Oral Histories

Kurt Stocker

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

Kurt Stocker Biography

Kurt Stocker’s career has spanned all aspects of public relations, having held positions in the corporate, agency and academic worlds.  An associate professor at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism’s Integrated Marketing Communications Program, Stocker has been recognized for his expertise in crisis management, employee communications, corporate governance, Integrated Marketing Communications, reputation management and professional development. 

Stocker is a member of the New York Stock Exchange Regulation Board of Directors, Chair of the NYSE Individual Investor Advisory Board, member of the Disclosure Advisory Board and is a member of the Hall of Fame and past president of the Arthur W. Page Society.


Interviewer: In your career, did any of the agencies, corporations, banks, whatever, have a code of ethics or a value statement, or a mission statement? Would it be something you’d return to in a crisis?

Stocker: Unfortunately, I’ve been quoted as saying that mission statements were developed by the plastics industry so that they could put them in small little blocks and put them on your desk. Unfortunately, in many corporations, that’s as far as the mission statement or the values got. I guess they weren’t written for real people. They were written for consumption and then again they fit in a glass block, and I don’t think values or mission statements fit in a glass block. Most of the time, it comes from the people themselves. You look at the Arthur Page Society and the principles of the Arthur Page Society. There’s almost no principle there that talks about the corporation or the organization. It’s all personal, and it’s your personal reputation that drives a company, the reputation of the chairman, the reputation of the person that’s out selling the product, the reputation of the person who’s in United Airlines in the guts of a plane looking for a small piece of rust. Those are where your values are and they’re generally personal values. So I’m not a great fan of mission statements. I’m a great fan of values, but when they’re personal values. I’m not sure corporations can have values.

Interviewer: So Kurt, what’s the role of the economic bottom line in ethical decision-making?

Stocker: The economic bottom line obviously has great importance because if the organization doesn’t survive, all the stakeholders lose. It’s the constant question that comes up in your three stakeholder groups; your shareholders; your employees; and your customers, consumers, or clients, or whatever they happen to be. Traditionally we thought about talking to them differently because they had different needs, and the truth of the matter is that they don’t really have different needs. The truth of the matter is that if the customer doesn’t believe in us, if we don’t provide a good product to the customer and the customer doesn’t accept that product and buy that product and think we’re an ethical company, they may not buy that product, because today people are voting with their feet. They know about us. They didn’t know that before. All the shareholders want is the customers to be happy with us. All the employees want is for the customers to be happy with us because if the bottom line isn’t there, the shareholders lose, the employees lose, and the customers lose. So the bottom line is very important, but it doesn’t drive ethical decisions. That goes back I think to whether we’re talking about corporate ethics, which again I’m not sure how corporations have ethics because they’re made up of individual people with individual needs. When you look at some of the major missteps that companies have made, they have made them based on incentive plans provided by the company. The companies incented the wrong things or they didn’t have stops to prevent them from going too far. In sales, and you can look at one crisis after another, so we incense occasional bad behavior by asking someone to sell too much or to sell it in the wrong form, or to not tell us when something went wrong in production, but it comes down to individuals. So it’s a matter of personal values, I believe.

Everyone tries to define PR; somebody says so what do you do? What is PR? I come up with two definitions in all these years. The first one is local because I spent most of my life in Chicago. The Chicago police department has on the side of their vehicles To Serve and Protect. I’ve always thought PR people should have a patch that says we produce and protect. It’s what we do. We either do things that produce revenue or we do things that protect revenue. So that’s sort of my idea if you had to put a shoulder patch on. The other one is it’s just more fun and that is, and I think Arthur Page would totally agree that the definition of PR is finding a theory to fit the facts. Not trying to spin facts or to tell somebody else, but finding context around what someone has done rightly or wrongly. I think that’s sort of what we get with Arthur Page. I think he had a good story well told. I think that’s probably the quote that I love the most from Arthur Page, because it has everything to do with the story. We’re supposed to tell it well, but frankly what it’s come to is the power and as more and more people are at the center of the action—not just at the table—but at the planning sessions of the company, it’s a matter of creating the story and then telling it. It used to be the whole idea was just sort of to tell the story well. I think this profession is moving in the right direction.

Interviewer: Now you have had some experience in the classroom with some public relations students; in the business college?

Stocker: In the graduate school.

Interviewer: OK, how are those students? Are they prepared to make these difficult ethical decisions that they’re going to be faced with? Do they have the tools that they need to handle different situations? You taught at only the graduate level, it that correct? No undergrad?

