Oral Histories

Larry Foster

Full Interview

Larry Foster Biography

Larry Foster assisted in forming Johnson & Johnson’s first Public Relations Department in 1957, when the company had annual sales of $250 million. Upon his retirement 33 years later, the company had grown 40 times larger and had sales of $10 billion. During his tenure with Johnson & Johnson, he was Director of Public Relations and Assistant to the Chairman before becoming Corporate Vice President of Public Relations and an officer of the company in 1973.

In 1982, Foster led Johnson & Johnson’s highly acclaimed response to the Tylenol poisoning tragedy. Following Foster’s lead, Johnson & Johnson was completely open with the public, put its interest first and withdrew 32 million packages of Tylenol from the market. Because of Foster’s successful and ethical strategies, PR Week magazine named him one of the ten most influential public relations executives of the 20th Century.

An author of several books, Foster is the recipient of three of the highest awards in the public relations field, the 1989 Gold Anvil Award, the 1998 Atlas, and the Hall of Fame Award in 1994.


Lawrence Foster
Johnson & Johnson Career
Arthur W. Page Society
Interviewer: Dick Martin

Martin: The Page Principles were born in the telephone business, but over the years found a home in businesses of every kind.  Larry Foster was the first person to lead the Arthur W. Page Society who had not been brought up in the telephone business.  In the mid-1950s Larry left the job as night editor of the Newark News to organize the very first public relations department for Johnson & Johnson.  Over the years he and his successor, Bill Nielsen, and, of course, the CEOs they worked for, helped make Johnson & Johnson one of the most admired companies in the world.  Larry, if you were a CEO hiring a PR counselor, what would you look for?

Foster:  Well, I want someone who has basic intelligence to begin with.  Secondly, I want someone who brings skills that no one else at the table has.  I worked for three chairmen at Johnson & Johnson throughout their entire careers, a total of 25 or more years, and I think each one of them looked for the same thing.  I was passed off from the first, to the second, to the third, and I managed to survive, but they wanted basic intelligence.  They wanted something from me that they couldn't get from the financial guy or the lawyers, and so forth, and a lot of that had to do with my knowledge of the press – my sense of public opinion, and what would be in the public interest.  And the other quality that I brought – I became the loyal opposition.

Martin:  How so?  What do you mean?

Foster:  Well, I had come out of a city room to help form the first public relations department at Johnson & Johnson and I was young and I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and I wasn't, if you will, a PR type.  I was used to expressing myself if there was a situation that warranted it, but in becoming a loyal opposition you were one who was not fearful of the chairman or fearful of expressing your views.  Hopefully, you were right much more often than you were wrong.  But you could do that with the chairmen that I worked for and with.  And when you establish a reputation as having expressed, ready to express that of the loyal opposition, it was expected of you at critical meetings.  Sooner or later they would ask that question, "Okay, now tell us, Foster, why we shouldn't do this."

Martin:  Whose interests were you representing at that point?

Foster:  Well, fundamentally, the interest and the welfare of the company, but also keeping in the back of my mind how the public would respond to such a decision, how the press would respond to such a decision.  And where I wasn't concerned so much about the business interests than they might be, the bottom line on a given situation, if I felt that the decision should go another way I wasn't afraid to express that.  I think it was that lack of fear of disagreeing respectfully with them that establishes one's reputation.  And if you are right more often, hopefully a lot more often, than you are wrong, it was a quality that they looked for.

Martin:  So you would suggest the CEO look for somebody who's smart, who's not afraid to express their opinion, has the courage of their convictions, and is looking at decisions from the point of view of the public.  Anything else?

Foster:  Certainly excellent communication skills, particularly writing.  I put great emphasis on the importance of good writing, and I think that judgment is a quality that is hard to define but it is so critically important.  People say you can't practice judgment, but I tell kids in college that I speak to from time to time, you can improve your judgment, you can improve your attitude and your demeanor in meetings.  I am sure this has happened to you, Dick.  The chairman would have been in the company of several people on your staff and the next situation comes up and you are out of town and you say I'm going to send so and so up to the meeting.  And he'll say, "Maybe not, why don't you send . . .," and the person that he selects is usually one who he has confidence in and who fits into senior executive discussion with an issue on the table -- and people who know how to handle themselves in the presence of other senior executives who are willing to hold their own and disagree, or agree.  I hasten to add you do not disagree for the sake of disagreeing.  There has to be a fundamental reason why you would do that.  You'd be surprised, but perhaps you wouldn't be with all of your experience, how many executives in the room would disagree but would be afraid to stand up to the chairman and say, "Look, you're making a huge mistake."  Sometimes I would not express my disagreement until the others left the room for a variety of reasons – diplomatic and otherwise.  And so in those situations you get up and close the door and you come back to him and say, "Look, the truth is I think this is a lousy idea and this is why."  Now he either buys it or he doesn't buy it.

