Plank Legends & Leaders: Marilyn Laurie


A retired vice president of brand strategy and advertising at AT&T, Marilyn Laurie has had a distinguished career in public relations. Laurie joined AT&T in 1971 as a nationally recognized environmentalist who helped create Earth Day in 1970. She created an environmental education program for company employees and planned AT&T’s environmental and energy conservation policies.

Through the years, she became the Vice President of Public Relations at Bell Laboratories, Senior Vice Present, and then Executive Vice President at AT&T in 1996. Her work included media relations, speech writing, and corporate advertising. As the executive vice president, Laurie was responsible for leading AT&T’s brand building activities and managing the company’s reputation worldwide as well as supervising internal communications for an enormous workforce.

As chairman of the AT&T Foundation, Laurie also directed $40 million annually to education, social service, and arts institutions. Laurie is also a trustee of the New York City Ballet and New York Presbyterian Hospital. She was named one of the 100 most influential Columbia University alumni of all time.

Laurie passed away in 2010.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> To me leadership is the capacity to sweep other people into some usually forward-looking or problem-solving vision that you have. And by bringing a combination of knowledge and creativity and authenticity to that problem or that vision of the future, get other people excited about it and willing to support it.

What are the most important characteristics or qualities of excellent leaders in public relations?

>> I think I’d have to start with knowledge. That if you bring a knowledge of the business or the nonprofit that you’re in, but I’m talking operational knowledge, deep knowledge, the kind of knowledge that puts you shoulder-to-shoulder with the people who are running whatever institution we’re talking about. And knowledge of the issues, knowledge of the constituencies that are outside the organization that affect the organization, some experience with problem-solving. If you bring that kind of knowledge to the table, I think you start off in a strong leadership position.

Secondly, I would say, maybe even first, integrity. If you are perceived to be speaking authentically from your own set of values, if what you are doing is based on what is really true, as opposed to perhaps what people would like to think is true, or wish were true. If you talk from a base of truth and honest values, and personal integrity, and don’t wishy-washy around in terms of what is true and you have conviction about it, then I think that’s the second thing that’s critical aspect.

Third, I would say that the unique thing the PR person brings to the table is the outside view. My career, for example, was very much based on being what I call an insider-outsider. So, the capacity to identify with and care about the institution, the company, the cause, but not so much that you are so captured by it, that you forget what the broad outside public is thinking about it.

What your opponents think about it. What people of various interests think about it. So that you can bring that to the table. That is absolutely crucial. And I guess if I thought of one more it would be guts. If you need the courage to stand up for what you think needs to be done, what the solution is, what the option is, if you don’t have that you’ll get crushed by the operating people who have their own very often narrow view of what is required.

As a recognized leader in the field, what factors most contributed to your personal success? 

>> First of all, I think I was helped by being a woman early in the game rather than hurt. Because I was automatically an outsider. And, consequently, I was never in head-to-head competition with a lot of the operating people, and therefore was not in any kind of a weakened staff position. So, coming at it as a woman, who they were not competing with at that time, and coming at it as an outsider, I was originally hired to AT&T as an environmentalist, so I could not have been more outside.

And as I learned more and more about the business, that ability to be what I call a bridge between the inside and the outside worlds, and bring something quite special and different to the table from the people who were coming from either a specialty or from very much an inside feeling.

That was an enormous spur to my success at AT&T. And the other was I was never afraid to be in a different job. I was moved into just about everything you could do. And each job that I went into I knew nothing. But I wasn’t embarrassed about knowing nothing and I think a love of learning new things is extremely useful.

What’s the most powerful learning experience you encountered with respect to leadership in the field?

>> I learned a lot from successes but I think I learned more from failures. The two most powerful, and in some ways painful, lessons I learned, both had a common issue to them. They were, let me give you the two circumstances. In one circumstance, when I was chair of the AT&T Foundation, we, this is way back in the early 80’s, I chaired it for over a decade.

We were the largest contributor at that time to Planned Parenthood. And for a variety of reasons having to do with barriers between the way funds were allocated, which Planned Parenthood at that time did not have. And we were funding educational programs, we ended up having to withdraw our funds because they were going for lobbying purposes for abortion.

