Oral Histories

Marilyn Laurie

Interview Segments on Topic: Challenges/Accomplishments

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: Could you speak to some of the biggest challenges that you have faced during your career?

Laurie: I think the first major challenge I had was when I was transferred from this organization I was working in -- which was basically working with retirees and employees on environmental projects and putting out all kinds of literature about that for anybody who would listen. I got transferred in media relations, which is the beginning of a public relations career and, for many very excellent people, the fulfillment of a public relations career. But I knew nothing about media relations. I mean nothing. And I tried to learn. At that time I was the only woman in that part of the group. And everybody else had been a journalist. And I hadn’t been a journalist either, so I was terrified.  I really I thought I would fail and my boss said much later that he really started to worry about me, that I was paralyzed. Ultimately I decided that one of AT &T’s problems was that because they were staffed by print journalists, they had no television public relations at all. And so I created a television approach and a little group and hired a television specialist. And started getting us on things like the Today Show and what have you. Of course there were 10 million stories that were ready to be told because we had never done anything proactively for television. And that was sort of the beginning … finding that one of the real ways to make a difference in a large organization was to create, as opposed to follow the well beaten path. And of course between the years of the  late 70s to the early 80s, when AT & T was broken up-- and from then on-- it was all about adapting to change. All about adapting to a new world. And so anyone who was not complaining about the way it was… but was ready to say, whoa… there’s opportunity here to do something new… I think was more valuable. That was the biggest challenge for me -- finding those ways.

Later on, when I was in charge, the very, very largest challenges were trying to help senior management adapt to the various things that  those of us who have a broad view of the world could see needed to be done – outside  the technical and financial aspects of the business. But we still got into trouble, not often, but sometimes. 

I think the most difficult times I had to overcome were two catastrophic events I was involved in. One, when our Foundation -- for a variety of reasons I won’t go into  now -- decided to stop funding Planned Parenthood. And within a couple of weeks our wonderful relationship with this organization, which had gone on for 16 years, turned into a cataclysmic public battle, with Planned Parenthood nationally taking ads saying “Hang up on AT & T! We  had threats of boycotts. It was just horrible. Absolutely horrible. And worse because those of us who had managed this decision were quite sympathetic to Planned  Parenthood’s  goals,  but for a variety of reasons, ttheir financial policies were unable to  be reconciled to our Foundation’s and corporate requirements.

But what was the thing I learned? It  was that there are a couple of issues that are so big, so divisive, so potent, so emotional,  so like tornados, that it doesn’t matter how big and powerful you are as a business or an institution, it doesn’t matter whether or not right is on your side, it doesn’t matter whether it’s planned well… you step into one of these issues and you are like a little rowboat in a raging sea. Because the big national/ public/ cultural/ emotional/ patriotic religious /kinds of issues just cut you to pieces and you bleed everywhere.

I learned this the hard  way because I fed into another one maybe ten years later. I learned that these were not issues to be a crusader…these were the kinds of issues  to be “fudged” if possible -- in such a way that you would not become a target to be used by  both sides.  And, that if you are going to have to deal with one of these issues, you needed to develop, not just good constituency relations (which we had) but you needed to understand strategy in a very real way… and your true  company character… and issue management at a very  high level -- or the reputation implications are  just awful. We had-- for ten years following this Planned Parenthood decision--  proxy statements and protests regarding the funding or not funding this organization. I mean it was just so beyond belief. So there are crises and there are crises. And I learned a lot about crisis management through the course of my career because, God knows, we had plenty of them.

Interviewer: During the course of your career what are the most significant changes that you’ve observed in the practice of public relations?

Laurie: I think the most obvious is today everybody knows everything and-- beyond transparency -- you have the participation of everybody  commenting on what you do --whether it’s employees on public message boards; whether it’s consumer- created content commenting on your brand; whether it’s leaks; whether it’s emails; whatever it is. There used to be some ability to manage information. I think that’s very rare today.  And so the challenge of how you convey what you are doing in a way that is effective with the people you want to reach-- given all the noise and all the comment and all the transparency-- I think that’s huge. Second thing is everything happens so fast today. I’m on the board of Columbia University, which is always in the news, and it’s so hard for the president of the university to be able even to go on record about various and sundry things that are happening because almost before he’s sure of what happened, it’s in all the media everywhere. You work so hard to present some kind of coherent view, particularly in decentralized enterprises, and it’s very difficult. Those are two big ones.
Of course the technology changes  are overwhelming, but that shows itself, I think, in the speed and ubiquity of the way information gets out.

The third major change is course globalization. And the need, particularly going forward, to understand the changing role of our country and our businesses in the world. I’m not sure we’re ready for the kind of competition that is ahead. I’m not sure we’re  understanding that, in areas that we operate outside this country,  we face a very different kind of environment, or that we have a fix on how we succeed in that environment both financially and in attracting employees. I’m not sure we have our arms around the issue of how consistent a company culture needs to be, given this very rapid news cycle, given this ability of everyone to commenton what you do. Given all these people who are talking about you that you don’t know about. If something happens in Africa it can be just as relevant as if it happens in Manhattan. How do you address behavior across those cultures?  And so I think those three forces –speed, the fact that everybody knows what you are doing all the time, and globalization-- are probably, off the top of my head, the three biggest changes in business.