|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|Arthur Page Is Often Called the "Father of Corporate Public Relations"|
|© 2022 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations main page||About the author|
Unlike public relations pioneers Edward Bernays or Ivy Lee who are sometimes deemed the "father of public relations," Arthur Page didn't cobble together a new conceptual framework and flesh it out into an academic disciple and a professional practice. He took the discipline those other public relations pioneers had developed and were practicing as public relations consultants and institutionalized it. He moved it into the somewhat different environment of major corporations and proceeded to establish a hearty new hybrid that is still flourishing today as large corporate public relations departments.
This development began in 1927 when Page was hired as Vice President of Public Relations -- perhaps, the first person to hold such a title in any corporation -- for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T). He became the first public relations practitioner to serve as an officer and member of the board of directors of a major public corporation, and not just AT&T's. Over the years, he also served as an external member of the board of directors of Chase Manhattan Bank, Kennecott Copper, Prudential Insurance, and Westinghouse Electric.
Born in 1883 in Aberdeen, North Carolina, Page attended local public schools and then went on to attend Harvard College and graduate in 1905. He immediately went to work for The World's Work, a magazine published by his father's company. He started out as a proofreader, but was soon writing articles about issues that affected government and business. According to Edward M. Block, a retired Senior Vice President of AT&T, "He wrote many powerful editorials describing and explaining the special obligations of corporations in a democratic society."
Within eight years, he was editor of The World's Work, a position he held until 1926 when his journalism career came to an abrupt end. The parent company of the magazine, which had been partially owned by his father until several years earlier, decided to shift gears and follow a popular trend in the magazine industry by "making The World's Work more of a picture book" similar to Life or Look Magazine, or The Saturday Evening Post. Page vigorously objected and decided to leave the company, and apparently journalism as well.
Surprisingly, for someone entering a new field, Page was entering near the top rung.
His new job was Vice President of Public Relations for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T).
To say it was an incredible opportunity is a gross understatement. Guth and Marsh's popular textbook, Public Relations: A Values-Driven Approach, points out that AT&T, also known as the Bell Telephone System at that time, was "a quasi-monopoly that created a new industry and dominated telephone service in the U.S. for nearly a century, becoming at its zenith, the biggest company in the world."
At the time Page was hired, AT&T had a large and well-established publicity department that its top management loved for the benefits and recognition it brought to the company. Thus, it had been practicing some, but certainly not all aspects, of what we now think of as public relations. But, Arthur Page was not interested in focusing solely on publicity. In fact, according to Public Relations: The Profession and the Practice by Baskin and Aronoff, he accepted the job "only on the condition that he would not be restricted to publicity in the traditional sense. He demanded and received a voice in company policy and insisted that the company's performance be the determinant of its reputation."
Looking back on it almost a hundred years later and knowing what Page accomplished, it's easy to say he was the perfect person for the job and that he proved it. But, how could anyone have known that back in 1927 when he had never done any previous public relations work? Why would they take such a chance? Perhaps that oft-unwritten and oft-unspoken "rule" of public relations -- It's all a matter of who you know. -- came into play. He was offered the job by a close friend and former Harvard classmate Walter Gifford who just happened to be the president of AT&T.
Once he assumed the job, he began by consolidating and organizing the existing, albeit elementary, public relations and communications functions that were scattered throughout the company's organizational chart. He also developing new units, all of which he molded into a unified and efficient public relations department. According to Fraser Seitel's The Practice of Public Relations, Page did this by:
- periodically guiding management through a careful and thoughtful process of analyzing the public's perceptions and expectations of the company;
- establishing a consistent method of informing all employees about the company's general policies and practices;
- establishing procedures that ensured all employees who have direct contact with the public always have up-to-date information and appropriate resources to reasonably and politely deal with the public;
- creating a system to channel employee questions and criticisms up through the organization, all the way to top management; and
- by ensuring that all spokespersons were totally frank in telling the public about the company's actions.
All of this was meant to be part of a continuously operating and evolving planned program to enhance AT&T's relationships with all of its different publics. He didn't wait for crises to occur, or for issues to become troublesome, he tried to keep the company fully in touch with, and interactively responding to, all of these different publics on an on-going basis.
