Oral Histories

Jack Koten

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: 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.

Block: While you are thinking about the answer to the next question which is not only what the heck is counseling but how do you do it? I wanted to offer a Page quote or at least a paraphrase in one of his speeches to a, I don’t’ know whether it was a Bell audience or a mixed I mean a corporate or business audience, but he was trying to explain what this counselor does what this public chief public relations officer is supposed to be doing and so he used a metaphor. He said that job is like the officer that stands on the bridge of a very large ship, stands next to the captain who is commanding the ship and running the ship. And that officer’s job is to look out at the weather and see if there are threats out there, see traffic in the harbor, and see opportunities that and convey those to the captain who is busy you know saying you know full of stern or whatever captains say. And there needs to be somebody else there who is looking ahead at the weather and blah blah blah. I’ve thought about that from the time I read that speech, because I thought that audience probably said, what kind of mad man is this guy Page? But for those of us who have done it, it’s a pretty apt metaphor I think.

Koten: Well it’s perfect.

Block: But how do you do it?

Koten: Well

Block: We’re not meteorologists.

Koten: No it’s a perfect metaphor for what we’re talking about because as a counselor, you need to have information that’s accurate information that you can bring to the table in order to present a case. It cannot be emotional, last minute type thinking. It needs to be rational. So you need and we talked about the value of surveys customer surveys to help run the business successfully. Well the same thing is true when you’re in this position and you’re standing next to the captain or you really are like a periscope or a radar unit that keeps looking 360 degrees around the business at all times to see what’s going on with all the various public constituencies that you deal with to see if there’s likely to be problems or where things are happening that are good, where things are going that may be a little iffy, and where things you know really need some attention. Then as a counselor it’s not your role to go in and tell the CEO we got a problem over here. You got to get that fixed. He doesn’t want to hear that. Or she doesn’t want to hear that. They want you to come in and you say we got a problem over here and here’s what I do about it. Or here’s what you might want to do about it or something of that nature. That’s what counseling is. You got to the doctor and you tell him what the problem is. You expect him to tell you well that’s this is what you do. You have to, you expect him to give you some kind of an answer and that’s what I think most of us that our jobs are like. So to me, and this is contrary and I’m in dangerous water here in a journalism school saying this, that to me to achieve this type of value within a corporation or within an organization requires that the person be a broad gauged type person with a wide range of interests. It’s nice to be able to write a news release or be able to write some ad copy or some slogans or to write a quick TV blurb or write this sort of thing and that. That’s all the stuff when you’re at this point, we all did plenty of that at one point in time in our career, But at this point what’s important is the advice and counsel that you can give based on your experience and your knowledge of what’s going on and frequently that really requires that person be well read, that they know what’s going on. I prefer personally people that have some form of a liberal arts background or at least some exposure to it so that they are used to thinking about things. that they have a degree in philosophy. That’s never bothered me because what you’re really looking for are people who can think, who have ideas, who are creative, who are innovative. You don’t want somebody who is waiting to hear what you’re going to say and writes it down and comes back to your office ten minutes later and says “Well I think this is what you ought to do.” It’s crazy. But that scene, I’ve seen that repeated dozens and dozens of times when somebody is waiting and this is even at the most senior levels waiting for the CEO to make some kind of a statement whether it’s good or bad or whatever and the minute he says somebody will say “Gee that sounds like a great idea,” may be the dumbest idea in the world, but the majority of people are not interested in challenging the CEO.

Block: We’ll leave it at that on this question because I can tell you what happens to the senior public relations executive who says “Boss you had a great idea.” Nine times out of ten that boss knows he or she did not have a great idea is looking for a great idea and that’s probably the last conversation that’s ever going to occur between those two because the boss is going to say. “Go back and write me a press release and don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

Koten: Don’t get caught writing press releases at that level.