Martin:  What if he doesn't buy it?

Foster:  Then I accede to his good judgment in thinking that he knows the situation better than I.  But, frequently, it wouldn't be that he wouldn't buy it or not buy it right then.  He would say, "let me think about it."  There is a reason for his doing that too.  He doesn't want to all of a sudden capitulate, so the next day you would get together and he would say, "I thought about what you said and I think there is some merit to it."

Martin:  Do you ever have the impression the CEO was using you to get other people to defend their positions?

Foster:  Unquestionably.

Martin:  How so?  Could you tell us a little about it?

Foster:  Well, I'm talking about critical situations now where the company's reputation is at stake.  It might be pulling a product off the market, it could be any number of serious things.  And if he knew you had . . . and don't forget in the interaction between the CEO -- for years I held the title of assistant to the chairman, so there was a closeness there, I was in and out of that office maybe five or six times a day . . . if he knew you had strong feelings on a subject he would get you to enumerate those while in the presence of others and then make them argue against it while he sat back and weighed what was said.  A good chairman does a lot of listening and he will make a judgment after all votes are in, if you will.  It's happened many times and if you work with a person long enough.  The first chairman I worked for was Philip Hofmann who was the successor to Robert Wood Johnson, the legend at Johnson & Johnson.  Hofmann called me into his office the first day he became chairman and said, "From now on you work for me."  He was twelve years in the job and then passed me off to, and I say that in the kindest terms I hope, to Dick Sellars, and I served under Dick for three years, and then ten years under Jim Burke.  Each of them I found to be extraordinarily talented, very decent and honorable people, the highest level of integrity, and that's something that I would look for in working for a person with as much loyalty as I hopefully brought to that job.

Martin:  How does somebody prepare to be the Larry Foster of a company?  Senior PR counselor?

Foster:  Well, in terms of personal qualities I think you have to do a lot of introspective thinking as to whether you feel you are capable of vying and competing, not in the truest sense, but vying intellectually and sometimes emotionally with a chairman.  You must have great respect for him or her as a leader.  If you are going to make a total commitment to a company and to a chairman and CEO and you're not sure you like him, then do yourself a favor and get another job.  Because over years you become close.  There was never any doubt in my mind or in my chairman's mind as to who was chairman and who was the senior public relations officer.  That line was never crossed.  But you had a lot of interaction, a lot of interplay, a lot of debate.  The relationship was tested many times.  But it all begins with mutual respect.

Martin:  Could you give us an example as to how the relationship might have been tested that we might learn from?

Foster:  Just let me preface that by saying that Johnson & Johnson has a corporate Credo that was written by Robert Wood Johnson in the early 1940s.  It is very similar, markedly similar, to the Page message.  And while he wrote that in the early 1940s, he outlined it for the first time in 1935 just at the time that Arthur Page was at AT&T.  Johnson wrote frequently in major magazines, and so did Arthur Page, and the principles of the Page Principles and of the Johnson & Johnson Credo, which is a one-page document that calls for four responsibilities – to the customer first, to the employees second, to the communities where we work and live third, and fourthly to the stockholders – are markedly similar.  And as an example, which you asked for, I remember one time we had to close down a major facility in the South.  And it went through all the routines of regular corporate evaluation where we brought the legal people in, we brought the human resources people in, and we put together a package that everyone in the company in the senior management thought was fair and adequate.  I disagreed because this was a textile mill in the South and it's really a textile town that we had created.  It had an older population of employees and it was in a remote area that there weren't any other jobs.  I thought to close this down, even with a good compensation package, was totally inconsistent with the Johnson & Johnson Credo, and I vehemently argued that.  And I created some doubts in their minds as to whether they were doing the right thing, including the chairman.  And we left the meeting with the situation undecided because no one knew what to do.  Fortunately, one of the executive committee members at the meeting was deeply involved in manufacturing.  He knew, as you probably know, Johnson & Johnson was a highly decentralized company.  At that time we had about 100 companies around the world, individually managed, cumulatively forming the substance of what Johnson & Johnson is at the corporate level.  And he knew that one of the affiliates in the South, in Texas I believe it was, southwest, was going to add to a facility down there and it just so happened after a lot of negotiations, a lot of working out details, that that other affiliate company was able to go in and take over the facility of the textile business in that town and, as a result, those people did not lose their jobs and the town was saved.  If I had capitulated and not been stubborn, and I think I raised the subject, but when I did I wasn't alone.  Others did see, well, you know he's got a point.

