Oral Histories

Charlotte Otto

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

Charlotte Otto Biography

Charlotte Otto began her career with Proctor and Gamble as a brand assistant for Prell Concentrate and has remained with P&G to become the first female corporate officer as Global External Relations Officer.   She is responsible for a wide range of communication and public affairs activities from media relations and product publicity to government and community relations.

Charlotte Otto provides service and leadership to the Cincinnati area, serving as a Board Member of The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, as chair of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and past chair of Downtown Cincinnati. She recently was awarded the Arthur W. Page Society’s highest recognition, the Hall of Fame Award.


Interviewer: You were well you had mentioned that you were the first female in a group of females that came into the company and then you became the first female corporate officer at Proctor & Gamble. Think back to when that happened. And did anything occur that made you feel challenged or uncomfortable in this new role in the company?

Otto: I’d have to say yes to that. When I joined the company in 1976, eight percent of the managers were women, and the ranking woman was an associate marketing manager, so that’s kind of a beginning mid-level manager.  Today nearly 40 percent of our mangers are women. And we have them at the very highest level of the company. The recently named president of the company is a woman, Susan Arnold, and every level top to bottom there are wonderful women, so I was the first but now certainly not the only woman officer.  When I was the first woman to live on our executive floor, and I think it took me a while to both feel entitled to be there and also to have the credibility to earn the trust and respect to get people to essentially take my counsel and do what I suggest that they do, one thing that helped a lot was that I had a powerful male sponsor and for most women in the organization, I think they still need a powerful male sponsor. Mine happened to be the CEO - which had some good points and some bad points. Certainly he was an influential sponsor, at the same time the fact that I was one of his ‘mentees’ and one of his people if you will, sometime created some resentment with some of the folks.  Basically the men who had been around for a long time and sort of considered themselves a part of the leadership club if you will. So I had to learn to use that new-found sponsorship and power judiciously. Such that I both built allies but at the same time was able to carry out the responsibilities that the CEO had asked me to carry out in terms of giving people advice and making sure we stayed out of trouble, that there weren’t any surprises things like that. And from my own standpoint, when I joined the company in 1976 I was grateful to have this opportunity, and I grew up being grateful. Now that’s not necessarily empowered, and so the transition that I had to make at that point was I had to feel really entitled to be among the leaders of the company and not a grateful little girl looking up to dads saying oh thank you so much for this opportunity. Now I really had to feel like I had a right to play at the table and that took some maturing on my part. I’ll always be grateful to my husband who is my not only my partner in life but my very best career coach who sat me down and tried to help me understand the world of men and that they didn’t say they were sorry a lot. They didn’t spend time explaining how they felt. They got in there. They did it. If there was conflict they stood right up to it. I’ll never forget a time that there was a gentleman who in essence was being side stepped for advancement and I think he was a little embarrassed about it. So he came to me and said I don’t want any coverage of this change in the newspaper. I tried to explain to him that this was not going to be under my control - that indeed it was news that a new person was coming into the role and I fully expected it to be reported. But if it made him feel better we would pull the news release. Well of course the news got out because it was news and it was announced internally. So the next day he came in and he just yelled at me. He was so angry that there had been coverage in the local paper. And I was devastated when I went home and I shared my great regret this had happened with my husband and he said did you tell him to just grow up. Well of course this never occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t my fault, that was going to happen anyway. And to me that was just a light bulb went on that I don’t have to take responsibility for everybody else’s feelings and I don’t have to apologize and I don’t have to carry the guilt of the world. You know everybody is responsible for themselves. That was big. That was a pretty big breakthrough for me in terms of feeling both entitled and feeling that I had a right to play at the table.

Interviewer: Okay let’s move into the work you’ve done and the crisis management. In 2004, Proctor & Gamble became entangled in a heated debate regarding the rights of homosexuals. The decision by Proctor & Gamble to support the repeal of the 1993 Cincinnati charter amendment, I think it’s amendment 12 - dealing with sexual orientation. Ultimately resulted in the boycott of two Proctor & Gamble products. Crest toothpaste and Tide detergent. Although I also read that Pampers was in there.

Otto: They boycotted all our brands.

