Oral Histories

Larry Foster

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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.

Transcript

Interviewer: The Page principles were born in the telephone business, but over the years found a home in businesses of every kind. Larry Foster was the first person to lead the Arthur W. Page Society, who had not been brought up in the telephone business in the mid 1950s.  Larry left the job over the years he and his successors Bill Nielson and of course the CEOs they worked for, helped make Johnson & Johnson one of the most admired companies in the world.  Larry, if you were a CEO hiring a PR counselor what would you look for.

Foster: Well I want someone who has basic intelligence to begin with.  Secondly, I want someone who brings skills that no one else at the table has. I worked for three chairmen at Johnson & Johnson throughout their entire career a total of 25 or more years, and I think each one of them looked for the same thing. I was passed off from the first to the second to the third, and I managed to survive but they wanted basic intelligence. They wanted something from me that they couldn’t get from the financial guy or the lawyers and so forth and a lot of that had to do with my knowledge of the press, my sense of public opinion, and what would be in the public interest. And the other quality that I brought - I became the loyal opposition.

Interviewer: How so? What do you mean?

Foster: Well I had come out of a city room to help form the first public relations department at Johnson & Johnson and I was young and I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and I wasn’t if you will a ‘PR type.’  I was used to expressing myself if there was a situation that warranted it but in becoming a loyal opposition, you were the one who was not fearful of the chairman or fearful of expressing your views.  Hopefully, you were right much more often than you were wrong.  But you could do that with the chairmen that I worked for and with.  And when you establish a reputation as having expressed, ready to express that of the loyal opposition. It was expected of you at critical meetings. Sooner or later they would ask that question okay, now tell us Foster, why we shouldn’t do this.

Interviewer: Whose interests were you representing at that point?

Foster: Well fundamentally the interest and the welfare of the company, but also keeping in the back of my mind how the public would respond to such a decision, how the press would respond to such a decision. And where I wasn’t concerned so much about the business interests that they might be the bottom line on a given situation. If I felt that the decision should go another way, I wasn’t afraid to express that.  I think it was that lack of fear of disagreeing respectfully with them that establishes one’s reputation. And if you are right more often hopefully a lot more often than you are wrong, it was a quality that they looked for.

Interviewer: So you would suggest the CEO look for someone who’s smart, who’s not afraid to express their opinion, has the courage of their convictions, and is looking at the decision from the point of view of the public, anything else?

Foster: Oh yeah, certainly excellent communication skills, particularly writing.  I put great emphasis on the importance of good writing. And I think that judgment is a quality that is hard to define but it is so critically important. People say that you can’t practice judgment but I tell kids in college that I speak to from time to time, you can improve your judgment; you can improve your attitude and your demeanor in meetings.  I am sure this has happened to you, Dick. The chairman would have been in the company of several people on your staff and the next situation comes up and you are out of town and you say I’m going to send so and so up to the meeting. And he’ll say, maybe not, “Why don’t you send ….,” and the person that he selects is usually one who he has confidence in and who fits into senior executive discussion with an issue on the table.  And people who know how to handle themselves in the presence of other senior executives who are willing to hold their own and disagree, or agree.  I hasten to add you do not disagree for the sake of disagreeing, there has to be a fundamental reason why you would do that.  But there are, you’d be surprised but perhaps you wouldn’t with all your experience, how many executives in the room would disagree but would be afraid to stand up to the chairman, … say, look, you’re making a huge mistake. Sometimes I would not express my disagreement until the others left the room for a variety of reasons, diplomatic and otherwise.  And so in those situations you get up and close the door and you come back to him and say, look, the truth is I think this is a lousy idea and this is why.  Now he either buys it or he doesn’t buy it.

Interviewer: How does somebody prepare to be the Larry Foster of a company, Senior PR counselor?

Foster: Well in terms of personal qualities, I think you have to do a lot of introspective thinking as to whether you feel you are capable of vying and competing, not in the truest sense, but vying intellectually and sometimes emotionally with a chairman. If you have, you must have great respect for him or her as a leader. If you are going to make a total commitment to a company and to a Chairman and CEO and you’re not sure you like him, then do yourself a favor and get another job, because over the years you become close. There was never any doubt in my mind or in my chairman’s mind who was chairman and who was the senior public relations officer.  That line was never crossed. But you had a lot of interaction, a lot of interplay, a lot of debate. The relationship was tested many times, but it all begins with mutual respect.

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.