Oral Histories

Larry Foster

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

Larry Foster Biography

Larry Foster assisted in forming Johnson & Johnson’s first Public Relations Department in 1957, when the company had annual sales of $250 million. Upon his retirement 33 years later, the company had grown 40 times larger and had sales of $10 billion. During his tenure with Johnson & Johnson, he was Director of Public Relations and Assistant to the Chairman before becoming Corporate Vice President of Public Relations and an officer of the company in 1973.

In 1982, Foster led Johnson & Johnson’s highly acclaimed response to the Tylenol poisoning tragedy. Following Foster’s lead, Johnson & Johnson was completely open with the public, put its interest first and withdrew 32 million packages of Tylenol from the market. Because of Foster’s successful and ethical strategies, PR Week magazine named him one of the ten most influential public relations executives of the 20th Century.

An author of several books, Foster is the recipient of three of the highest awards in the public relations field, the 1989 Gold Anvil Award, the 1998 Atlas, and the Hall of Fame Award in 1994.


Interviewer: Give us an example of how a relationship might have been tested that you might have learned from.

Foster: Just let me preface that by saying that Johnson & Johnson has a corporate credo that was written by Robert Wood Johnson in the early 1940s. It is very similar markedly similar to the Page message and while he wrote that in the early 1940’s, he outlined it for the first time in 1935 just at the time that Arthur Page was at AT & T. And Johnson wrote frequently in major magazines and so did Arthur Page and the principles of the Page Principles and of the Johnson & Johnson credo which is a one page document that calls for four responsibilities – to the customer first, to the employees second, to the communities where we work and live third, and fourthly to the stockholders.  So, they are markedly similar. And as an example which you asked for, I remember one time we had to close down a major facility in the South. And it went through all the routines of regular corporate evaluation where we brought the legal people in, we brought the human resources people in, and we put together a package that everyone in the company in the senior management thought was fair and adequate. I disagreed, because this was a textile mill in the South and it’s really a textile town that we had created. It had an older population of employees and it was in a remote area that there weren’t any other jobs. I thought to close this down, even with a good compensation package, was totally inconsistent with the Johnson & Johnson credo, and I vehemently argued that. And I created some doubts in their minds as to whether they were doing the right thing including the chairman.  And we left the meeting with the situation undecided because no one knew what to do. Fortunately, one of the executive committee members from the meeting was deeply involved in manufacturing. He knew as you probably know, Johnson & Johnson was a highly decentralized company.  At that time we had about 100 companies around the world, individually managed, cumulatively forming the substance of what Johnson & Johnson is at the corporate level. And he knew that one of the affiliates in the South in Texas I believe it was, Southwest was going to add to a facility down there and it just so happened after a lot of negotiations a lot of working out details. That other affiliate company was able to go in and take over the facility of the textile business in that town and as a result those people did not lose their jobs and the town was saved.  If I had capitulated and not been stubborn and I think I raised the subject but when I did I wasn’t alone. Others did see, well you know he’s got a point.

Interviewer: Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about each of the Page principles here, maybe not all six a few of them anyway. And I’d just like your comment and your thoughts, what experiences come to your mind? Let’s start with to Tell the Truth.

Foster: So basic and fundamental that I can’t add much to the three words Tell the Truth. I don’t think there is any other way. I have I learned through the years, based on my past experience that I think how to do a fairly credible job of handling the press. I never told them everything I knew. If I did I wouldn’t be needed in the job. But I never lied. They knew I would never lie to them. And they also knew I wasn’t telling them everything I knew. And that’s the name of the game. You play that back and forth.  So telling the truth is so fundamental that I couldn’t work for a company that didn’t tell the truth and I don’t think you could either.

Interviewer: How do you decide what of everything you know you have to tell them, and what is acceptable with whom?

Foster: Well in that case Dick, I’m thinking what’s best for the business, and I’m thinking what is best for our customer and what is best for our employees and our shareholders.  So I am not going to divulge things that will add to the magnitude of the story and maybe even distort it, but I’m going to respond to what I think the press should know,  at given times but not necessarily elaborate on it item for item.  I mean that‘s not the role of a counselor. And experience tells you a lot, teaches you a lot when to say that’s what I think the company has to say at this time.

Interviewer: Prove it with Action. Is it as simple as action speaks louder than words?

Foster: Well if the company isn’t taking actions on a problem, then they are derelict in their duties. I don’t think the question of action takes long to prove. I think every given situation, major situation, major crisis, it’s a fluid situation and you constantly are required to make decisions which are implemented into action, so I think a company that is reluctant or hesitant about making, demonstrating action is derelict. And I think the immediate and public opinion . My interpretation, my knowledge of the media and how the press would respond to a give situation has a great deal to do with how the public responds. The public learns from the media and then they make decisions and I think that you know what you feel you want the public to decide, hopefully in your favor, and therefore the media is the conduit by which your judgments become your decisions. But that goes hand in hand with action.  I hardly think the public would tolerate inaction on anything that is important. In fact, that’s the greatest mistake I think that most people in handling crises make the single greatest mistake, they lose track of the importance of time. They wait two days to have meetings before they say they are sorry about what happened and they are going to correct it. I mean you don’t need two days. You may need ten seconds. You don’t need two days. And the timing is so critically important. And people don’t and I think some of the crisis management people who come up with these great documents on How to handle crisis. Many of which sometimes stay in the file gathering dust in the middle of a major, major crisis, but they forget that you have to, you have to demonstrate immediately what your intentions are and why.  And that’s not hard to do. You may not be able to get into detail, understand, but to give the company’s fundamental position on any major situation doesn’t’ take a lot of meetings.

