Oral Histories

Jack Koten

Interview Segments on Topic: Arthur Page/Principles/Society/Center

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: Let’s go to a more positive story now. You were the one person who saw the potential, the opportunity for the Arthur W. Page Society. I believe you were the second president of the Page Society. Tell me or tell us because again I was not personally much connected to that. Tell us how the Arthur Page Society came into being, as we know it today. What prompted you to persistently demand a change in the purpose of the organization and what was in your mind? What did you foresee? Because you, your idea at least, created clearly the number one membership organization in the field of public relations.

Koten: Well you’ve asked a very broad question and I have to say that you were really the inspiration for the organization being created to begin with because one of the last acts before the breakup of the Bell system was that each of the major organizations within the Bell system got together for meetings with all of their top managers, and Ed, as being the head of public relations for AT & T, brought the 25 of us who were officers of the various operating companies of the AT & T together for a final dinner with our wives. And it was held at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park in New York City and it was actually a delightful wonderful evening, everything done in first class. The situation could not have been warmer more conducive even though we all knew that we were ready to go off the reservation. And during the course of that evening you made comments to the effect that you gave a kind of nice talk about the fact that here assembled in this group were not only the most talented group of public relations people professionally in the country, collected all in one room but also that over the years, because of the interaction we’d all had together working together on various things, that we were really like a band of brothers. And that terminology which was borrowed from the book and then later from the movie really symbolized and characterized exactly how most of us felt. That we were part of an organization so at that particular session one of our members, actually Irv Zimmerman from Bell of PA, where we’re located now, suggested that why don’t we all get together and next year have a meeting to commend orate this, and we’ll all be together and see how everybody is doing. And he volunteered to host the that meeting in Hershey, Pennsylvania and various other people said well why don’t we create an organization and Irv volunteered to see if we couldn’t incorporate it so that we’d have some kind of a legal entity which would make it possible for us to get together. Well a year went by and, actually, Irv did all the things he said he was going to do. He and his wife filed for incorporation papers in the state of Pennsylvania for the Arthur W. Page Society, and we had a meeting in Hershey which everybody who had worked for, you, either directly or indirectly all appeared. At that meeting there was a nominating committee composed of Bob Ehinger who was I think the chair and Frank Cain and Marilyn Laurie. I missed the opening meeting’s activities and when I walked in the morning the next day, Bob Ehinger came up to me and told me that we hade a meeting last night of the nominating committee and we decided that we want to elect you as the president of the new Page Society. And that your term would be for two years and you don’t have to worry because your vice president is going to be Jean Handley who represented Southern New England Telephone Company and she will take it after that for two years. So it won’t be really much of a job for you and we have he said Bob I’m going to be the treasurer and Frank Cain was going to be the secretary. Everything is all set. Is that okay with you? Well he made it sound so simple that you know it was very hard to say no. That’s not, I don’t want to do that; I can’t do that. So I agreed to do that. And so in reality at that meeting there was a formal business meeting, convened by Irv Zimmerman, at which I was elected as the first president of the Page Society. Irv had been the convener and the host and all that but he never ever held a title per se of being president, so that’s how I, you know, inherited that job. Well the fact is that everybody said oh great. Applause. This is duck soup. And Irv came up to me and he said “Well you know the main hallmark of all of our sessions that we had, we always have a big golf following so you got to plan next year’s meeting wherever it’s going to be at a place where we will be able to play golf and there will be tennis facilitates and all that. And then the result of it, we’ll just have a good time. Be sure and have a good reception cocktail party and all that sort of thing.” Well I got back to Chicago, I literally had begin to think about this thing and fortunately at the meeting at the Tavern on the Green the name Arthur Page had been decided upon because he was the patron saint of all of us who worked in the Bell system, and held these offices and we’d all heard about Page, knew about Page, most of us had never met him or laid eyes on him, but he seemed like the perfect symbol because all of us were influenced by his teachings and it just seemed like a good idea that we would carry on as a group in his name. Well it seemed to me in reflection right away that this was a great idea but basically all it was going to be was an alumni group and a alumni group with a limited life because eventually as people began to die which unfortunately is all of our fates, that the group would get smaller and smaller and smaller and that what’s the point of doing all of this because there would be people retiring and leaving and that sort of thing. So I convened a small group of my staff, which John McDermott was part of who you know and Steve Heinz and Sue Beryles and I said, I was elected to be the president of this organization. What should we do?

Block: What is it?