Interviewer: Now - the media described Proctor & Gamble as the first company to support the political agenda for the homosexual movement. You were right in the heart of all this. Can you describe the different factors that contributed to the corporation’s decision to support the movement?

Otto: Well first let me reframe the issue because while I certainly agree with how you reported it as it was played out in some media - that really isn’t what was going on here. A number of years ago, our city charter was amended to exclude protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation. And that set in motion, over a period of time, some real economic impacts to the city.  Conventions for example refused to come here. We as a community, I think, took on a very Intolerant kind of a reputation and that combined with some other things that had happened in Cincinnati whether it was the Maple Thorpe exhibit or Marge Shot and the Cincinnati Reds, we were beginning to develop a reputation as a community being quite unwelcoming. That simply was not good for anybody.  It had an impact in terms of P & G on our ability to recruit people, on the economic vitality of the community - a lot of things that we as a company care about. So we along with the Chamber of commerce and virtually every other business in the community, aligned on the needs to repeal Article 12 and essentially what that did was then return our charter to a neutral position. And it really didn’t take a position on sexual orientation, as a basis for discrimination, so we really got into this based on what we felt was a very important corporate interest in both the reputation and economic vitality of the community. We then got in some political cross winds in Ohio in 2004 - Presidential election year and also a year in which in the protection of marriage amendment was on the state ballot, and I think we became a vehicle for raising the visibility of that particular political issue. I think this had very little to do with P & G’s long standing diversity policy of respect on a lot of different qualities and interests including sexual orientation. To say that this had anything to do with P & G taking up a homosexual agenda is absolutely ridiculous and it was political positioning. It really had nothing in the merits and I think most people would agree with that. To me this whole episode, which ended with the American Family Association calling into the boycott because it was ill founded. The real lesson here is that out of a crisis you can develop much stronger relationships and partnerships and this certainly was the case in this situation. We had been in the sites, like most big advertisers, of the American Family Association for many years. They would from time to time write us or protest if we sponsored a particular program or perhaps advertising content that they found objectionable. So we were well known to AFA and we certainly had the door open for them to call us. They chose not to. That was a real signal that we had lost touch with important stakeholder relationships in the Christian community. That led to renewing those relationships. And as an outgrowth of this 2004 episode we created something that we called the Multi-view Resource Network. So we’ve started resource groups for the Christian community, Jewish, Muslim, the gay/lesbian community. When we have an important policy matter, we’ll seek their input. It’s not that they will concur. But they will counsel based on their particular world-view. So for example, we renewed our stem cell research policy, so we convened the Multi-view Network. We asked from their particular world view what perspective could they offer us so that we didn’t unintentionally do something without being aware of how it might be viewed by stakeholders in the community. And it was really, really helpful. When we updated our programming and sponsorship policy we convened the Multiview Network and again got input from these different world views which I think has helped us to renew our policy and have it be even more robust and we did that with an understanding of how it would be viewed in different stakeholder communities. So out of that unfortunate mess that occurred in 2004 I think we got a lot stronger as a company. We have now I would say very strong relationships in the Christian community as one example. And I doubt that something like that would happen again. Because people would call us first and say well help me understand your position on Article 12 as an example. And I think we would be able to have dialogue rather than a need to deal in a crisis environment and through the media. And so I viewed that unbalance as a really good reminder of the importance of being in touch and developing those key stakeholder relationships.

Interviewer: Do you think that your leadership role in Cincinnati and all of the people you met in the various the fabric of the whole community have helped you to devise this network and was it you’re your connections within the community that helped you bring this to reality. What I’m looking at is how you might have been caught in conflict here because of how active you’ve been in the Cincinnati community and if that was a benefit to you in trying to resolve this in 2004.

Otto: I don’t think the connection to the community had that much to do with resolving the situation. I mean I think it was a great example of big tree catches the wind. You know, we were the, we were the easiest target for this group. Our brands are well known. We’re a leadership company and we’re actually quite respected for our diversity policy and the way we really live it not just talk about it. So I’m not sure the community piece was so important in the resolution. The community piece was really important in developing a coalition to ultimately defeat and have the repeal of Article 12. That was bad public policy. That was hurting the economic vitality of our city and our region and that needed to go. And P & G was an important part of a broad coalition in the community to get that amendment repealed. So I think we got the right thing done. We took some flack in the process. But I’d make the same decision again. There’s no question in my mind that we made the right policy decision.

