Oral Histories

Marilyn Laurie

Interview Segments on Topic: Selecting a PR Career

Marilyn Laurie Biography

Marilyn Laurie joined AT&T in 1971 as a nationally recognized environmentalist who helped create Earth Day and the Environmental Action Coalition.  Over the years, she created an environmental education program for AT&T employees, wrote speeches, worked in media relations and corporate advertising.  She recently retired as executive vice president of brand strategy and advertising, was a member of the 10-person Executive Committee and was responsible for leading AT&T’s brand building activities.  In addition, she served as chairman of the AT&T Foundation, overseeing a billion dollars in grants to educational, arts and community organizations throughout the world.

In  2002, Ms. Laurie was elected to the Arthur W. Page Society’s Public Relations Hall of Fame.  She was named one of “New York’s 75 Most Influential Women” by Crain’s, named a PR All-Star twice by Inside PR magazine, and received the Human Relations Award of the American Jewish Committee among many other honors.  Ms. Laurie is a Trustee of Columbia University, a Director of the New York City Ballet and currently is President of Laurie Consulting, Inc and is a past member of the Arthur W. Page Center Advisory Board.


Interviewer: I wanted to start off our interview today by asking you to speak a little bit about your professional background in public relations. Perhaps tell us how you got started in the industry.

Laurie: I was an English major in college and didn’t follow the known path, which was generally to go for an advanced degree and into teaching at that time.  I wanted to go into business. And I had experimented in sundry jobs to start with--   copy writing, light public relations for little companies you never would have heard of. Then I dropped out to have two children. And as a result of a rather extraordinary set of coincidences, I ended up answering a little ad in a newspaper which set me on the path of ultimately handling all the public relations for Earth Day -- in the entire northeast area-- a gigantic task, but, an accident, in a sense. From that, a year later, I served on the Mayor’s Council for the Environment for New York, and I met someone was connected with the New York Times. And she asked me just before the first anniversary of Earth Day to write a supplement for the New York Times that they could run on its anniversary. And I was very young, very dumb, very naïve and so I did. I didn’t at the time know anything about hiring staff or what have you. My husband was a commercial artist. He did all the artwork. I wrote all the copy and it ran in the Sunday New York Times. As a result there were only two names on the masthead, my husband and myself. And that came to the attention of the president of AT &T, who hired me as an environmentalist. I worked in the environmental area of AT & T for a couple of years, before ultimately being transferred into public relations.

I started as far from the centre of power as you could get in a company that size. And I don’t’ think anybody would have predicted-- not friend, not foe, not me --that I would’ve ended up as an Executive Vice President. It’s just an astounding journey. But the most important reason I think for that journey was that when I entered (at that time there were one million people in the Bell system) it was just before the breakup of the telephone system . And everyone had a well defined job. The place ran like a Swiss clock. Except they didn’t’ have an environmentalist and I came in as the one and only environmentalist. And so I never learned to obey the rules. I never learned to sit in a box on an organization chart. And I never learned how the hierarchy determines what you’re supposed to do and how you’re not supposed to make waves. I was brought in to make waves. And so I had a rather odd career without formal public relations training. But it worked.

Interviewer: Do you feel that there is a corollary between public relations and social advocacy?

Laurie: I think there very often is because I think the heart of public relations-- as I’ve used to define it in the very early years when I was at AT&T and didn’t’ know anything about Arthur Page --  I would define it as trying to bring into harmony the policies and the actions of a company and the expectations of its publics. And so the person who’s on point -- trying to help the company do that -- has to learn on the one hand to really understand the business’ actions and what will make it succeed, but on the other hand,  to be an advocate for what the public  expects and how to adapt and bend those things so that they fit together… because if they don’t fit together it’s a disaster.

You  can try to change public expectations. It doesn’t work very often --You can try through advocacy outside.  You can also try to change policies inside, by advocating for public needs. But you ultimately have to bring the two into balance because if you don’t the place goes up in flames and then you have what we call crisis and then you need to be trained in crisis management. So yeah, I think social advocacy is terrific training for public relations, because if you can be involved in something,  you see what it takes to move a lot of people, you learn how to touch them both rationally and emotionally. I think that will stand you in good stead no matter what kind of institution you work for in terms of trying to do public relations.