Koten: And they all answered me of course right away. Who is Arthur Page? You know which was always one of those tricky questions that you have to answer. But out of that session John came up with the idea, well we need to have some kind of a newsletter type thing to be able to send to people and Steve said well anything I can do to help you and Sue said well I’ll be happy to write the newsletter, what would we put in and what would we do? Well to make a long story short we decided that that’s what we would do and that we ourselves would try to fund what the cost of that would be. I called Bob Anger, I may have called you too and I said “Well you know we can’t really do this thing and be paying all these expenses.” He said why don’t we add dues. Bob said why don’t’ we add dues. Five hundred every company puts in $500 and then everybody who works for the same company, we’ll have individual membership dues of $100. So he said that way you’ll have some money and he said I’ll take care of raising the money. So I said that’s a great idea. So I told our folks to go ahead. But then when we started to think about it, we said in order to perpetuate that Page stood for some wonderful things and what he had brought to the public relation profession was unique and he’d brought honor and distinction in that if we could do anything positive that we could honor Page by trying to disseminate what his teaching word was to other individuals and other organizations because as far as we could tell that the Bell system had been really successful because of what he had brought to AT & T. So again to make a longer story short, we decided that what we would try to do was create the best possible organization that had the highest standards like we had enjoyed when we were all part of the Bell system together and that if we were going to have a meeting some place it would be in a quality place just like where we had been accustomed to meeting. If we were going to put out a newsletter or have any kind of communication, it would be the best that we’d have. That we would have our own logo designed. We would have a distinctive image that would feature Arthur Page’s image on it. We’d have our own distinctive color which turned out to be bronze and all that started to come together. Then came the thing was that we still had this box that we had of just having Bell system people in it and we said there’s no life or future beyond this if we can’t expand and reach out into the general corporate world for people. At that point I think we had a meeting a board meeting. We got together and we reaffirmed the idea that the only people that we wanted as members basically were corporate people who were peers of ours who held jobs that were similar to ours. That we felt that it would be useful to have an academic or two in the organization to give us an academic perspective. And then we also felt at that time that suppliers of ours who were the heads of their firms would also be welcome. So with your help we got Lou Banks from the Sloan school at MIT to come on the board to represent the academic. Lou Harris, who was the probably the best known and best abled pollster of that time and probably still is for many reasons, agreed to come onboard again with your influence. We had the Northwest Air Ad Agency agreed to come and participate as part of this. And then Gene Stevenson who worked at United Carbide was the first person who was a non-Bell person who became a member. Shortly thereafter Jim Murphy who worked at Beatrice at the time just before he went to Merrill Lynch came on the Board and we started to reach out and grow. And I think you were one of the major recruiters we had of people who were non-Bell people. Eventually I should say that because we’re doing this under the auspices of the Page Center here at Penn State and about the second or third year we invited Larry Foster to join the board and he was more than willing and has been a dynamic member of the organization ever since. Jean Handley succeeded me as president for a two-year term and after her was Gerry Blatherwick who was the vice president or executive vice president down at Southwestern Bell and after that Larry became the first president who was a non-Bell person. But the whole idea was to keep it as an organization of peers, that no seconds were to be members of the organization; that we wanted a group of people who were comfortable talking to each other, who were used to dealing with similar types of problems…who had access to resources. I mean if we needed funding for a project that we had that we could call on someone to do that. Shortly thereafter thereafter Jerry ceased being president, we moved to Larry, we decided that we needed help and you were generous in providing space for us at AT & T so we had an office. Maureen Schaeffer came onboard and all of a sudden all of the telephone and communications supplies, office equipment, and that you provided. And with that as a basis, the Page Society got off and got running but keeping the ideals at the highest level was the key element of all that and we had to say no a lot of times when people wanted to try to do something else.

Block: Jack let’s get into the flavor of the month, which is a very important flavor. An enduring flavor that sometimes gets lost from time to time. A couple of years ago you conceived of and edited a book that included chapters by prominent chief executive officers on the subject of integrity, corporate character, whatever you want to call it and I don’t want you to get out of here without talking a little bit about what did you learn from those chapters submitted by CEOs, or what had you hoped to learn and didn’t either way you want to look at the question. How do you institutionalize integrity? How do you insinuate that into a large organization?

