Oral Histories

Jack Koten

Interview Segments on Topic: Crisis Management

Jack Koten Biography

“Jack” Koten is a founding director and first president of the Arthur W. Page Society. During his career he worked in a variety of operating, financial and corporate communications departments for Illinois Bell, AT&T, New Jersey Bell and Ameritech Corp.

At Chicago-based Ameritech Corp., one of seven telecommunications companies divested by AT&T in 1984 as the result of a federal government antitrust lawsuit, he served as Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications.  He also was president of the Ameritech Foundation, which made grants totaling $25 million annually to education, economic development and cultural institutions.

After he retried, Koten organized The Wordsworth Group, a consulting firm dedicated to assisting non-profit organizations to improve their management practices, reputation and revenues. He has received numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctoral degrees from two institutions, and was inducted into the Arthur W. Page Society’s Hall of Fame in 1995.


Block: Transfer their allegiance. But I’m going to take you back to the human part of it, of breakup. Because this is the story that I don’t know. A couple of things happened. First of all there are no longer Bell system employees. They must have wondered where did my pension go was the kind of thing that might have come up. I don’t know. Also in the terms of the breakup there was one stinker business as you may recall which was who sells or leases the telephones. Because there was a dead last loser. You could not make money and there was in the Justice Department and the judge decided that was AT & T business. So you had many employees who were installers did repair work so on and so forth that were in limbo. They weren’t going to work for you anymore. They had to become AT & T employees or do something else. And of course you had customers. I remember where I was one of the television journalists entrapped me in an interview on the air by handing me three telephones which he had disconnected from his apartment he said and handed them back to me and said “Now what do I do?” So what happened to the customers and the employees in that in that it was a cultural shock for all of them at least those who cared.

Koten: Well it was a big cultural shock for the customers about the, and confusion about the telephone instrument itself, and the connection. And we did our best with it was what I would call customer information pieces that were direct mail. We used advertising. We used letters directly to the customers trying to explain the difference but I have to admit that the job was long and arduous to get people to really understand that we provide the service up to a certain point and then the inside wiring was either on their own or that we would do it for a special fee. It was no longer for the phone instrument was whatever instrument they might have back to the central office that that had been separated. And that was a point of great dissatisfaction as far as customers were concerned. Customers were confused about who to call for what whether it was repair service and if it was repair they’d be ask. Well where is it? I don’t know where my phone. The phone is dead. I don’t whether it’s outside or inside or what. You know and that was that I’d say as hard as we tried, in all the states to overcome that, that experience ultimately turned out to be the best teacher as far as the customers. After you’ve had a few run ins here and there, that’s a bit of a problem, the fact the customers got two bills now instead of one bill because of long distance services were provided by a different supplier, all of that is made time and time again when you go to a party or a meeting or whatever is they said the break up of the Bell system is the stupidest thing that the government has ever done. And then why did you let it happen. It was always our fault. It was like something gee we just said go ahead. Break us up. We don’t care. And time and time again that required you know kind of patience and being calm relatively speaking. To respond to some people who were quite irate. In the meantime the employees particularly the contact employees whether they were the service reps [inaudible] they had to deal with the customers just like the installers and repairmen who went out. And we equipped all of them with a little what I was going to call cheat sheets but I won’t that’s the wrong term to use here but with information pieces. Key talking points about what how to respond to these questions. And I would say that the majority of employees handled that pretty well. But as you well know not all employees are gifted with the ability to respond to people particularly irate customers. If the customer was friendly and nice usually that went pretty well. But if the employee was met head on either over the phone or face – to – face, those situations caused concern for us. We had a halo effect immediately after the breakup in ’84 and’85 where we had the Ma Bell influence carried over which we benefited from and then as customer experience multiplied, customer attitudes towards the service group providing dropped and all of that then required a regeneration of ability and of course in our company as you well know in the Bell system, the public relations department handled the customer information job. They were responsible for the advertising for the directory introduction pages everything that was explained to customers as well to employees funneled through our department. And I would have to say that our public relations people in the department understood this. They were willing to give of their time and energy and work extraordinary amounts of time to try to fix these things. But it was so pervasive that it just didn’t ever seemed to go away. Our advertising agencies and firms that we hired to help us with our customer information, they all worked diligently but it was a time factor that finally began to work in our advantage. When we would go to meet with state legislatures or and meet with the Congress. I remember meeting the representatives of various delegations in Washington, and of our congressmen and they all they are there in Washington. They had every opportunity to put their finger in the dike. But do we see much finger in the dike sort of thing. They are down there saying “I’m getting nothing but complaints back in my district about what you’re doing” like we should have actually tried to do something about it. And the fact is that it was a long pull. Now from your perspective you’re dealing with a whole different seam but we felt that we were in the field. We were in the front lines. And that the best thing that we could do is try to do our very best and not let the negative publicity that we got or comments whether it was on television, or whatever, really begin to get us down, and slowly that all began to turn around. I like to say that it was directly because of our efforts but it really was because of the efforts of really about 100,000 employees like when we were created, we were the 30th largest company I mean nobody really appreciated how big AT & T was. We came out as the 30th largest company in the United States. And it there were a lot of customers a lot of employees involved.

