Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments
Edward M. Block was Senior Vice President -- Public Relations, Advertising and Employee Information for the AT&T Corporation for 12 years until his retirement in 1986. He was responsible for corporate communications during AT&T's historic divestiture of the Bell telephone companies and its expansion into international markets. He also held the additional post of assistant to the chairman of the board from 1980 until his retirement and was a member of the Office of the Chairman.
While at AT&T, Block was a director of AT&T International and AT&T Information Systems. He established the AT&T Foundation and was its first chairman of the board. It was on his initiative that AT&T provided the funding ($10 million a year for five years) to establish the MacNiel-Lehrer News Hour on PBS.
In 1980, PR News chose Block as the Public Relations Professional of the Year. In 1993, he received the lifetime achievement award from Inside PR and also, the Hall of Fame Award of the Arthur W, Page Society. In 1997, he received the Gold Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America. Most recently, he was cited by PR Week as one of the 100 most influential public relations people of the 20th century.
Foster: Ed, I was trying to figure out today how long we’ve known each other and worked together and I got up to about 40 years and then I stopped there.
Block: Well I think so because it goes back to the old discussion group that we used to have. And also, the monthly dinners in New York. So it has to be 40 years.
Foster: And our offices were never that too far apart. You were in New York at that palatial building on what was it Madison?
Block: Well I spent most of my years in that semi palatial building at 195 Broadway. you know which was a...
Foster: With that grand Ma Bell, AT&T, Ed, I’m going to take you back to one of the most important business stories of the century, the previous century. The break up of AT & T, which you had an absolutely critical and important part, because a lot of the viewers will be of a different generation. I want to give them a feel of what happened, when it happened, and let them take the story from there so they can appreciate the role you played.
Block: Well I think that there are some real lessons in that are contemporary. The story itself is an old story. It’s a, it’s ancient history by today’s standards. As a matter of fact it was, believe it or not, it was a quarter of a century ago.
Foster: Was it really?
Block: Yeah, so
Foster: Give us the year that would have been what ‘60?
Foster: I'm sorry. ‘82 yeah.
Block: ‘82 year, but I think it can be mined for some questions I mean lessons if you want me to talk about that.
Foster: Well, I’d like to I want to put it in perspective.
Block: I bet you want some context.
Foster: AT&T at the time I believe was the largest company in the world.
Block: That’s correct.
Foster: And at the time I believe you had about a million employees?
Block: Yeah I can still rattle those stats off for you.
Foster: Well, put that in context.
Block: Sure, a million employees.
Block: 90 million customer accounts.
Foster: 90 million.
Block: 90 million, three million shareowner accounts, 500,000 pensioners. If you look down a list as well it was a story. The break up of the old Bell Telephone System was a story that impacted every consumer in the United States virtually and some abroad because of our partnerships with, with typically you know government owned telephone systems in Europe and Asia. So we were so in the scale of the constituencies affected by it. There’s probably been very few stories, Pearl Harbor maybe, like that at all you know because of the of the many, many people who were affected by it.
Foster: Right, now the Bell System had a monopoly.
Foster: And it got into the courts and they ruled against Ma Bell and said you must break up. Is that?
Block: Well, it was a what’s called a consent decree, that is the two sides the justice department of the United States and AT & T agreed to a settlement which was then taken before the court, and following some other hearings, it was approved. So it wasn’t the court’s decision as such, but it would have been if it had gone all the way through. And the, so it was a, that’s another thing about it even though it was a big anti-trust case. It must have been maybe six years old by then. And, but it was totally unanticipated that it was going to end that way and before the judge rendered a decision. And before it had run its course. So as a consequence, it was page 1 news.
Foster: All over the world.
Block: Big time for sure and I can, you know, tell you a little bit about that if you want because…
Foster: Well again to put it into perspective. You worked for Charles Brown the Chairman and CEO of AT & T.
Foster: And I believe in addition to being in charge of communications for the entire corporation, you also were the assistant to the chairman were you?
Block: Yes, at that time yes.
Foster: That brought about a very close working and personal relationship.
Block: yes yes.
Foster: Where were you and where was Charles Brown when that decision was handed down?