Martin:  Let's switch gears here a little bit and talk about each of the Page Principles.  Maybe not all six, a few of them anyway.  And I'd just like your comment and your thoughts.  What experiences come to mind?  Let's start with to Tell the Truth.

Foster:  So basic and fundamental that I can't add much to the three words, tell the truth.  I don't think there is any other way.  I learned through the years, based on my past experience, that I think how to do a fairly credible job of handling the press.  I never told them everything I knew.  If I did I wouldn't be needed in the job.  But I never lied.  They knew I would never lie to them, and they also knew I wasn't telling them everything I knew, and that's the name of the game.  You play that back and forth.  So, telling the truth is so fundamental that I couldn't work for a company that didn't tell the truth, and I don't think you could either.

Martin:  How do you decide what of everything you know you have to tell them, and what is acceptable to withhold?

Foster:  Well, in that case, Dick, I'm thinking what's best for the business and I'm thinking what is best for our customer, what is best for our employees and our shareholders.  So I am not going to divulge things that will add to the magnitude of the story and maybe even distort it, but I'm going to respond to what I think the press should know, at a given time but not necessarily elaborate on it ad infinitum.  I mean that's not the role of a counselor.  And experience tells you a lot, teaches you a lot, when to say that's what I think the company has to say at this time.

Martin:  Prove it with Action.  Is it as simple as actions speak louder than words?

Foster: Well, if a company isn't taking actions on a problem, then they're derelict in their duty.  I don't think the question of action takes long to prove.  Every given major situation, major crisis, it’s a fluid situation, and you constantly are required to make decisions which are implemented into action.  So, I think a company that is reluctant or hesitant about demonstrating action is derelict.  And I think the media and public opinion . . .  My interpretation of the media and how the press would respond in a given situation has a great deal to do with how the public responds.  The public learns from the media and then they make decisions.  You know what you feel you want the public to decide, hopefully in your favor.  Therefore, the media is the conduit by which your judgments and your decisions . . .  But that goes hand in hand with action.  I hardly think the public would tolerate inaction on anything that is important.  In fact, that's the greatest mistake, I think, that most people in handling crises make, the single greatest mistake.    They lose track of the importance of timing.  They wait two days to have meetings before they say they're sorry for what happened and they are going to correct it.  You don't need two days, you may need ten seconds, you don't need two days.  The timing is so critically important and people just, and I think of the crises management people who could up with these great documents on how to handle crises, many of which sometimes stay in the file gathering dust in the middle of a major, crisis, but They forget that you have to demonstrate immediately what your intentions are and why.  And that's not hard to do.  You may not be able to get into detail, understand, but to give the company's fundamental position on any major situation doesn't take a lot of meetings.

Martin:  Listening to the Customer.

Foster:  Well, and you have many customers.  In the case of a company like Johnson & Johnson in the health care field, your customers include doctors and nurses, and the patient, and it includes hospital administrators.  It includes the hierarchy of the health care system.  It includes government, it includes the FDA and so forth.  Some are audience and some are customers.  It is terribly important to have knowledge of or instinct about what they are thinking and why they think the way they do.  They each have a reason for thinking the way they do, and you have a lot of people and a lot of sources that you can check to make sure you are right.  You are not always right.  And you know sometimes your own decisions, you are not infallible and you are not that good that you don't make mistakes yourself.  So in trying to be the loyal opposition there will be times when you went off the deep end and went too far and that you were wrong.  And so you regroup, come back and try to do better next time.  But the major caveat is that you better be right more often, a lot more often, than you are wrong or you won't be around for long.