One of the things before we go to the next question and I just wanted to chip in is and thank you because this is stuff that I was to be happily involved in. But the judge gave us 18 months from the time we agreed to the settlement in order to actually operate separately. So you had your employees and our own…in limbo not the whole 18 months but a lot part of the time they many didn’t know which side of the dividing line they were going to land on or whether they would go to work for AT & T. Did they stay with Ma Bell. They’ve had angry customers. They were angry. And I think what probably did pull the whole outfit through all of this was that I, I used to say that the old Ma Bell was one third business, one third family, and one third religion. And it was a terrible shock but I believe that attitude that services our business many customers may not necessarily believe that every day, but service was our business and so we’re going to get through this mess and come out the other side. And the other thing is that it’s a high irony in terms of how government works in a democracy because it was 25 years ago more or less, that this happened and the whole darn thing has been put back together with the consent of the same Justice department. So, several hundred thousand employees went on the Bataan death march several tens of thousands of them lost their jobs and their careers altogether. Unknown amounts of marketing money was spent as you just described to explain we’re Ameritech and we’re here to serve you and it wasn’t very long that you’re AT & T again.

Block: You know one thing that leads me in to another related subject is that yes, Larry Foster certainly. His credibility and his, the respect that people in that peer group had for him, made it possible to recruit the kinds of members we wanted. But I think under, kind of under the skin of that was the fact that that even for people that didn’t know very much about Arthur Page people from other businesses after all he was dead for a number of years by then clearly this is a group of public relations executives that are different from what the world may think in a very important way. Because in Page was the prototype which is they were not communicators although Page himself was a good writer and communicator. He was a former journalist. But he was an advisor to management. He was a counselor. And that’s the essence for most of us, the essence of what a chief public relations officer does and I think you were wise to see that opportunity but I think one reason it caught on is that there is no other organization like that - that has a mission which is to promote the legacy of Page and the ideals that Page installed but also to bring back the notion of a what a kind of, I think the word counselor is sort of pretentious, but in the senior management of a company as well as in the non profit arena you really do need someone who is paid to worry about the policies that the business adopts, the way it carries out the policies, its reputation, and that leads to integrity and a whole bunch of other things. So once subject.

Koten: Let me stop you just for a minute right there because one of the things that you’ve touched on which is distinctive about the people who have positions that you and I have held can we go back to the origins of the Page Society that this is a counseling and advising role and throughout you know the early days of it, your own advice and counsel and support for what we were trying to do made a difference. And that is a hard thing to describe to people because whenever we needed to know, you know, kind of why are we here and what are we for, you were able to provide that kind of answer and support for us which we were able to communicate to others and perspective members or people who we wanted to join. Now the same thing and this is what gets me which you triggered is that that’s basically the role that we hoped to have and achieve with not only our members but for the American business can use people that have this capacity or this ability to do that very thing. At this point it’s beyond you know like things that we expect in new employees are people who have the ability to communicate to be good writers to be good persuaders of things, to be energetic and to know what’s going on around them and be perceptive. You reach a certain point where those kinds of talents and abilities are just excepted as you move up the corporate ladder, so to speak. When you get to the senior level your ability to write and communicate and think and that sort of thing is sort of expected, but it’s what you have to offer the advice and counsel that you have to offer when the corporation is confronted with a problem or the CEO is confronted with a problem. It’s what makes the difference. And that’s basically what the Page Society is trying to do. I have to say that’s what Page why he’s such a perfect role model for all of us to have in which I think we’ve been blessed by being able to extend it through the Page Society and into the world today. And you’re putting your finger on the exact key for what a lot of American businesses need.