Oral Histories

Charlotte Otto

Interview Segments on Topic: Marketing/Advertising/Branding

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:  Well I know you graduated from Purdue University in 1976 and you started your career as a brand assistant for Prell Concentrate, and you’ve remained with Proctor and Gamble all these years. Thirty-one years. Can you talk a little bit about how you first landed at P & G and why you’ve remained with them for all these years?

Otto: Okay first I have to say I never would have imagined that I would be here 31 years after leaving Purdue University. I joined the company in 1976 and was among the first group of women that were hired in the marketing area. So from that standpoint I was a little bit of a novelty in the company. I was really grateful to have the opportunity to join P & G although I never really intended to stay. When I got my job offer I said you know I really only plan to be here a couple of years so if you want to take the offer back, I can understand that. I don’t want to invest in a short timer and they said well why don’t you let us worry about that. And here I am 31 years later.  I’ve had two careers at P & G. The first 13 years in the marketing area and worked on a variety of brands. The Bounty paper towels are my favorite brand in the company.  And then in 1989 I had kind of a seminal moment where I really had to think about what I was going to do when I grew up. And I decided I really didn’t want my boss’ job and when you grow up in marketing at P & G you are genetically defective if you do not want to be a general manger and I didn’t want to be a general manager. So my boss asked the obvious question well if you don’t want my job what is it that you do want to do? And honestly not having reflected on that any great depth I said well you know I really love doing corporate work and I really like working outside the company. And I love Proctor & Gamble so I want to stay but I just want to do something different. And about three months later my boss came back and said you know we have this great opportunity for you to move to public affairs. And I thought public affairs. You know have I been derailed or what is this all about?  I knew that they did the company Christmas card but beyond that what is this all about? Then I went to my new boss’ office to learn about the new job and right away he said “now you need to understand we’re the garbage can of the company, people have problems they drop them off here.”  And I thought oh this is really inspirational. This is what I want to spend the rest of my career doing but I really quickly learned that this was the perfect fit for me. Well I loved what I did in marketing. The work that I had the opportunity to do over the past 18 years has just been a perfect fit. Both in terms of communications but also the opportunity to interact with company stakeholders, to be a face of the company; to develop the organization. It’s just been it’s been a dream job that I didn’t even know existed even 13 after I’d been with the company for 13 years. I didn’t know that this work really existed. Now why have I stayed with Proctor & Gamble for 31 years? This is going to sound trite but I really value the company’s values. They are alive and they are really well aligned with mine so every single day I go to work knowing that there’s a degree of harmony between my values and my purpose in life and what the company does. So that’s just a great environment to work in. The people I work with are people I’d be friends with if I didn’t work with them. Now they are people I really like.  You know every single day is interesting and fun and challenging, not that every day is easy. But every day there’s a new kind of challenge that I just love. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Interviewer: okay I’m going to talk a little bit about PR and how it’s changed over the past 15 to 20 years. And you’re looking at PR nationally as well as internationally with your work. So what are the changes that you have observed in the practice at this corporate PR? Specifically at Proctor & Gamble but also what have you observed on your travels throughout the world?

Otto: Well, if you go back in history the what they call the public relations division started at Proctor & Gamble in 1949.  And in the founding recommendation for our work it talked about the purpose being to ensure that the company acts in ways that will earn the public trust and that the public knows of the company’s actions to earn their trust. And I really liked in that founding recommendation the fact that the first focus was on actions and behaviors that earn trust because that’s really what it has always been about at P & G. Over about 40 years we were largely a reactive public relations and issues management organization.  And then in the late 80s and early 90s we really began the practice of brand public relations in a big way. It was still I would say kind of an afterthought.  It wasn’t core to the marketing plan and it was topspin. But it was beginning to be taken up by our brands. And at the same time I think the leadership of the company was beginning to appreciate that we had to have more of a public face for the company as things like the environmental issues or animal testing became more important in the early 90s.  In 2000 we did a major redesign of how we do our work and brought together all of the externally facing capabilities in the company so not only was this public relations and communications but also the technical external relations that had previously been housed in R & D; some of the legal work that was done particularly in the regulatory area. All of our professional relations consumer relations government relations, were all brought together in one function in what we now call external relations. So it brought together over1200 people around the world that were doing externally facing externally influencing work. And our mission is to develop superior influence relationships to help build and protect the business and reputation of P & G and its brands and that’s really our centering focus and we do that with five disciplines, with brand PR, regulatory and technical relations, corporate reputation, government relations, and consumer relations. So that’s where we are today. And it’s been it’s been a really exciting journey especially over the past 20 years or so. Because we’ve gone from order takers you know people who kind of get called in at the last minute to take some notes on what the press release ought to say to true business partners. And the relationships with influencers that we’re able to bring into the company are the source of what we call commercial innovation, which is marketing big marketing ideas that are then deployed throughout the marketing mix. So it’s not just a PR program. But it can be the center of an entire brand-marketing program. You know an example might be our Dawn Ducks program - use Dawn to help clean animals who have been affected by something like an oil spill. Well that’s not just the PR program. It’s a customer program, a retail customer program with merchandising in stores, advertising on television and in print and radio. So it’s throughout the marketing mix. And that was an external relations idea that we brought in and became the center of a total marketing program. And that’s what we really aspire to do now is to be an edge for the company through influencer relationships. So that we’re not only protecting the company as we always have with issues and crises management; but we’re a real business building force as well. So that’s the journey that we’ve been on and it’s been really exciting to be a part of it.

Interviewer: Let’s talk a minute about the outsourcing, mergers, that are happening recently. The PR agencies seem to be growing in size and number and corporate PR staffs have decreased and I’m not exactly sure what has happened here with your staff but have you experienced this kind of thing and what do you think is occurring and do you think this is going to continue. Is it good? Is it bad?

Otto: We’ve always viewed PR agencies as essential partners for our business. As much as we’ve always viewed advertising agencies as essential partners for our business and we couldn’t work without PR agency partners and I think our reliance on our PR agency partners is going to grow substantially. And the key reason is there’s an exploding demand for the work that we do among our brands and our corporate work as well, and we can’t add enough experienced people fast enough to meet that demand. So we’re going to have to rely on our agencies to provide the extra resources that we need to serve our brands in the company. So I think that’s a really healthy thing. Our challenge has been to develop agency capability particularly outside the key developed markets in North America and Europe. We have found that for a number of our agency partners their capability outside those developed markets is uneven, and so we’ve talked to them about the importance of developing capability in Latin America, in eastern Europe, and in Asia because we’re going to be relying on them to be our partners to a much greater degree, so to me that’s the key challenge. I have never thought of this as outsourcing. And we do a lot in a lot of different areas of the company in terms of what might be called outsourcing. But we call it partnering. Because we rely on our external partners to bring capability, to bring innovation, and to help us with cost. But it’s not principally about cost, it’s really about capability and that’s exactly  how we view our relationship with our PR agency partners as well.

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.