Oral Histories

Marilyn Laurie

Interview Segments on Topic: Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals

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: During your time as a senior executive what abilities and characteristics were you looking for when hiring members of your senior team?

Laurie: Many public relations people have a tendency to be highly tactical. And I think it’s extremely important, particularly at the senior level, that people not only have a knowledge of various functional specialties and what is excellent, but they have a strategic orientation. One -that they understand the business, two - and that they have this “je ne sais quoi” curiosity and interest in the world and where it is going, because that is the great value we must bring in from the outside. And finally - that they are not afraid… because as we do what we have to do inside, we have to constantly be proposing, changing, trying to affect policy, trying to deal with actions that come up, trying to be there before decisions are final --and sometimes change decisions even after they are final --so the capacity to relate to operational leaders without fear as a peer, as a colleague, is very important. A lot of public relations people have an inferiority complex --  as if you earn your way into the business differently by doing an operational job. I don’t’ think so. I think we add as much value-- if we do what we do well -- as anybody else at the table and we deserve to be heard. But you have to believe that to be heard.

Interviewer: Thank you very much. Anything else you wanted to speak to that perhaps we didn’t cover.

Laurie: There’s one thing I think practitioners need to do when they enter the senior ranks. I was reading something Helen Thomas, the legendary White House reporter, said when she was talking about reporters living up the ideals of their profession. She said, they must be detached -- but they must care.  I would argue that one of the real vehicles for success at what we do is exactly that in reverse. First, we must care. If you don’t care about the success of the enterprise deeply you shouldn’t be there. Because much of what you do is to find the source of inspiration in the enterprise that energizes -- whether it’s the employees who give shape to what the leadership talks about or whether it relates to the brand’s essence  or goes into marketing channels or actions that enhance the reputation. So you must care. To be cynical and apart or sometimes to position yourself above the company as the conscience of the corporation -- as opposed to really caring about the outcome-- I think is not right. But you also must be detached. Because if you become too absorbed into the culture, you lose your capacity to give equal weight to the public’s expectation…or to the shortfalls that your stakeholders may see in your leaders or your enterprise.. You lose the capacity to look the CEO in the eye and say, “ I don’t think so”. And if you get swallowed up, if you lose that detachment, if you lose that ear to the outside hum of the world, I think you lose your value.  So I  believe  Helen Thomas got it right for reporters. You must be detached but you must care. And I would say to public relations people, you must care but you must be detached.