Plank Legends & Leaders: Jack Koten


The retired Senior Vice President of Corporate Communication for a $22 billion telecommunications company, John A. Koten has had a distinguished career in public relations. Koten earned his degree from North Central College and Northwestern University. Prior to his successful career at Ameritech, Koten served as Vice President of Corporate Communications for Illinois Bell and New Jersey Bell and as AT&T Public Relations Director.

Koten was also the founding member of the Arthur W. Page Society, is a past President and served on its board of trustees for 20 years. He was the President of the Ameritech Foundation, is Chairman and Director of the Great Books Foundation, and Vice Chairman of District 220 Educational Foundation.

Koten has authored and is the editor for numerous articles, including the Page Society’s recently published book, Building Trust. He has spoken at management conferences, academic seminars, and civic meetings throughout the United States. Koten’s dedication to his career and love of public relations has not gone unrecognized. He was elected to the Page Society’s Hall of Fame in 1995 and as a life trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, North Central College and the Associated Colleges of Illinois.

He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Quincy University in 1990 and North Central College in 1991.

Define what leadership in PR means to you.

>> Leadership in public relations is a very broad subject and it covers many different aspects of the public relations. First off, I’d say that anyone can be a leader. And there are different ways that leadership can be achieved.

Part of it is being knowledgeable, being regarded as someone’s who’s authoritative, and if you had these kinds of attributes and people look to you, that leadership comes to you naturally. Another way to be a leader is to be someone who produces or writes material that other people can respond to and follow.

Whether it’s Rachel Carson with this Silent Spring type book or a book like Boys and the Band where somebody describes what it’s really like to be in a field of changes in behavior and reporters around the world. So, the leadership can stem, a person can be a leader. A painter like Da Vinci or Monet or somebody like that can inspire a whole new thing without actually physically being someone that people come to and respect.

So, I think when it comes to public relations that there are many opportunities for leadership and there’s many ways to be a leader. But no one will be a leader unless they make the effort to want to be that, and I think that is one of the keys to leadership.

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

>> Well, knowledge is, to me, one of the key factors. Being articulate is another important factor. The ability to motivate others to do something one way or the other. These are critical factors that involve being a good leader and someone that people will respect. Because, if you don’t have that and you don’t have integrity there’s no way that you can be a leader.

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

>> People, as peers and people that worked in groups that I was involved with, was important. I may have been regarded as someone who was innovative, creative, came up with ideas, had a lot of solutions for problems when they were presented. But when it really got right down to it, having great people was the key to any success that I may have achieved.

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

>> I think there are many different ways to look at that. And I would say that first, to be a good leader, you need to lead by example. And I recall working for a group of different presidents. I actually worked for nine over my career, reported directly to them. And I learned in that aspect that there’s no single way to be a leader, that to run something that there’s a wide variety of things.

And I can remember when Charlie Brown was president of Illinois Bell we had a strike. He was out there on the line, climbing poles and fixing things just like anybody else. Leading by that kind of example, to me, was the way that sent a message to the troops all over.

If the CEO can get out there and do it then everybody else can do it. Joe Cook was another person who saw a problem in Chicago, the Chicago public schools were bad. He organized a group of business people and other civic leaders and created the Better Schools Committee.

I was his assistant at the time. He appointed me Executive Director of the Better Schools Committee and we actually went out and won a referendum to increase the amount of money for public schools. These are examples you see as recognizing a problem, coming up with a solution for it, and then hopefully achieving some degree of success. People look for others to see what they’re doing and they will follow if the examples of good.

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, I would take two different types of examples. One would be, Scott Cutlip who wrote the definitive book on public relations, which is still 30 years or 40 years later, the best book that’s ever been written.

Now that’s a form of leadership, to be able to create something that people years and years later keep following and use as an example. But my own personal hero would be, Arthur Page for example, who was the first person in the public relations field, to hold the title of Vice President of Public Relations, and he was for AT&T.

In that role, he was able to significantly influence the American Telephone Telegraph company, which at the time was the largest company in the United States. And because he was so effective at doing that, other corporations around the United States sought him out personally to come and talk to their companies and to their boards of directors about what they should do when they encountered various things. Now to me, that’s about as good an example of leadership as one could find.

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?

>> I think that you can be a leader in virtually any kind of profession. And what it takes to be a leader is someone who’s creative, someone who wants to be able to take the initiative, and it doesn’t really make too much difference what the field is that you’re in.

I think that leaders are leaders, and they are people who have evolved the art of helping others do better jobs themselves, and in turn, those people come and seek advice and counsel from those persons. So I don’t care whether you’re in public relations, whether you’re working for a corporation or you’re working for an agency, a non-profit corporation, or whatever it is.

If you have and are respected as being someone who is knowledgeable, who has the answers, and who can articulate the answers. We have a lot of people that have answers, but nobody understands what it is they’re saying. But if you can either write or speak well and get people understand what it is you’re solving or what problem you’re solving or helping with, you’re going to be an increasing source of inspiration to others.

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

>> Well, you have to want to do this like I said it’s not going to be something that just happens, that’s not going to be bestowed on someone. If I were a young person, I would look for activities, organizations, or things where I could become involved in an organization and maybe eventually work up through the chairs to become into a leadership role.