Interviewer: Good we can talk about another controversy. Proctor & Gamble has been grappling with the animal testing issue for years. And of course there are animal rights organizations that have made accusations and have called for boycotts over those years, and Uncaged would be one, and PETA People For Ethical Treatment of Animals is another. And in fact this coming Saturday is Global Boycott Proctor & Gamble Day. In your position as the global external relations officer, how do you respond to this ongoing problem. How what is happening around the world and how are you dealing with that?

Otto: Well the animal I guess goes back to the 80s and again I think it’s an example of the importance of the building partnerships as well as doing the right thing. A fellow named Henry Spira who was he’s passed away. He was one of the original founders of the animal rights movement in the United States and early on he came to Proctor & Gamble and said that I think you can make a difference in this whole area of animal testing by being a leader in the area of developing animal alternatives to animal testing. And we partnered with Henry and over the past more than 25 years, have been leaders in developing animal alternatives, and we’re recognized by just about every organization including folks like PETA as being a leader in that area. At the same time we’ve been a target by PETA, by In Defensive of Animals and others again.  I think the big tree catches the wind, we’ve been a target to try to influence a whole industry to make changes. And first of all we’ve been committed to doing the right thing so we have steadily decreased our use of animals. We ended finished product testing. We’ve made industry-leading changes in our pet nutrition area, which became a focus of PETA in the earlier in 2000-2003 after we acquired the Iams Company which is pet food. I think in some cases they challenged us to do better and we have. In some cases they helped us identify some practices of outside labs that frankly were sloppy and in some cases inconsistent with our own policies. So we’ve they’ve pointed out some stuff that has been helpful to us that we needed to fix. At the same time we think probably we have been unfairly targeted sometimes just because the big tree catches the wind. But overall we’ve tried to partner with groups like the Humane Society of the US, even with PETA to do things like joint lobbying to get the EPA to change their regulations requiring animal testing. We don’t think is necessary, or we think there are alternatives available that are actually more reliable, less costly, and reduce the need for animals. So again I think overall we’ve developed partnerships out of this adversity that have been good for animals, good for the company, good for the industry and that’s kind of how we try to go into this kind of thing is we try to look at what the facts are and if we need to clean our house okay we need to get after that. But also how can we build partnerships to advance what’s right. And almost always we can find some kind of common ground. Even with a group like PETA who has been on our tail for a long time.

Interviewer: All right this is the final section. I want you to talk a little bit about your accomplishments at Proctor & Gamble. And the things that you’ve done that you find to be personally pleasing. What are you most proud of and why?

Otto: Oh I think the first thing would be the creation of external relations at P & G.  It really changed the game in terms of the business value that we could bring to the company by bringing together all these externally facing efforts so that there there’s a lot greater scale and coordination and business impact when we join our efforts. So it was an idea that we developed in 2000. A small group of us thought that bringing all these capabilities together might work, maybe not, and through the creativity and the professional mastery of these 1200 people around the world, they brought it to life. Now this wasn’t, I never could have imagined what they’ve been able to do in taking that capability and bringing that to bear on the business, so that has been, that’s probably the thrill of my whole career. I think another thing I’m really proud of is we have begun to build the P & G brand.  And we’ll be 170 years old this year. And I’d say for 160+ years we have been a company of product brands and the less said about the P & G brand the better. But of course the world has changed, and consumers and every other stakeholder wants to know about the company behind the brand, so we’ve tried to build the P & G brand just like we build any of our other brands - with discipline and strategy and that’s coming along nicely. And so that’s something that has always been a passion of mine. And I’d say the third thing is the things we’ve been able to do in the Cincinnati community. I’ve been very involved in economic development for the past decade including being involved in the development of a river front master plan which I think we’re just about to bring to fruition and they actually begin digging some dirt down on our river front. I’ve been involved in a lot of downtown development activities and they are coming along well.