Block: Well the story goes like this; that it was not a surprise to me or to any of my colleagues and senior management because what you do try to settle a case if you can. And so we had, so I knew that was being worked on. As a matter of fact this was in the Reagan Administration. We actually had achieved a handshake with the Carter Administration, but when President Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan, his guy said, “No last minute deals are going to go into the history book with our fingerprints on them.” So in any case so it was not. I had actually done a plan for that earlier with the Carter Administration. So this was not a big surprise to me, but anyway here’s how the story unfolded. I was sitting at my desk at 195 Broadway, not the palace on Madison Avenue. And Charles Brown called me on the intercom as he frequently did and said can you come into my office. It was right around the corner from his office. And so as I stepped out of my door, I ran into our vice president and general counsel, a man by the name of Howard Trienens, and it was evident we were both going to the same location so we went into Charles Brown’s office. And he said that now, by the way, this general counsel obviously led the AT & T negotiations on the settlement so it sure wasn’t any surprise to him. But in any event, we go into Charles Brown’s office and he said, he said I’m ready to recommend to the board of directors that we make a settlement with the Justice department. This thing can go on for another ten years, that’s a lot of lawyer fees, and worse in an anti-trust case, when the government is trying to break it up. We were no longer a 100 percent monopoly at that time, but we dominated the industry. You don’t know what business you are in, or may be in five years down the road, and so you know Charlie was aware of those kinds of considerations. We were running an annual construction budget of $25 billion, and how do you know what to invest in? How do you know what to tell the Bell Laboratories to invent, I mean you know. So anyway, Charlie said I’m prepared to recommend to the board that we accept, and then interestingly enough he turned to Howard and he said; “Where do I go? How do I lay down my sword?” And Howard said well it’s not as simple as you think it is, but it can be done. And he explained not to get into too much detail, but we were operating under a consent decree signed in 1954, so you had to go back to that court, ask them to vacate that decree and then take the new decree to the new court and get it approved. So you’ve got two different judges. And those guys have egos as it turned out, and anyway, then Charlie turns to me and he said, you have to demonstrate to me or you have to show me that we can plausibly explain this. Meaning all those shareowners and all those employees and all those customers effected. You know you can’t just send them a postcard. So is there, can we explain this plausibly, because we’ve been fighting that case you know as they say “vigorously.” You know and it had been running for some years, so anyway that’s what he said to me. So he said. “Ed, get to your typewriter.” In those days we were still using two typewriters, dates it for sure, so anyway that’s how the news came to me. I went, we talked a little bit longer and believe it or not I went to you’ll recall we got an apartment in Manhattan on 52nd Street and I went home. In the laundry room I had a little desk and an old Olympia typewriter, and a lot of coffee. And so I did it, took me about two days I guess. I did the whole plan. How we were going to announce it. How it was to be arranged. How it was to be done, all of the details. And then came back to Charles Brown’s office a couple of days later. I worked pretty much night and day, because you know the biggest fear is a leak.
Block: And so anyway, I bring it back to him and I say take him through it. He said okay to me, what’s next. So that’ how it unfolded, but if I may, unless you want me to stop talking about this, there were a couple of other…
Foster: No I want you to carry on, but it’s curious that one of the most dramatic and important business stories and press releases of all time, was written in the laundry room.
Block: On an old German typewriter.
Foster: On an old German typewriter. Oh that’s wonderful. Go ahead, tell me some of the
Block: I didn’t have any distractions as I was working on it. What I was going to say, some of the lessons that would be true today even though that case is history. And the irony of the whole Bell System is put back together again, in the form of two companies, the new AT&T and Verizon. So, but anyway, one thing I said to Howard in that first meeting, I said we have to have a joint press conference with the Justice Department. It’s, it’s very important and that has to be a condition of this agreement. And what was in my mind was, you would know and Howard got it and Charles Brown got it immediately. An announcement like that was going to set off media frenzy, and so what you want to do, is you get both sides together at the same time and the same place and tell the story. So that you don’t have reporters, you know, we announce it and then the reporter calls the Justice Department and says AT&T is saying so and so what do you say to that? And you know that goes on forever and to get a coherent story out of a zillion reporters you know doing that is you’re going to have chaos, so I did say joint press conference. Well, as it turned out, the assistant attorney general for anti-trust was okay with him. He was a by the way, he was a college professor at Stanford, and so we did have a joint press conference and that really helped the reporters get the story straight. But, it made it possible to tell the story one time, one way, one place, and stick to it. And that’s what we did on a Friday afternoon in Washington at the Overseas Press Club. There were about, as I recall, about 110 reporters attended the press conference. And that weekend I recall going from memory just in the AT&T PR department, not in the Bell companies but we fielded 4,000 queries.