Oral Histories

Ed Block

Interview Segments on Topic: Terminology

Ed Block Biography

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.

Transcript

Foster:  Ed, Cinda Kostyak and her associate put together some very interesting questions for this interview. One had to do with today’s role of the public relations executive, as opposed to the way it was when you were reigning in your job at AT&T. Would you like to comment on that?  What you know, there’s been a lot of changes, so many have changed to communications and the advisor role has diminished. What’s your view on that?

Block:  Well I can give you impressions. Obviously I’m retired and so perhaps can take what I say with a grain of salt as we used to say, but oh, first of all, the field of corporate public relations, business public relations, is clearly far, far more complex today than it ever was before and continues to become more so.  And that’s had one, on the one side, I suppose it’s good for jobs in the field and the kinds of work that you have an opportunity to do wasn’t’ there before. But the dark side of that to me, is that it is distracting from what the core notions that public relations were in our day, so in our predecessors, because it was much more the counseling, counseling function as really a continuing day to day job. And now you have marketing communications and you have all kinds of communications.

You know, I’m waiting to see in the Wall Street Journal any day now it’s going to say how somebody’s been has been elected vice president, blogs you know, and but you’ve got the whole Internet stuff. The skills necessary to keep a fresh website and or websites. So it’s really stretched but in the stretching I think some of the core benefits – values, not as a moral thing but values in terms of the corporation getting what it is paying for, are lost when too many people in the public relations organization, including the chief, are spending too much time doing other things.  Now, another piece that I think has made the job more, more difficult, is the globalization. When you’re trying to be a counselor in a cross-cultural environment, it probably can’t be done without, without a lot of help or a lot of associate counselors.  But in any case, in the customer base, tends to be different. The CEO’s travel schedule is double the monster it was when you and I were there. So I think some of my impressions are yes, it’s changed vastly.  It continues to change. I want to see it come back with a little more emphasis on the counseling function without, you know, without necessarily giving up some of these other functions. I do think in some PR departments there are too many functions that really don’t need to be there. I mean, they’re there because it makes a great looking organizational chart, you know, but it’s not anybody else can do some of those things, or they could be done somewhere else. Also, the decentralization has been another problem for, for the CEO’s advisor by whatever title, because you have these very large discrete and rather independent business units, that really are in business for themselves. I mean too much so, I always marveled at General Electric.  How could they do such a good job, which they have mainly done through the years of, of a coherent face to the public and a definable character?  You know when you are building jet engines. You are building, you are building refrigerators, light bulbs, medical imaging, locomotives; you know that’s quite a feat. You know because those, those businesses really don’t for the most part have any overlap. I mean they are different industries you know. And yet General Electric has been able to be GE.

Foster:  So you have companies that have become infinitely more complex and you have public relations vice presidents who have a lot of eggs in their basket. Some of which probably shouldn’t be there because if you are going to sit on that basket, and keep track of all that’s going on, you don’t really have time to spend with the CEO in an advisory capacity.

Block:  Yeah.

Foster:  And then you have the situation of the CEO who might have been weaned away from the counseling and is either getting it elsewhere …

Block:  … find someone else.

Foster:  … or not getting the counseling that he should.  Some of them, major headline stories that we’ve all suffered through in recent years, you rarely find the public relations person having had a culpable role in those situations. Enron. Did you find it that way too?

Block:  Yes.

Foster:  That they weren’t among the …

Block:  They weren’t in the loop.

Foster:  … indictee or they weren’t.

Block:  they weren’t indicted. Yes that’s good.

Foster:  That’s a positive.

Block:  But they weren’t in the loop.

Foster:  They weren’t in the loop, yeah.

Block:  I just, you know another thing in talking about this basket of eggs that a chief PR officer has to deal with, and pulling that person away from the other job. The same executive that laid the one on me about this is run like a mom and pop corporation, another canny thing that he said to me in a whole different context, different situation, he said when he was, then in this episode, he was assistant to the chairman which is a job when he retired that I took on in addition to the PR job. But he said, when people ask me what I do he said what I do, I am paid. I am paid to think about things the chairman of the board doesn’t have time to think about. Meaning that the CEO was pulled and tugged here and there, and there are so many balls in the air and there are potential problems down the road, and what he was saying is that I have the luxury of seeing the world through the lens of a CEO, my boss.  But I have the luxury of being able to think ahead about things that he needs to be aware of, and I’m not talking about crises, but just things that he needs to be aware of, and plan for, we planned for it together. And I thought that was a pretty good way to put it, so if you’re, you don’t need to have a separate job, but assistant chairman of the Board. I’m not arguing for that but if that’s in the chief public relations officer portfolio and it should be, don’t let it get crowded out. You know and I think that’s part of what happens or has happened and also the CEO’s job changed. and and I’m happy to say  now that I’m encouraged that it sort of changing back again with some of the new breed of CEOs, but what also happened along the way was that in too many cases, the CEO became the chief salesman to Wall Street.

Foster:  Yes.

Block:  Every 90 days, and …

Foster:  Trying to meet the quarterly.

Block:  Yes.  And so the CEOs also got off the rails, in many cases. And but as I said I’m somewhat encouraged. Some of the new ones that have come in on the scene, some in the wake of scandals, and some not, seem to be a different breed. That they are, they are running the business and therefore they are open to, to the kind of PR person that we’ve been talking about here to help, help provide the counsel to run the business. These, there are two, I probably here shouldn’t get into the books, but there was about three years ago a wonderful book called Execution written by the CEO I think, what used to be Allied Corporation, Allied Bendix is it? (AlliedSignal Corporation – Larry Bossidy), or something like that. And he, he straightened that company out one time and then he retired, and it went off the rails and they brought him back. This book was the piece about that. And he said, he said when I came back he said everybody was rushing around going to conferences and meetings and there were these big charts up on the walls and all these new opportunities, and he said, I looked at that and said. Stop it, we have a business plan, execute it.  Do it. You know and we’ll change it when we need to.  And so what I see in some of the new ones I’m thinking about, the new CEO of Hewlett Packard and others that are picking up on the fact that, that when you get too big in the head, when you’re, when you’re salary or your compensation is what most people know about the company. You are headed for trouble. And what you need are executives with a longer-term view, and executives who, who know where they want to take the business. And it’s not down to Wall Street. You know.

Foster:  Right there’s another aspect that we haven’t touched on and that is the personal relationship between the CEO and someone who is aspiring to be a counselor and my advice on that would be if, if you sense that the CEO doesn’t really like you like you or if you always seem to be on divergent path it’s time to look for another job.  Ed I

Block:  By the way just a footnote on that. The counselor, one piece of a good counselor’s character, you have it. I think I had it, is humility. I mean, understand my job is different from the CEOs job.

Foster:  Well, I always knew who was CEO. but I get low marks on humility, I’m afraid. I, unless my interpretation is different than yours, but Ed, there’s no lack of humility sitting here listening to one of the outstanding legends, if I might use that term, in the field. It’s been 40 some odd years that we’ve known and worked together. It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity to conduct this interview and I hope that in the years to come as Cinda and her staff and crew repeat this interview, that they will learn from you as I have through the years.

Block:  Well I share that our legacies will follow to other generations, but I bring that up because the Arthur Page Center at Penn State is the best idea that’s come along in public relations in the last half century.  And if it becomes what you saw the opportunity for it to become, and the thing that others of us on the board see, it’s really, really going to be influential in a very positive way.

Foster:  Well we have our work cut out for us and we look forward to it. Thanks again.