Edward M. Block was Senior Vice President -- Public Relations, Advertising and Employee Information for the AT&T Corporation for 12 years until his retirement in 1986. He was responsible for corporate communications during AT&T's historic divestiture of the Bell telephone companies and its expansion into international markets. He also held the additional post of assistant to the chairman of the board from 1980 until his retirement and was a member of the Office of the Chairman.
While at AT&T, Block was a director of AT&T International and AT&T Information Systems. He established the AT&T Foundation and was its first chairman of the board. It was on his initiative that AT&T provided the funding ($10 million a year for five years) to establish the MacNiel-Lehrer News Hour on PBS.
In 1980, PR News chose Block as the Public Relations Professional of the Year. In 1993, he received the lifetime achievement award from Inside PR and also, the Hall of Fame Award of the Arthur W, Page Society. In 1997, he received the Gold Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America. Most recently, he was cited by PR Week as one of the 100 most influential public relations people of the 20th century.
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.
Interviewer: 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.
Interviewer: Let’s say I thought he left AT&T about 1960.
Block: No maybe a little before ‘60.
Interviewer: 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.
Interviewer: 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.
Interviewer: 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.
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.
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.