Oral Histories

Marilyn Laurie

Interview Segments on Topic: Trust/Credibility

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: In that same speech that you delivered in 2002 you also spoke frequently of the role of consistency in communications. Could you elaborate on the role of consistent action and consistent decision making within corporate communications?

Laurie: I think --after all is said and done -- public relations is everybody’s job in the company. That’s why I think ultimately the single most important stakeholder group is your own employees, because if they’re not doing the right thing then the company is not doing the right thing. But I think, as I looked at it over the years, what causes people at large –customers, employees, public regulators--  to trust the company? It seemed to me there were a few characteristics that were applicable everywhere. The first is you have to be consistently good at what your own business can do. If you don’t have consistent quality of products then there’s no reason to trust you to do anything else. So that’s fundamental. In sense, that  should be obvious from our own experience with products and services from the companies we use and the way we talk about them to friends  and family.

The second issue is this --a leader of any enterprise has to not feel “erratic” to his or her stakeholders,  or make decisions that are episodic or jerk things back and forth, because you can’t trust someone that you can’t see on some  reasonably predictable path. That doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t be flexible, adaptable, willing to change. That’s very different from behavior  not seen as consistent leadership behavior.

The third thing is that you need to consistently adhere to a set of values… and that’s very hard. What causes people to pursue values? Is it anything we can teach them inside a company? I doubt that. I think you develop your moral compass earlier in life and then you have a variety of experiences that either teach you that that’s something that you believe in and will help make you a more successful human being in whatever you are doing or you don’t. But what you can teach employees is what actions represent values that the company intends to stand for and what actions are outside those boundaries.  And I’m not so sure there’s as much work done on the actions as there is on the values, which is why I think a lot of employees tend to get a little cynical about all the high flown language about values. “We do this”. “We believe in that”. We put it on the walls. We tattoo it on our shoulder under the butterfly or whatever. And then employees look around them and  see there’s the set of rules about the way things really work around here. And maybe it’s really about politics.. Maybe it’s the senior leaders taking their family on the company plane  going on vacation, all this stuff.  Jack Welch said something once in an early annual report which I think captured it very well. He described dealing  with performance evaluations of his senior team at GE. He said something like this: If an executive  had great results and great ethics and integrity and behavior, it’s easy. If someone had lousy results and lousy ethics and behavior, it’s easy. If someone has lousy results and great ethics it’s a little harder but it’s still lousy results. But if someone has great results  and questionable behavior, it’s very hard. And the kinds of things he was trying to put in place there --things like sharing across units in a company that was so decentralized. ..he really made sure that he reinforced the kinds of behaviors he wanted. And it became very clear to everybody what the strategy was, what the behaviors were that supported it, and what the values were that were represented by those behaviors. Model case. But anything you do that you don’t do consistently… why would you trust it?