Let me give you the bottom line and then I’ll come back. The bottom line was it was one of the great public relations catastrophes of the decade. Planned Parenthood ended up turning on us. We were their very largest supporter for 16 years. They took out ads all over America.

They urged people to boycott us. We had shareholder resolutions on the subject for 12 years. The second situation, I’ll tell you what I learned in a moment, the second situation was not that dissimilar. And also, making it extremely painful was in my organization and that was when a magazine the company magazine, that we had, focus commissioned some artwork that was roughly maybe two-three inches square.

Never even went through the normal process because it was so small. It was a map of the world on each of the continents, this freelance artist had put little representations, in Europe might be a little girl with a Dutch hat and in Africa put a monkey. And it blew up into a major racial incident involving AT&T, just to give you an idea how horrible it can get, this little tiny, cartoon ended up being blown up many, many times its size and ended up on page one of the Washington Post and was distributed to hotel rooms all over Washington on the day that the Democratic Black Caucus opened their convention in Washington.

And it turned into a major national incident. Bad as the external implications were, the internal were even more terrible as our own employees of color and rose up and years and years and years of work that we had done. And had a fabulous reputation at the time for diversity just went out the window.

The two things I learned from both of those incidents were, first of all, when you get into really deep trouble it’s terribly important to get outside counsel. Because the strategies we ended up following in both of those incidents were in my view ultimately too slow and too apologetic.

We bent over backwards in both of them. Ultimately, too far backwards to the point where it seemed somewhat less credible because we felt so guilty. If I had called in, outside counsel which we did not because we had a huge staff. I suspect I would have got in the kind of counsel I would have given another company in that circumstances would have been more objective, would have been tougher and would have been faster.

Second thing I learned is one of the most important lessons anybody in public relations can ever learn at any level. Once an incident involves values, never, never underestimate the impact of that issue. When you are engaged in issues that are high profile values or even if you don’t look often for the personal values issues underneath what seemed like more commonplace problems, you will die on the battlefield of conflicting values.

And in those circumstances, you are really in deep trouble. And you need to know that before you get there. And if you stumble into that kind of battlefield, you need to really understand you’re immediately in a very tragic kind of crisis.

Name one individual whom you believe to be the most outstanding leader in the field today. What makes this individual such an outstanding leader? 

>> Well, he’s been doing it forever but I would still say it was Harold Burson and the reason is, going back to some of the qualities of leadership, Harold has developed over the years enormous variety of experience, so he has the judgement to counsel people based on a long real reality-based set of data on how constituencies are likely to react and what a sensible course of action is.

The other thing is that it’s very important in public relations when you’re counseling people and trying to lead in a situation or stand shoulder to shoulder with whoever it is that is the leader out front in a situation very important to keep it simple and Harold is concise, focused and simple and his judgement is impeccable. He has saved people’s rear ends more times than I can count. The classic example of that, of course, was the famous Tylenol crisis. That’s become such a well-known case history. He was working with a CEO, Jim Burke, who was heroic in his own right but the idea that you had to go so much further than the situation seemed to require on the face of it and that whole voluntary recall, the safety packaging that ensued.

The credibility that was won out of smart, caring action that was consonant with that brand. That’s classic Harold Burson type of council. And doesn’t get any better than that.

In your view, is there a historical figure who exemplified outstanding leadership in the field? Why?

>> Well, my personal favorite over the years has become Arthur Page and partly because we grew the Page Society out of AT&T. But he put forward the basics of what we are all about which doesn’t have anything to do with smart press relations or social networking. The idea that he embodied, the ideas that it’s 90% about what you do and only 10% talking about it. And the idea that every institution ultimately sinks or swims on the basis of public consent.

Those are the two foundations of quality leadership, in what we do. Then, come the tactics. But, if you don’t start out in the right place and Arthur Page defined the right place. It doesn’t matter what you say. Another favorite of mine is Chet Burger who’s not practicing anymore but I met Chet in the very earliest years of my career.