Stocker: Oh, I’ve done some undergrad as well. Not everybody should come into public relations. First off many people don’t really understand what we do, and they don’t understand the ethics around it. I think the ethics are a basic part of it. Everyone in the Arthur Page Society that has been very successful at one time or another has to have bet their job. They’ve had to tell somebody no. They’ve had to tell somebody that’s the wrong thing to do and that somebody normally is a fairly important person in the organization and they know they’re putting their job on the line when they do it; and sometimes they’ve been fired for the right reasons and they’ve gone on and been successes someplace else. So number one if you’re coming into this profession, I think students have to understand that it’s a risky profession in a lot of ways. One it’s a very relationship profession; you end up with a very tight relationship with the CEO and others and we see in our profession the CEO leaves and the PR person leaves.

And the second thing is it’s risky because you have to tell truth to power and that’s not always easy and it’s generally not easy when you have a mortgage to pay. So I think the profession, the academics aren’t necessarily explaining what we do in the context of where you’re going to end up in the profession, not where you start in it. I’ve had two experiences. Undergrad, I’ve just visited my old college and I sat down with the professors and talked with a lot of the students. One of the questions I asked one of the professors is: are you teaching financial relations to your PR students? She said no. I said well then you’re not preparing them well. If they can’t read a balance sheet, if they don’t’ know how that company makes money they can’t do their job. I got a nice email from her some weeks later saying that I’ve made a deal with the business professors and we’re doing some cross training. So I think that undergrad, I’m not sure we’re preparing the students for what’s happening today in our business. I’m not sure it’s grown as quickly as the profession has.

For graduate, which I taught at Northwestern, we generally had students who had worked for two or three years in the profession before they came in, so they understood what was necessary. They had seen really good people at work and what they needed was more knowledge. They needed an experience transfer, if you will, which is what I was able to do. When you end up doing this for forty, fifty years, you make some mistakes, you do some right things, and if you understand which one was right and which one was wrong you can tell somebody else not to make the same one. I think the issue from an education standpoint is at the undergraduate level. I’m not sure it’s keeping up with the profession.

Interviewer: OK, you mentioned telling truth to power. In the year 2000, you conducted a pre-seminar survey of Page Society members and discovered that there are three levels of public relations leadership. At that time when you got the results back, you were kind of disappointed that so many members were still reporting to staff or operating officers and not to their CEOs. Could you talk about your findings and again you’re hitting this, but the current state of that counseling relationship?

Stocker: Well, we did this survey and basically what it came out with is there were three groups, but if you kind of cut them into two, there was a group who were doing pretty well. They were reporting to the top people; they were at the table. Then there was the group that weren’t. And the group that wasn’t sort of got up every morning and they put on a hair shirt and they whined a lot that they didn’t get any respect, and they didn’t get to report to the right people. Basically what came out of that was both groups had created their own environment because the group that was reporting up believed in this profession and they believed what we did had great value and were willing to put it on the line. They were willing to go to someone if we’re talking about produce and protect and say I can increase the business of this organization because I can increase its reputation; I can increase what people think about us, or I can protect it; or I can move that product; whatever it may be; whatever piece of business we’re talking about within the profession. The other group didn’t even really believe in itself or believe it could do that and I hate to be gross, but CEOs could smell it on them that they didn’t have that confidence. Because when you look at the results, the people that were whining that they didn’t get respect probably didn’t deserve it. Again I think it comes from confidence. We’re talking about ROI (return on investment) today in our profession. We’re talking about actually putting numbers to it. The advertising profession for years puts out an ad then they do their own research and say look, everybody loves it and look how much our sales have gone up. We can do the same thing tomorrow morning and have been doing the same thing with ROI, but there’s a group of people in this business that don’t believe that you can measure what you do.

Chairmen like that. The other thing that I think is a phenomenon in our business, and it goes with these two groups. In the group that is reporting to CEOs, the CEOs of most companies understand what we do and don’t need for us to prove it to them. They understand intuitively that if we do this we show a good reputation and we protect the reputation, then that means money to them. It means they’re going to make money or save money or whatever. Downward in an organization there’s not the same confidence and understanding and support for what we do and they want data. If you’re reporting to the head of marketing or the CFO, they want data from the person reporting to them. They want return on investment. Now you can create that and there are academics to figure out ways to do that, but that’s really the difference. It has more to do with the difference in where you report and the people who actually end up reporting here and that’s basically what the survey said.

Interviewer: You’ve received a lot of awards and honors. Can you identify which one was the most important to you and tell us why?

