Interview Segments on Topic: Counselor/Counseling Advisor
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: 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: 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.