Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments
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: What was the biggest challenge that you faced in your career?
EHINGER: I think that last thing I mentioned probably. I mean, after having access to the top person and the division heads, the senior vice presidents of a major corporation and then have a boss coming in and say, you can’t talk to him anymore. I would take several of my crew over to talk to him cause he would tell me what was going on, what their plans were for the next six months you might say and I didn’t have that access anymore. I’d get it informally maybe, but I couldn’t sit down with 2 or 3 of staff people. So I’d say that was the biggest problem that I ever had in PR, definitely. So going over to AT&T was sort of a breath of fresh air in that regard. I was asked to set certain things up and I just did it. The foundation and things of that nature. One of the more interesting things I did. Junior Achievement, you may have heard of Junior Achievement?
INTERVIEWER: Oh yes.
EHINGER: We had one in New York and it wasn’t doing too well and so New York Telephone guy who was involved got a hold of me and said Bob, could you get involved? So I went over there and ended up becoming president of the Junior Achievement in New York because he said if the Bell System doesn’t take it over, it’s libel not to survive. So I did it for a year or two and then the New York Telephone vice president did it for a couple of years—not a PR man in this case. And then Frank Cary, who was the chairman of IBM, took over. He could do more than any of us cause he was the top man. But things like that are interesting. But I got involved with the Public Relations Society and got certified which, I don’t think that was worth a lot. You had on there a question about, do you call it communications or public relations.
EHINGER: My own feeling is public relations is a better term cause that’s what we’re trying to do—communication, that could be newsletters, it could be all kinds of little things. But everybody seems to be moving towards communication but to me, public relations say it’s public and it’s out there and that’s what Arthur Page was talking about too. How do you deal with the press, with the public? You know the Bell System always did a lot of work before rate cases to make sure the public understood the problem. We did a lot of that in our PR department when it was going to be bargaining—labor bargaining. We put some good stories in our house about how well people were doing that were in the bargaining unit, and it was just a good way to keep people posted on…you know, we’re not starving to death, we’re doing well and bargaining is coming up, it didn’t say anything about that but, it all tied together a little bit because of the public feeling about it or…employee feeling. You know we had 210,000 employees at Western Electric at its height, which is a lot of folks.
INTERVIEWER: That is.
EHINGER: In fact at one time when I was treasurer of the company, we had the fifth largest pension fund in the United States, because of all these people. And I enjoyed that. That sort of was good training, because we’d meet with the people that were investing our pension money, the bankers, people like that. So you learn a lot about dealing with people that way. So even though you didn’t have PR background in a sense that was always very helpful I think.
INTERVIEWER: I asked you about your challenges, for which of your accomplishments are you most proud of and why, why are you proud?
EHINGER: Oh I don’t know. There weren’t any real milestones in my opinion. One of the most interesting things we did when I was public relations head at Western Electric, you’ve heard of the Hawthorne studies—you know where they, in the plant out there in Chicago, they changed the light levels and watched how people reacted, and they were surprised how no matter what you did, the production improved and improved and improved, and it was because of the attention people were getting. So they decided we ought to have the 50th anniversary of the Hawthorne studies, which was around 1923-4; and so we ran that out there at the Hawthorne plant. We had a lot of academics come that were involved in that sort of work and it was a fascinating exchange of ideas and reference back to the Hawthorne studies. But it was sort of a fun thing. But you know I don’t think there’s any great milestone, we had little problems like, we were building a new plant in Buffalo and decided the way that the business was going that even though it was started, still framing, it had to stop. So that was a PR problem out there with local congress to people. And then we made some surveys of our factories to see what the attitude was of people toward the business and those were all interesting things but we didn’t have any Tylenol crisis.
INTERVIEWER: The surveys, would you design them yourselves?
EHINGER: We had a professional design them, although we approved them. And then when we had a company conference, I would make a presentation and show the different factories—how it looked and where they needed to make changes. And of course we shared it with them anyhow to get a better employee attitude. It depended on who the general manager was in a lot of cases. When I was in charge of the Los Angeles operation, the thing I always did was get out of the office and walk down to the shop where they’re putting together a teletype network, repairing phones, assembling stuff, or to the warehouse, where we were shipping stuff off and so you got to know the people. And then when you had a grievance that came to you, the union came up and there were a few cases where I had to agree with the union. Some of my friends said, Bob you can’t do that, that’s not good, I said well, I think they were right. But you know you have that sort of thing—interesting work. Had nothing to do with PR in a sense. But you learn a lot. When you have your first meeting with the union for example. You don’t get schooled on this sort of thing.
INTERVIEWER: Well, let me ask you because I think you’ll have something to say about this. Part of what we hope, we don’t know, but in the future, 20-25 years down the road, students, and other scholars will be watching this. Taking a look at all the different folks and what they had to say, is there anything that you think is very important that you would like students who are studying PR now, to know when they go out in their first jobs?
EHINGER: The one thing, this was under Ed Block and he could talk about it; how do you measure what’s going on in public relations? And we did—I forget the guy’s name, he’s long since retired, probably dead—but we had results. And I think one of the biggest problems that PR has is it’s hard to measure how effective your work is. You can probably measure some of the product advertising because you know, the number of units sold is going up but when you have an ad that’s more of a get-to-know-you ad, you don’t know whether that’s worth doing or not. And then there’s internal publications, how effective are they? And I think they’re very important.