Koten: Well there are several answers to that question and the first thing I like to say is that building trust was written as a project of the Page Society and it was done really as a response to the headlines denoting week after week or month after month corporate corruption, dishonesty and really acts of real criminal negligence in several cases. And in a speech that Jeffrey Garten who was at that time the dean of Yale made, he said that all that American needs or business needs is for a dozen CEOs to speak up about what they’re doing in their businesses and that will begin to quiet this furor of and feeling that all American businesses are dishonest and crooked. So the Page Society took that to heart and felt that that was one of the things that we were pretty much for because the very first principle in the Page Society, which Arthur Page articulated, was tell the truth, and we believe that wholeheartedly. We subscribe to it and all of our members did that so it became apparent that this was something that we could that we could do, and that maybe we could help the reputation of American business by taking on this activity. So consequently, because I was at that time in a retired state although my wife wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, I agreed to take on the responsibility of trying to put that book together. It was done with the help of course of Dave Drobis who was then the president of the Page Society and Ron Culp and many others really contributed to helping make it happen. One of the things that became clear to me and we, as it turned out, we wound up with essays from 23 CEOs that were included in the book. Actually my idea was to have 24 which would be two dozen which was twice what Jeffrey Garten had said but incredibly at the very last minute as we were going on the press. One of the best essays and one of the best by one of the CEOs that I happen to personally like, called me up and said that our company is, he was a major shareowner in the company, he said our company is going through an enormously difficult time here. And we’re going to reorganize and I’m not sure how where I’m going to be when the reorganization is all over. And so he said I just don’t think it would be in your best interest to have me in a book that’s coming out in six months or a year from now because I’m not sure what my fate is going to be. And so I learned that this was typical of him upfront, integrity, honest, Here’s an alert. Not every CEO would have done that. Some CEOs would have tried to fly undercover because they felt that they wanted to be part of this mixed group of outstanding CEOs. I think that the thing that I learned, that there’s no question that in a major corporation and even a minor corporation, if there is such a thing, that the CEO sets the tone. If the CEO’s behavior is above board there’s a good chance that will filter down through the organization. It isn’t going to happen automatically but if there’s any question about the behavior of the CEO the employees are going to look at this with a jaundiced eye. I think one of the best examples is what happened with Boeing and Harry Stonsteiffer who was an absolutely terrific CEO but got caught up in a couple of situations which were not in the best interest of the Boing Company and he was forced to resign, which he did. His replacement at the first meeting they had of senior management team after that meeting called them all together and the chief lawyer put up on the screen photos of two actually there were two deposed senior people at Boeing and had their head shots on there and under the head shots were a whole row of numbers. And the chief general counsel said you all know that those are not social security numbers under that. And with that the attorney who was the new CEO said. And he said ,“That is precisely what will happen to anyone who violates our code of conduct and expectations for truthful behavior.” And he said “I want that to be understood right now and you are hearing it from me.” And that was a vivid illustration. I have several friends who work for Boeing and they told me if there was ever a message delivered that was that was really well done. Well in other other companies it was clear like in the Eaton Company with Cutler. He, right after he took over the job that he was confronted with the one of his officers in Asia. The head of their actually Asian operation, who was awarding contracts to the firm that his wife was involved with without putting them out for bids. When he learned that he was the best operating guy he had in the whole company, gone, he was fired. He then explained to the employees of the Eaton Corporation that this is not a three strikes you’re out company. He said one strike and you’re out. Those kinds of messages resonate through the corporations. Other corporations and Bill Weldon from J & J is a good example, have a long history of having a code of ethics or a code of conduct that they go over annually with all of their employees to make sure they understand so there’s a long history of t hat sort of thing. And consequently, you kind of expect them to have this and you learn that there is value in having a code of conduct or a set of basic principles but the thing is, and I would I think that you would agree with this, is that you can have all the code of conducts that you want in your corporation, but when it gets right down to it, it’s the individual who makes the difference. If the individual is raised in an environment where they are taught the difference between right and wrong, that’s likely to carry over throughout their lives and they’ll have that understanding. And no form of persuasion one way or the other will cause them to do other. There are other borderline cases that can be persuaded one way or the other but basically having a code of conduct is they know they are violating it but that doesn’t necessarily prevent them from doing it if they see in our culture today that somehow or other it’s in their personal best interest. And I think that’s one of the things that I learned again this whole sense of greed and the “me now” generation that you can have all the teachings whether they are from the Bible or the Koran or whatever about proper behavior, but in our culture today those can be easily ignored if there are people who feel that they can gain somehow personally from this. A person like Marilyn Carlson headed up the Carlson’s company said something that struck me as being in the book that was really significant. She said that this is basically a family company and she’s the generation that’s running it now. She said that if we expect and want our employees to keep this company alive and preserve it for a long we have to treat them like we’re running this business for a long term. We have to respect their rights. Their individual rights and what their needs are and if we can do that, then they will help us perpetuate this company. If we don’t, in a generation or two, she said we won’t be able to keep this company going.

Block: I think you’ve nailed the answer, as I expected, and I will close out by just one last comment about Mr. Page. The things that we call the Page Principles, that animate the Page Center at Penn State and animate the Page Society or brought it into being is that his genius was horse sense, believe it or not. And you know Principle 1 is Tell the Truth. You know he didn’t mean sometimes. He meant if it’s convenient. White Lies are okay. I mean he could nail it and another principle that affected public relations and we can substitute the word corporate governance is 90 percent doing and 10 percent talking about it. So as you said it doesn’t make any difference how beautifully worded your code of conduct is if no one pays any attention to it and that of course was the genius of General Johnson and the Johnson & Johnson credo because it wasn’t something on the wall or on the dashboard of a company car. It’s a living document that the management not only manages by, but rates itself against those simple propositions. You know that General Johnson just like Page put in that credo. That basically said our obligation is to our customers and to caregivers that and that’s that comes first. And basically it’s the last thing in the credo you know is if we do all of the above diligently, successfully, the shareowners will be well taken care of. He did not put the shareowners at the top. We have to optimize their income or anything like that. It was all about the customers, his employees, and the communities in which the company did business. To do right by all of them and we’ll make out fine. It’s the bottom line. So we’ll let it go at that. But keep it simple. Integrity is not something off in the ether, it’s what you do everyday.

Koten: Right.

Block: and who knows what you’re doing. Thanks Jack for sitting in on this.

Koten: Well thank you very much Ed. [interview ended]