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.
INTERVIEWER: Tell us a little bit, at Western Electric; let’s just go back there for a minute. Do you remember, at that point, if the company had any kinds of ethics codes or mission statement where they talked about ethical behavior and social responsibility?
EHINGER: I don’t remember anything. I always felt Western Electric, and I think this for the whole Bell System, was an ethical kind of operation and we didn’t have problems that some of these—like the financial business have today. I always mentioned to my wife, many times I said, you know there aren’t a lot of people grasping for the next rung. You don’t feel it’s highly competitive, it seems to be a meritocracy and if you do your job, you just might get promoted and that happened to me. But I never did anything obvious and I don’t remember… In the purchasing department we had to be careful of certain laws. In other words, you could not get a lower price for something by squeezing the supplier or you’d be in trouble by the law, so we did know a little bit about ethics in the purchasing department. We did the Bell System purchasing. I helped set up telephone directory contracts and printing contracts for the Bell company switch, Western Electric used to do.
INTERVIEWER: What education and/or previous professional experience best prepared you or do you think anybody, for the rigors of ethical decision-making? I mean, where does this knowledge come from?
EHINGER: Well I think ethical decision-making comes from your whole background from your family. If your parents were ethical people and I’d say, helped others, I was raised during the depression and my folks were very active in helping to take care of people like that. In fact, my dad was in social work anyhow so perhaps that kind of thing rubbed off. And I was raised in Dover, Delaware which is a small town, from the second grade on. It was a great place to grow up and I had three brothers so we had a good family. And the interesting thing, you know their all still around and none of them…went so far as none of us smoked til this day, and my dad didn’t, my mother didn’t. So there’s certain things that are built in and I think that was just part of it.
INTERVIEWER: So it’s a family value?
EHINGER: Family values and you can take all the ethics courses you want in college and it won’t do much except, you’ll fill out the form and pass the exam but it won’t change too much. I do think probably on this whole ethics thing, maybe case studies may be the best way to go and I don’t know how much of that goes on right now.
INTERVIEWER: Actually, that is an important pedagogy, at least in…
EHINGER: For that kind of thing.
INTERVIEWER: Well in college in general. Well there are various organizations that have case study competitions and yeah, they’re valuable because they allow discussion.
EHINGER: Well you want people that got into trouble because of the way they handled and people that avoided trouble because of the way they handled. Larry Foster of course being a perfect example of how to do it right. Now a lot of the financial firms don’t know how to do it right, they’re not used to that and, too bad. But I don’t think an ethics course changes a basic philosophy too much. I mean if you give that person two choices and one says this looks like we might get away with it, they just might do it. The problem lawyers have, the lawyers have the problem, they gotta defend people that are guilty. I don’t know how you do that.
INTERVIEWER: They know how to do it.
EHINGER: But they know how to do it and you have the right to have that kind of thing to create a reasonable doubt.
INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you a couple general questions. What’s the role of the economic bottom line in ethical decision-making?
EHINGER: There are a lot of gray areas. I know our lawyers used to say Bob, if you don’t want anybody to know about it don’t ever write it down. Now why all these people put it on emails I don’t know, but that just—I used to think when you pressed the delete button it was gone. It’s not gone. And I don’t know why people aren’t aware that that’s not a good thing. So I don’t know ethics—I think until you are in that spot, you really don’t know for sure what you’re doing. You think you do but if your boss is saying one thing and you say, that isn’t right boss, what’s going to happen? PR has a problem in a sense, cause it’s driven more by the legal department than the marketing department, and you’re there to advise.
INTERVIEWER: Right. You’re the counselor.
EHINGER: But you’re not necessarily the one that makes the final decision.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a direct line to the CEO in your positions?
EHINGER: I did but you know, at one time toward the end of my Western Electric career, they suddenly created executive vice presidents, so instead of reporting directly to the president I reported to an executive vice president who had personnel, PR and I don’t know, maybe 1 or 2 others—accounting and unfortunately he wasn’t one of my favorites. And he felt he wanted to make certain decisions and didn’t want me talking to certain people up there. So that’s why I say PR frequently has a problem because they do not always let you go directly, they put you…maybe you’re under legal or some other thing. That happened to me after I had a direct line.
INTERVIEWER: That would be difficult.
EHINGER: I didn’t like it.
INTERVIEWER: What about when you went to AT&T.
EHINGER: With AT&T…I worked with Ed Block basically but I know a couple times Charlie Brown who was the chairman, I was in there to talk to him on different things. I didn’t make that initiative, he did. Let’s say there wasn’t any blockage, but I had no reason normally to go directly to him cause that was a more operations kind of a business and I wasn’t that directly involved in some of that stuff. That was Ed’s job, if it was anybody’s.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. What do you think about all the new technology and the effect that’s having on public relations and on ethical decision-making?
EHINGER: Well, I don’t know enough about it myself but certainly when you get blogs and all that stuff, the stuff gets out fast. You don’t have to wait for the morning paper. So it obviously complicates the job and the problem is how do you get facts out there. But it’s important therefore that you keep flow of information out there about your company, about your business so that when people hear this from a blogger let’s say, at least they raise a question they might say, that’s not what I heard. But it is a complication and I don’t know…there are people out there to get you. They don’t like you cause you’re big. I don’t know about the bankers. I don’t know what really should happen—but there are a lot of people that don’t like them.
INTERVIEWER: That’s for sure.
EHINGER: Well, the automobile business is the same way to a degree, although Ford seems to have done very well. And it’s interesting that the former head of AT&T is now chairman of the board of General Motors and now the acting CEO. And he seems to be doing a pretty good job. But yeah, I think social networking, bloggers, Twitter, I don’t know any of that stuff, and I don’t want to.
INTERVIEWER: I must say I have never tweeted.
EHINGER: No, I wouldn’t know what a tweet was, I thought it was a bird.