Don Wright I think.  Very intimate meetings.  But we didn’t have major speakers the way you…we didn’t bring in CEOs and people like that.  We had to get people that were somewhat allied with the business of public relations.

INTERVIEWER:  Now it started out being mostly Bell people.  How did that change?

EHINGER:  Oh yeah.  If it hadn’t I don’t think it would have survived.

INTERVIEWER:  It changed then, do you remember, were you involved in it when it started broadening?  How did that come about?

EHINGER:  Well, I think it came about when Larry Foster got involved, cause he brought the right interest and the right background you might say.  I would say, I don’t know if he was the first non-Bell president of the Arthur Page society but if he wasn’t he was awful…

INTERVIEWER:  I think he was.

EHINGER:  I think he was and we talked about broadening it and we had to get it beyond the Bell System—the old Bell System.  So we did and then we got some non-Bell people on the membership committee so they could get the word out more you know.  Gradually then, after we started getting some quality programs, it just kept growing.  And it was always a question of how many of these PR firms do you want or should it all be corporate but we broadened it out.

INTERVIEWER:  What was the biggest challenge that you faced in your career?

EHINGER:  I think that last thing I mentioned probably.  I mean, after having access to the top person and the division heads, the senior vice presidents of a major corporation and then have a boss coming in and say, you can’t talk to him anymore.  I would take several of my crew over to talk to him cause he would tell me what was going on, what their plans were for the next six months you might say and I didn’t have that access anymore.  I’d get it informally maybe, but I couldn’t sit down with 2 or 3 of staff people.  So I’d say that was the biggest problem that I ever had in PR, definitely.  So going over to AT&T was sort of a breath of fresh air in that regard.  I was asked to set certain things up and I just did it.  The foundation and things of that nature.  One of the more interesting things I did.  Junior Achievement, you may have heard of Junior Achievement?

INTERVIEWER:  Oh yes.

EHINGER:  We had one in New York and it wasn’t doing too well and so New York Telephone guy who was involved got a hold of me and said Bob, could you get involved?  So I went over there and ended up becoming president of the Junior Achievement in New York because he said if the Bell System doesn’t take it over, it’s libel not to survive.  So I did it for a year or two and then the New York Telephone vice president did it for a couple of years—not a PR man in this case.  And then Frank Cary, who was the chairman of IBM, took over.  He could do more than any of us cause he was the top man.  But things like that are interesting.  But I got involved with the Public Relations Society and got certified which, I don’t think that was worth a lot.  You had on there a question about, do you call it communications or public relations.

INTERVIEWER:  Right.

EHINGER:  My own feeling is public relations is a better term cause that’s what we’re trying to do—communication, that could be newsletters, it could be all kinds of little things.  But everybody seems to be moving towards communication but to me, public relations say it’s public and it’s out there and that’s what Arthur Page was talking about too.  How do you deal with the press, with the public?  You know the Bell System always did a lot of work before rate cases to make sure the public understood the problem.  We did a lot of that in our PR department when it was going to be bargaining—labor bargaining.  We put some good stories in our house about how well people were doing that were in the bargaining unit, and it was just a good way to keep people posted on…you know, we’re not starving to death, we’re doing well and bargaining is coming up, it didn’t say anything about that but, it all tied together a little bit because of the public feeling about it or…employee feeling.  You know we had 210,000 employees at Western Electric at its height, which is a lot of folks.

INTERVIEWER:  That is.

EHINGER:  In fact at one time when I was treasurer of the company, we had the fifth largest pension fund in the United States, because of all these people.  And I enjoyed that. That sort of was good training, because we’d meet with the people that were investing our pension money, the bankers, people like that.  So you learn a lot about dealing with people that way.  So even though you didn’t have PR background in a sense that was always very helpful I think.

INTERVIEWER:  Is there anything else that I haven’t asked you that you want to talk about for a little bit.

EHINGER:  No, I think the fact that Arthur Page Society has grown and is going in the direction it seems to be going is certainly a…says it was well worthwhile and I think as public relations people are going to find bigger problems as time goes on, having a place like this to go and a network of people you can talk to is great.  You couldn’t have done it in any other operation that was going, that I know of.  I’ve retired so I don’t have any opinions on some things anymore.