And the thing I learned from him was this concept of simplicity. Chet always used to talk about how, if you tend to be simple in the obvious, you’re not going to have to worry about the complicated. He is so right. If you tackle a problem, if you tackle a brand, if you tackle a crisis, and you focus in on the most effective, appropriate, authentic, honest solution to the obvious problem.

The other stuff often takes care of itself. And too often, we get lost in either the tactics, or all the trees, and we forget that the key to doing what we do superbly is to go for the jugular of the big issue. The big simple obviously issue.

Do you think that leadership skills and values in PR are different in any way from those in other professions? If so, how and why?

>> In the main, I think not. I think that being forward-looking, being a problem solver, having the confidence and conviction in what you see as the appropriate option. The stamina is absolutely crucial across all leadership categories. Think in the main, no. While we appreciate eloquent leaders, Martin Luther King comes to mind, I think in public relations it’s very difficult to lead without both better than usual interpersonal skills and better than usual personal communication skills.

I say interpersonal skills because there are many leadership situations. Fewer and fewer today as we look at more peer and collaborative activity but there’s a still whole hell of a lot of commanding control in many, many dimensions of leadership. Whereas the public relations leader is much more dependent of persuasion and oral and written advocacy than many of the forms of leadership.

So, I think having and learning those skills is non-trivial. It’s part of what helps again all leaders simplify when they put forward a cause or a goal for people to rally around. But the public relations person really has to find a way to frame, articulate, persuade around a goal or a cause that is expected of him or her. And it’s expected at a level beyond, I think, many of the leaders.

What can a new PR professional do to begin to develop the kinds of leadership characteristics and skills that you described?  

>> Number one, learn the business. Number two, learn the business. Number three, learn the business. Number four, learn the outside, learn the outside, learn the outside. You must want to know far more than seems particularly relevant at the moment.

If you don’t want to know broadly, if you don’t have curiosity, if you’re not reading all kinds of different external materials and watching everything from pop culture to PBS. And if you’re not out there caring about what’s going on in the world, you don’t make the connections that it’s your job to bring to the table.

You can’t anticipate trends if you are not out there listening and looking. And developing the capacity to hear so those are my two things you know. Learn, listen, listen, listen. And much of the rest follows and do not work anywhere you do not care about. Because in our business, if you don’t care about the cause, if you don’t care about the goals of the institution, then you have no business being there.

Because this is not some kind of a technical job where you’ll bring technical skills to it as a leader and that’s all you have to take to the office, doesn’t work.

What can university educators do to help PR students develop important leadership skills and values?

>> I think very early in the game, they need to differentiate between tactics and everything you need beyond tactics. So, you have to have this basis of, even today, being able to write well. I was a speechwriter for, I guess, two and a half, three years for the chairman of the company. Invaluable experience, I could never have had it if I hadn’t been a good writer. However, the joy of having a speech writing job is to be able to make policy, because you can propose things in a speech for whoever you are writing for and that’s the leadership dimension. If you don’t think about that, you’re learning to write where this writing go. You’ll always be a tactician. And I’m not so sure that professors spend enough time on the issue of values.

Helping to shape the internal culture of an institution and helping to hold the values of the institution as the outside world changes, helping to change the values of the institution to meet the needs of the outside world. The PR person is one of the bow works of an institution’s capacity to change and keep up with the times.

Keeping up with the times by definition means keeping up with what’s going on and brewing outside and bubbling up and trying to either meet it, get ahead of it, stay with it. So, if you’re doing product design that’s called innovation. If you’re doing PR, it’s keeping up with public expectations, it’s keeping up with what people think about you vs. your competition.

It’s keeping up with whether or not there’s a gap between what your brand stands for and what people want to do to your brand. Quick example. I worked in AT&T, the head of our consumer business under very heavy competitive pressure from MCI, which at the time we didn’t know was lying, cheating and stealing and was going to end up in jail, but the price pressures were enormous and the business decided they were going to bring out a variation on our telecommunications product that would be a lower level of quality and offer that lower level at a lower price.

I fought the battle against that up to the chairman’s office until I was standing I swear in a pool of blood up to my knees on the basis that we had a 100-year old brand, the centerpiece of which was, it was the best quality on the market and there was no way we could ever put out a product that compromised quality.