Interviewer: Listening to the Customer.

Foster: Well, and you have many customers, in the case in a company like Johnson & Johnson in the health care field, your customers include doctors and nurses, and patients, and it includes hospital administrators.  It includes the hierarchy of the health care system. It includes government. It includes the FDA and so forth. There are some, some are audience and some are customers. It is terribly important to have knowledge of or instinct about what they are thinking and why they think the way they do.  They each have a reason for thinking the way they do, and you have a lot of people and a lot of sources that you can check to make sure you are right. You are not always right, and you know sometimes your own decisions, you are not infallible and you are not that good that you don’t make mistakes yourself. So in trying to be the loyal opposition and there will be times when you went off the deep end and went too far and that you were wrong. And so you regroup, come back, and try to do better next time. But the major caveat is you better be right more often, a lot more often, than you are wrong or you won’t be around for long.

Interviewer: Managing for Tomorrow.  Do you think that’s something business has forgotten today?

Foster: One of the most important ingredients of any business is the thought of managing for the long term and we’ve been caught up in managing other companies and people have been caught up in managing for the quarter and to satisfy the analysts on Wall Street, you must get some numbers out right away. The truth is any good business is planned for the long term and matters for the long term and Page used the word tomorrow, Managing for Tomorrow and I understand that he didn’t write it that way originally but someone, and I don’t know who to put the blame on, decided to change the word and interject tomorrow because they thought that that might be more meaningful or more expressive of what he meant. I understand the original words were much more indicative of building the business for the long term.

Interviewer: When did you first hear about Arthur Page and the idea of an Arthur Page Society?

Foster: Well, I first heard about it in the mid 1980s from someone that I have great respect & admiration for and have for years, Ed Block.  I heard about the Page Society and I knew at that time that it was made up of the communication executive of the Bell System when the Bell System was one company and about 1988 Ed Block came to me and said we think that the Page Society should be expanded nationally and include a lot of other senior executives from other companies. I agreed with him. I think that the quality that we saw, and it was prevalent, and the Page Society at the time, warranted a national level of recognition and participation. And then he posed the question of whether I would agree to become the first non-Bell System President of the Page Society.  I didn’t take too long to say yes. In fact I may have said it right away, because of my instincts that the Page Society had the potential to be the finest professional society in the public relations field, which it is today.

Interviewer: What is it about the Page Society that you thought would make it different or necessary?

Foster: I think there were several things. One is the Page Principles, which in my view filled a very similar response in my mind, my intellect, to the Johnson & Johnson credo. I found something that I could really relate to. The other thing was that it was a time in this business, in the public relations business, in which this was needed. It was a growing field, it was a more important field but there were not any major organizations out there that would give the kind of service and the kind of information and the kind of personal involvement that the Page Society could. And so, therefore, it loomed to be as a very important future step for public relations and that’s why I was eager to take the presidency for two years. My first job, my mandate, was to make this a national organization. The first thing I did I got a list of the top companies in America, and I found out who was running the public relations and we went down the list and invited a large or significant percentage of them to join the Page Society. I don’t think we had a single turn down. If we had one it might have been someone who knew he was going to be in transition on his job. But you have to remember in those days people weren’t moving around as much as they are today. So membership in the Page Society became very important to people who were recognized as the best people in the field. And that’s why it has done so well. And today unequivocally there is no question that the Page Society stands head and shoulders above any other professional society in our field.

Interviewer: Anything else about those early days at the Page Society. Interesting anecdotes, people involved?

Foster: I think the important thing that I found in the beginning was because the Bell System had such a great reputation and because Ed Block and Jack Koten and others had such great reputations that people were willing to become members.  And they had already recruited some very important names like Harold Burson, whom I think is probably one of the finest counselors in the business. When Burson associates his name to something that’s a big plus. But you see I think organizations are built two ways – one people and one program. You can’t have one without the other. So we, we got some very outstanding speakers for our spring conference and our annual meeting, some of the best-known CEOs in America and others in the communications field. Some of the best journalists in the country, and when you get that kind of a program which aimed at being instructional and helpful to the things you do and you have an audience of top ranked people that mix, it creates a wonderful chemistry for the growth of an organization. And the Page Society has managed to build on that. That’s ten years ago that I had finished the presidency. It has managed to build on it year after year. And they have kept faith with the people who have joined by offering quality programs. But always at the core of it are the Page Principles. And you can’t join the Page Society without knowing what they are about. They are about the Page Principles. And if you disagree with them or have some hesitancy or doubt about them, the easiest solution is don’t join it.  But we haven’t had many turndowns.  And there is another thing I’d like to mention about Arthur Page while I’m thinking about it. Why is Arthur Page so important to us 75 years after his role at AT&T. I think it’s because Arthur Page took the time to express what perhaps others were thinking, including CEOs. He was the one who put it on paper. He was the one that was willing to stand behind his words, and 75 years from now we’re dong television shows and writing books about Arthur Page. So I think the boldness and the intensity of his beliefs should be why we have reason to admire him. He made the effort to do what perhaps others were thinking but didn’t have the presence of mind to do.