Oral Histories

Marilyn Laurie

Interview Segments on Topic: Crisis Management

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.

8.                                                                                                                         Interviewer: I know back in 2002 you delivered a speech when you were inducted into the Page Society Hall of Fame referencing the monkey crisis during your days at AT&T.

Laurie: That was the analog to the to the Planned Parenthood crisis. Just a brief stage setter first… That was a case involving an absolutely wonderful, diversity minded, socially responsible editor of our company magazine ,  which went out to  hundreds of thousands of people. In the course of a story on international business, she commissioned from a freelance artist some illustrations. One of those illustrations -- which was about an inch and a half, two inches square at most,  in black and white, had little tiny figures on each continent. And, say, for Europe they had a little Dutch girl in a little Dutch outfit. And on Africa they had a monkey. This was immediately interpreted as a racist statement. As it happened, because this illustration was so small, from  a freelance artist, and considered so irrelevant to the general content of the magazine, it never went through the normal clearance process. But when discovered after the magazine was printed, the editor of the magazine realized that this was potentially again stepping into one of these gigantic  emotional issues. And so she issued an apology on behalf of the magazine --which of course called it to the attention of  our 300,000  employees, just for starters. We tried to do a variety of things to manage this because AT & T was really known for its diversity policies. So we were considered a leader in the field. Somewhere along the line in this, we had what can only be described as a stroke of really lousy luck. The Black Congressional Caucus held their annual meeting in Washington  and the Washington Post picked up this cartoon. Enlarged it several times. Put it on page 1 and it was delivered to the front door of every Black member of Congress and all of a sudden --we had thought this couldn’t’ possibly get bigger - it was bigger yet. And totally awful.

What I learned from this --other than the usual crisis management issues…There were two big lessons. The first one is that on these highly emotional, highly divisive issues, the  trust is very fragile.You may think you have achieved trust and credibility, but there’s no such thing as deep-rooted trust and credibility from outside of the particular stakeholder group  on an issue like this. And it is very easily destroyed and very, very, very hard to rebuild once it’s fractured. The other lesson I learned was what it feels like to be on the line yourself, because I had to do some terrible things during that crisis for the company. I ended up doing something that seemed impossible at the time  -- I had to close down the magazine because it ultimately became a national symbol of racism. And I had to relieve the editor, who was a paragon of social responsibility. But as I said to my organization in a meeting and a broadcast --I believe with breaking voice-- it was all about accountability and the appearance of accountability. And there is no way to go part way on accountability on issues of this kind. And the sooner you do that probably the easier it is. So I know what it feels like when we ask our CEOs to do something like this, because this was in my shop. The accountability was ultimately mine. As part of this I offered up my own resignation to my chairman, who didn’t take it. But it was very,  very painful. And it reminds you-- because it was so painful --that as you ask your senior leadership to step up in these situations what it feels like. It ain’t easy. And that’s why it’s so often avoided -- because it is personally so painful in these situations to step up and say, not only did I make a mistake but I have to do things that just break my heart and may do damage within my company, and to employees in order to make all this right. Sothis is a nasty lesson.

Interviewer: Now what year did that occur when the cartoon appeared?

Laurie: I don’t remember. We would have look it up. I’m terrible on dates. 

Interviewer: What do you feel is the future of the public relations industry? Where how do you think that the industry is evolving now with everything that you’ve talked about in terms of technology and the global economy? What’s the future for the public relations industry?

Laurie: I think it is just hitting its stride. I really do. I think the changes we are seeing in the business world in technology and globalization speak to why institutions need public relations. Institutions are struggling to deal with these rapidly multiplying constituencies. They are struggling with the profusion of media outlets and consumer-generated media and blogs. They are struggling to deal with the fact that everybody knows everything about them. They are struggling to understand how to fit into a multi cultural world and by that I mean globally as well as the tremendous demographic change here. This is what we do. This is what we bring to the table. Look at what some of the agencies are doing in terms of developing new mechanisms for understanding how to use the new tools, how to deal with the transparency. As I look at the expertise we've developed in crisis planning, when people fall into crisis every Tuesday and Thursday nowadays because of the way media works… When I look at the explosion – and the fragmentation --of media and citizen journalism and and blogging… When I look at the skills we are developing in how to measure reputation and the impact of what we do… I think,  Hey we’re about to be in the Golden Age. The past was truly just prelude.