We could put out a product that compromised features, that was high quality, but fewer features. But never a product that was lower quality, because the long-range implications to the company were disastrous. That product never saw the light of day. That type of case, I’m not so sure that, that’s taught as I say. The gap between the public expectation of the company and the real challenges that come up where you stand, where you compromise, how do you make those kinds of decisions. That can be taught.

Do you think that leadership can be taught? Or is it inherited, or something else?

>> I think some dimensions of it definitely can be taught and I think that many more people turn out to have leadership positions, then perhaps have this very natural tendency towards leadership.

And so, the question is not so much whether you can teach anybody to be a leader, given the reality that a lot of people are going to turn out to be leaders, reasons that may have nothing whatever to do with those skills. What skills can you teach them in order to be better leaders?

And I think, again, those skills are teachable if the focus is on the real-life dimensions of being a leader, i.e., one of the most underestimated dimension of leadership is stamina. I have never known a leader that didn’t work, work, work, work and still manage to stay reasonably up and carry a lot of people with him or her.

Can you give a concrete example or illustration of leadership at work in practice?

>> Let me give you one from my career. It was my first leadership challenge when I had been senior vice president, which at that time was the highest level of public relations. Subsequently, executive vice president was created, but I was a reasonably new senior vice president and our chairman died unexpectedly two days before our annual meeting.

And this is a crisis and there were all of the issues around the openness or privacy around why and how he died and the biggest question was would we or would we not hold our annual meeting. And it fell to me to present the options, not from the point of view of could we do it logistically, which is somebody else’s job. Could we do it legally, which was somebody else’s job. Could we deal with the investor relations materials and mechanics, which was somebody else’s job. My job was should we have the meeting. And I went to our overnight newly elected chairman and we sat down for a couple of hours, and talked about the difference in my view between projecting stability and continuity, and caring and content by holding the meeting, and rapidly launching his leadership, and establishing his competence as opposed to the issues of respect, and caring and more time to think things through.

If we didn’t hold meeting, we went for these options and I strongly recommended holding the meeting and working basically around the clock to get this thing off the ground. And we did and it made a huge difference and they are lots like that, they happen all the time.

If you hadn’t held the meeting, what do you think the results would have been?

>> I think it would have taken a very long time for the new chairman to get established and I think from an investor point of view, I think we wouldn’t taken up a hit, particularly think about that today.

And I believe from an employee point of view, we would have suffered dramatically. Because we would have had more mourning for a brief, but very well-loved guy with a cooler temperamental kind of guy taking over. We would have more mourning and less acceptance of the changeover, and I think everything would have taken longer.

And again, one of the key things in corporate public relations is get the large institution to act quickly. It’s so slow. And by virtue of doing this, I think we got everything done faster and built a lot more confidence in the new chairman a lot quicker and had only a very short term blip.

What’s the one best book on leadership you would recommend to young professionals?

>> John Gardner wrote a book on excellence and then he wrote a book on leadership. They’re very connected in my view. Leaders are always trying to get better and better performance. Gardner was in the administrations of five or six presidents. He was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. He started Common Cause.

And I think ultimately, he taught at Stanford and this book deals with values issues. It deals with the difference between leadership and power. It deals with what dimensions of leadership actually get institutions to move more quickly in order to get to their goals faster. How leadership can foster innovation.

What’s your best advice about a career in PR to students who are just entering the work world?

>> I probably would only have one piece of advice. It’s clear as a bell. We have global audiences. We have people connected, listening as never before, we have people contributing as never before. It’s a very complex time, it’s wonderfully challenging. It’s a thrilling time and people really get the importance of public opinion.

So, that’s all a given, one piece of advice. It’s all about integrity. People have become so cynical through the manipulation of reality and the highly skilled efforts to shape and reshape and reshape reality to find safe outs that it’s become extraordinarily difficult to achieve credibility and credibility is what we’re about. Without that, we have nothing, absolutely nothing. So, I would say, the most important thing to remember starting out is honesty, credibility, reality. Keeping your eye on reality as opposed to slick manipulation, great tactics, wonderful skill to make it come out any way you or the client wants. That isn’t what we do that exemplifies leadership. That’s junk.

Resources of Interest

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