Oral Histories

Roger Bolton

Interview Segments on Topic: Marketing/Advertising/Branding

Roger Bolton Biography

Bolton, senior counselor to APCO Worldwide, a leading global public affairs and corporate communications consultancy, began his career as a journalist before serving as a press secretary for a member of Congress.  Bolton became director of speechwriting for the Reagan/Bush re-election campaign, and was eventually confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be assistant secretary of the Treasury for public affairs and public liaison under President Bush in 1989.

As senior vice president of communications for Aetna, Bolton led a group of senior Aetna executives to think about culture and organizational effectiveness, which resulted in the creation of the Aetna Way, with integrity as its first fundamental value.  Roger Bolton is past president of the Arthur W. Page Society and current chair of the Arthur W. Page Center Advisory Board.


Interviewer: Does that mean that you are expected in terms of spending X number of dollars for advertising that you expect some kind of financial return from that or not?

Bolton: We’re not able to measure direct financial return on advertising but we just simply say as a part of our scorecard that membership which is our primary goal is sales in essence in certain key local markets is part of the way we’ll be measured. Now at the same time, we’re also measuring ad effectiveness in terms of recall and what people think about our brand and we’re also measuring media effectiveness; how many stores we get, whether they are positive or not in the key local markets. So we’re doing the more traditional closer end communications measures but also trying to get some of the close to bottom line measures as well.

Interviewer: You had an opportunity to observe the public relations practice over the last twenty years or so. Do you notice any differences in the way public relations is practiced these days as opposed to 20 years ago or ten.

Bolton: Well I think that the obvious answer that it’s so true is that the pace of the new cycle has changed dramatically. And when I say that I don’t necessarily just mean the external new cycle. But even inside the company. The pace of communication is so much more rapid than it used to be. When I got to Aetna just 11 years ago we still had a printed company magazine. We don’t have such a thing anymore. It’s all on online and it’s updated several times a day. This is our internal communications vehicles. Several times a day new stuff is being posted and we’re constantly feeding information. Obviously the same is true externally. Where you’ve got a 24-hour news cycle and you can find yourself working on a different story in the afternoon than you were working on in the morning just because the news cycle has changed that rapidly. And it does change the way you think about the speed with which you have to make decisions, the clarity with which you have to think, the need for calmness is I think emphasized. And it’s also I think fundamentally changing the way constituencies interact with institutions. Some of the things that we were talking about earlier in terms of the crisis of confidence, I think, stem in part from the fact that constituencies are able to sort of self-form in the bloggisphere if you will and rise up and take points of view that have to be taken into account. Those points of view were always there historically but it wasn’t’ as easy for constituencies to sort of self create and become relevant in a relatively short period of time. So it requires for people w ho are practicing public relations to be very adept at understanding those changes, relating to those constituencies, and being open to them. Business I’m sorry to go on on this. But I think there’s some important stuff here. Business organizations historically tend to be a little insular and sometimes even a little arrogant because they feel that they can dictate their own terms. That’s less and less true as stakeholders who may not even be direct customers or suppliers rise up and have points of view that can be influential on regulators, on legislators and on the consistencies that do buy your stock and buy your products and so the ability to on a very rapid and sort of 24 hour a day basis stay in touch with multiple constituencies with multiple communications going in lots of different directions requires the same skill set but operating at just you know a much higher and quicker level than historically is the case.

Interviewer: Do you think that the so called scandals use the word that comes to mind affects [inaudible]. Is that effective or polluted environment for public relations per se or?

Bolton: Well it hasn’t helped. And yet I think public relations has suffered over some longer period of time from a broader set of problems than just those more recent ones. And really I think one of the things that concerns me is that the term itself has fallen somewhat out of favor. I happen to like the term because I think it has the value of having word public in it. And again going back to Arthur Page and his view that companies exist with public permissions and this idea that you have to operate in the public interest is conjured up by the term public relations. And the fact that public relations has been perceived broadly as being all about spinning and weaving an unreality as opposed to what it really is is quite troubling.