Martin:  Managing for Tomorrow.  Do you think that's something business has forgotten today?

Foster:  One of the most important ingredients of any business is the thought of managing for the long term, and we've been caught up in managing other companies, and people have been caught up in managing for the quarter and to satisfy the analysts on Wall Street.  You must get some numbers out right away.  The truth is any good business is planned for the long term and matters for the long term, and Page used the word tomorrow – Managing for Tomorrow.  And I understand that he didn't write it that way originally but someone, and I don't know who to put the blame on, decided to change the word and interject tomorrow because they thought that that might be more meaningful or more expressive of what he meant.  I understand the original words were much more indicative of building the business for the long term.

Martin:  When did you first hear about Arthur Page and the idea of an Arthur Page Society?

Foster:  Well, I first heard about it in the mid-1980s from someone that I have great respect and admiration for, and have for years, Ed Block.  I heard about the Page Society and I knew at that time it was made up of the communication executives of the Bell System when the Bell System was one company.  About 1988 Ed Block came to me and said we think that the Page Society should be expanded nationally and include a lot of other senior executives from other companies.  I agreed with him.  I think that the quality that we saw, and it was prevalent, in the Page Society at that time warranted a national level of recognition and participation.  Then he posed the question of whether I would agree to become the first non-Bell System president of the Page Society.  I didn't take too long to say yes.  In fact, I may have said it right away because of my instincts that the Page Society had the potential to be the finest professional society in the public relations field, which it is today.

Martin:  What is it about the Page Society that you thought would make it different or necessary?

Foster:  I think there were several things.  One, the Page Principles, which, in my view, held a very similar response in my mind, my intellect, to the Johnson & Johnson Credo.  I found something that I could really relate to.  The other thing was that it was a time in this business, in the public relations business, in which this was needed.  It was a growing field, it was a more important field but there were not any major organizations out there that would give the kind of service, the kind of information and the kind of personal involvement that the Page Society could.  And so, therefore, it loomed to me as a very important future step for public relations and that's why I was eager to take the presidency for two years.  My first job, my mandate, was to make this a national organization.  The first thing I did, I got a list of the top companies in America and I found out who was running the public relations and we went down the list and invited a large, or significant percentage of them, to join the Page Society.  I don't think we had a single turn down.  If we had one it might have been someone who knew he was going to be in transition on his job.  But you have to remember in those days people weren't moving around as much as they are today.  So membership in the Page Society became very important to people who were recognized as the best people in the field.  And that's why it has done so well.  And, today, unequivocally, there is no question that the Page Society stands head and shoulders above any other professional society in our field.

Martin:  Anything else about those early days at the Page Society?  Interesting anecdotes, people involved?

Foster:  I think the important thing that I found at the beginning was that because the Bell System had such a great reputation, and because Ed Block and Jack Koten and others had such great reputations, people were willing to become members.  And they had already recruited some very important names like Harold Burson, whom I think is probably one of the finest counselors in the business.  When Burson associates his name to something, that's a big plus.  But, you see, I think organizations are built in two ways – one people and one program.  You can't have one without the other.  So we got some very outstanding speakers for our spring conference and our annual meeting, some of the best-known CEOs in America and others in the communications field, some of the best journalists in the country.  And when you get that kind of a program, which aimed at being instructional and helpful to the things you do, and you have an audience of top ranked people, that mix creates a wonderful chemistry for the growth of an organization.  And the Page Society has managed to build on that.  Don't forget, that's ten years ago that I had finished the presidency.  It has managed to build on it year after year.  And they have kept faith with the people who have joined by offering quality programs.  But always at the core of it are the Page Principles and you can't join the Page Society without knowing what they are about.  They are about the Page Principles, and if you disagree with them or have some hesitancy or doubt about them, the easiest solution is don't join.  But we haven't had many turndowns.  And there is another thing I'd like to mention about Arthur Page while I'm thinking about it.  Why is Arthur Page so important to us 75 years after his role at AT&T?  I think it's because Arthur Page took the time to express what perhaps others were thinking, including CEOs.  He was the one who put it on paper.  He was the one that was willing to stand behind his words, and 75 years later we're doing television shows and writing books about Arthur Page.  So I think the boldness and the intensity of his beliefs should be why we have reason to admire him.  He made the effort to do what perhaps others were thinking but didn't have the presence of mind to do.

[End of interview]