Stocker: Clearly the most important honor I ever got was to be in the Hall of Fame for Arthur Page. It’s your own peers telling you that not necessarily that they liked you or didn’t like you but that you did good work and that you had given something back to the profession. You had created a body of knowledge. Hands down; the Arthur Page Society. The most interesting stuff is as an old retread silver-backed PR guy, to end up on a couple of boards as I am now, at the New York Stock Exchange and FINRA amazes me. I’m constantly amazed that people who have a depth of experience in these fields; people that used to be the head of the FCC (Federal Communication Commission), the presidents of colleges, there are all these other people on the board who would let an old retread in and actually listen. So it says something about the profession. I’m not sure it says much about me. I happened to be standing in the right place when some of these things happened. But there are other people in the profession that are getting that kind of recognition, which historically we never had. There weren’t a lot of PR people on boards, other than charitable boards. So I think it says something about what this profession is and where it is going, but the Arthur Page Society, how do you not think that’s pretty cool?

Interviewer: You’ve mentioned some things. Looking back over your career, for what accomplishments are you most proud? And why? 

Stocker: The thing that I think all of us should be most proud of in a long career is what we’ve done as far as mentoring other people. I go to the Arthur Page meetings and I look around and I can count seven to ten people in that place who have worked for me who are now running their own organizations, probably doing better than I ever would with those companies; but I had something to do with them doing that. I get emails from students who, ten years ago I had in class at Northwestern, the student said, “something just happened and I did what you told me and it worked.” There’s nothing better than that. That’s what it’s really all about. It’s the giving back and creating something for the profession through real people. There are little things that have happened in companies that you take great pride in. Once at United Airlines, for example, I had been there about a month and a half and I got a call from 20-20 who said that they’d like to do a story. At that time, there was a series of accidents and the issue was planes are falling out of the air and we’d like to come out and look at your safety session out in San Francisco where you do maintenance on how your safety works. I went in to the president and he said “We do safety, we don’t talk about it.” I said somebody has got to do this story because people are getting worried about planes and basically it was a ‘bet your job.’

So 20-20 came out and we made two arrangements with 20-20. We said you can come out to the San Francisco base, but A, you have to spend a week there. You can’t come in for a day; you’ve got to spend a week. You’ve got to really understand it and before you leave you’ve got to interview with the in-house United Airlines employee publication as to what you found and how you felt about our safety. They came out and they spent a week and it was a no brainer because the safety out there, you would see mechanics with a dental pick inside a 747 picking out a spot of rust that you couldn’t see. I mean you felt so safe after going through it. So they spent a week there. Barbara Walters comes out to do the final story who—how should I say this? Barbara Walters as a journalist is a great actor. They plugged an earphone in her ear and a guy stood in the back and told her what to ask and she would ask and one of our people would return. Well anyway, the show started with Barbara Walters sitting in an empty plane saying planes have been falling out of the sky and we’ve asked every airline if they would show is their safety and their maintenance base and everybody turned us down except United Airlines, and I must tell you I’ve never felt so safe in my life. I’d wondered whether I had a job the next day; the show went on at 9:00 at night in Chicago and I sat there in my house telling Kathleen we may not have a job tomorrow morning. At 9:10 the phone rang and it was the head of the San Francisco customer relations, which was all the reservations that move west at night. He said our phones have lit up; he said everyone is changing their reservations at any cost from any airline to ours. I hung up the phone and said—we have a job. But again it was a good story well told, but you occasionally have to take a deep breath and be able to tell it. But as one little thing goes, that was kind of cool.

Interviewer: You mentioned the importance of mentoring and it’s just very refreshing because I hear that from the Page Society members a lot, that giving back is extremely important to them. That’s so good to hear.

Stocker: This profession grows on the backs of the people who have done it before, done it right. We’re not a profession that has, like lawyers, I hate to bring them up, but who have a lot of books and that’s your base of knowledge. Your base of knowledge is what’s coming out of something that someone did yesterday or something that someone is going to do tomorrow. It’s on the backs of these professionals that this profession grows and the people within it grow.

Interviewer: OK. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered?

Stocker: Give me a second. The famous journalistic question: what haven’t I asked you?

Interviewer: Yes, right.

Stocker: It produces the most interesting answers in the whole world, right? I can’t think of much that you haven’t asked. I think you covered everything that I’d want to pass on.

Interviewer: Well, it’s good to hear how you value the Page Society because although we are not directly affiliated, we’re associated somewhat with the Page Society and if it wouldn’t have been for the Ed Blocks, Larry Fosters, and Jack Kotens, the Page Center at Penn State would not be in existence. So it’s always good to hear and it’s wonderful to talk with everybody from the Society so thank you so much for spending some time with us. I really appreciate it.

Stocker: Thank you for asking.

Interviewer: Especially to do it for the second time.

Stocker: As I said before, I’ve had an amazing life and the fact that anybody cares is just wonderful. I mean where else can you so this? Somebody actually says gee we actually think you have something important to say and we’re going to record it? This is great. Thank you very much.