I would say that one of the things that could happen in, I’ll say a college or high school environment, is that if teachers or others give people opportunities to be a leader of a project or an assignment. Or something where they’re responsible for it and they’re accountable for it, and they can develop the practice of being responsible for leading some kind of group doing something, that eventually they’ll become a leader. If they don’t respond at all, and the chances are that there’s nothing that’s going to happen later on that’s going to make that person a leader.

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

>> I think that leadership is a skill that is acquired by being a leader. And they can start out, I’d say it, like in my own case, I was a Cub Scout and I was made a Denner.

And then when I was in the Boy Scout I was troop leader and then one thing led to another and I was president of my class in high school and college, etc. And at each stage of the game you learn a few things in how people behave and respond in different types of situations, and so I believe that anyone, I mean I’m a perfect example, if anyone can actually become a leader, if they’re willing to work hard at it. It just doesn’t come because you’re anointed. It becomes because others. If you don’t have followers, you’re not a leader. That’s about as simple as I can say it.

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

>> I was involved with and basically responsible for a crew a number of years ago when Phil Donahue on his program, devoted it to a very anti-telephone company tirade. About the rates being high, being restrictive, the company was uncompetitive. And was really gouging customers and the full hour, Phil Donahue at the time was the Oprah Winfrey of today. And his show every day was listened to by millions of people around the country. It was a syndicated television program, so it wasn’t broadcast every place at the same time.

I did not see the original but within an hour after he’d been on, there was a troop of people that came into my office and said do you know what Phil Donahue just said about our company? And he was actually talking about the Bell system at large, it wasn’t just strictly Illinois Bell.

And they said no, and so, fortunately, somebody had actually recorded it, I didn’t see the visual, but I heard all the complaints were on. So the answer said that in my opinion, was, we have to do something right away and respond to that right away. Well, naturally everybody said yes or you can’t do that, you don’t attack somebody who buys ink by the gallon, and this sort of thing.

And they go, the TV people got control of everything. I said, no, we have to get equal time on that. Well, make a long story short, within a week we were able to do that and we had at the time, the most articulate and genuine president, a fellow by the name of Chuck Marshall, who was absolutely terrific.

He went on the show, a lot of negotiation went on to get this to happen. It wasn’t just a very easy thing to do. But, the upshot was the fact is, and we did this with 60 Minutes and other programs as well. And this is the first one that came to my mind.

But the upshot of it was, that we were on, Marshall did such a terrific job, that people were calling in from all over about saying thank God somebody spoke up for the telephone company. Well the vantage from our standpoint, because the program was syndicated and broadcast in different, we were able to run advertisements in every community when the show was going to appear.

So watch Chuck Marshall on the Phil Donahue show. The other programs didn’t get nearly the visibility that we did, and as a result of this, we carried the day on a number of states and the commerce commissions, and we also did in Congress. But it’s too long of a story to tell you.

But response quick, not being afraid when somebody attacks you in the public eye. You come right back and deal with it, is my best quick story for you. I could tell you some others, but that’s the first one that appeared to me for a special reason.

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

>> Well, there’s no question in my mind what the number one book would be and that’s General Patton’s book on leadership. That book has more good advice about how to be a leader and how to be a commander, and how to be effective at all levels in an organization than any other single book that I’ve ever read. And I would recommend it to anyone who wanted to be a leader or ever thought about it.

My favorite book is one Bob Green wrote which is called The Servant Leader. And the idea here is that all leaders are servants of the people. And if you’re not a servant, you are not going to be a leader. If you don’t have that concept of what you’re trying to do.

But, if you want to know how to really lead the troops or an organization, Boy Scout troop, Girl Scout troop, Brownies, whatever. Patton’s book has got the answers.

What are the most crucial issues confronting the PR profession today?

>> Acceptance is a major one is that public relations is still not accepted by everyone as a legitimate profession. Public relations people do this to themselves when they call what they do as PR.

PR is a pejorative term, it’s associated with spin, it’s associated with exaggeration, associated with stunts, promotions of one kind or another. It’s an adjunct of the marketing department or marketing and sales efforts and I’ve done all of this stuff so I know. That reputation for public relations being that’s what it is, is the thing that keeps it from being what it truly should be.

And people should aspire to be is where their advice and counsel is sought, to solve problems. And I don’t care whether it’s an environmental problem or a legal problem of some kind or with the government, or with the international scene, or whatever. Good public relations people, and people who are knowledgeable and have a breadth of knowledge and experience, should be looked upon as advisors and counselors, as to how do we solve this problem, what’s the best way to do it. How can we communicate what our position is and how do we understand better what the opposition’s case or customers who don’t like us, or the problem. The public relations person at that point becomes the intersection between information coming in, delivering it and sending information out to.

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

>> Work hard, take every possible assignment that one can get, work overtime, do not be intimidated by the fact that public relations activity is 24/7, it’s always been 24/7.

But the content, everything moves faster now. And for anyone coming in that looks at it as an eight to five or nine to five job, nothing’s going to happen. But if the person is willing to put forth themselves and energy and overachieve, ask for extra work, things to do, they will eventually, if they’re good, I mean, there’s a lot of different ways to qualify this.

But if anybody has talent and if you know yourself as an individual and that you have abilities and capabilities to do things, then I think it’s up to the individual to put that forth and show that that’s what they can do, and if they’re asked to work late, I’d say, when do I start?

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