He also authorized and funded a variety of ways for individual employees to become more involved with members of its various publics. For instance, he created new company policies and programs that
These weren't merely quixotic or nice-to-do perqs designed to make the employees feel good. They were part of a long-term business strategy.
- paid employees' dues for professional organizations;
- matched employees' contributions to charitable organizations; and
- granted them paid time-off to perform voluntary community service.
Nor were they merely based on an abstract belief that they might help enhance the company's relationships with its publics. They were carefully tracked and analyzed by the public relations staff to ensure they were returning benefits to the company because Page always demanded that public relations decisions be hard-headed business decisions, not wishful leaps of faith. He insisted on having hard data, not merely gut feelings, about any decisions that were made.
By doing things this way, Page, intentionally or not, established a blueprint for corporate public relations departments that is still useful today. He brought together, under the umbrella of corporate public relations, such diverse communications and relationship-building functions as: employee information. media relations, community relations, financial information, institutional advertising, communications policy, and even corporate philanthropy.
"As an important extension of this focus," Guth and Marsh contend: "Page conceived of public relations as an institutional mind-set, not a functional department, and therefore a priority consideration in every decision, not only by top management, but also by supervisors in the field or on the shop floor.... He ardently believed that public relations is everyone's job."
Page was among the first to actively stress the importance of employee relations as part of an overall public relations effort.
A biography of Page written by Noel Griese asserts that within five years of starting at AT&T, Page came to realize that its employees "were the single most important public in the overall AT&T public relations effort."
Griese quotes from a speech Page delivered in 1932: "Relations with the public ... occur where our people operating the business come into contact with the public. Our main channel of public relations, therefore, is through the regular lines of the corporation. The people who have the most relations with the public are our operating people below the supervisory level. The consequence is that you have to have an organization completely imbued with the public reltions point of view desiring good will of the public, before you can be effective." Building upon this point in another speech six years later, Page cautioned Bell employees listening to him: "What you (every single, individual employee) do is more important than what we (company management and PR spokesmen) say."
In theory and in practice, smooth, open relationships with employees was critical for two very different, yet closely allied reasons. First, it was necessary to ensure employees were fully informed of company policy and operations so their behavior would conform and contribute to the success of the business. This contact between line employees and management also gave management continuing feedback on employee attitudes and concerns including any new complaints they might be hearing from customers and any suggestions they might offer on their own. Second, employees in the process of their daily work with the public were an excellent, albeit most often informal, channel for delivering company views and perspective to the public.
On this second point, Griese reports that Page often maintained that employee contact with the public was more effective and more powerful than "advertising and publicity in the mass media." Page explained this assertion in the following way: "They (employees) provide better circulation than can possibly be had by printed matter or radio... Telephone people have millions of contacts a year with the public. Unlike the newspaper and the radio, the employee circulation usually reaches the public when it is interested in telephone matters. And unlke the press and the radio the employees can" tell them specifically what they want to know about and answer any questions they might have.
Consequently, Page consistently urged Bell's top management to hold frequent briefings for employees on how to answer customer questions and, presumably, also to learn from them if customers were asking new questions or developing new concerns about Bell operations.
Page also implemented the ideals of corporate public responsibility he had promoted in The World's Work.
The Museum of Public Relations' website explains that much of this philosophy was summarized in a speech Page wrote for AT&T President Gifford to deliver to the National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners in October 1927. It defined AT&T's policies and objectives and promised that "AT&T would provide their customers with the best possible service at the lowest cost consistent with financial safety," a theme that remains the cornerstone of AT&T's public relations efforts to this day. In Page's eyes, it was "the responsibility of the pr staff to ensure that this promise was kept... The public relations staff must act as the conscience of the corporation."
On another occasion, he asserted: "All business in a democratic country begins with public permission and exists by public approval, If that be true, it follows that business should be cheerfully willing to tell the public what its policies are, what it is doing, and what it hopes to do. This seems practically a duty."
One of Page's greatest challenges came in the mid-1930s when AT&T faced scrutiny from the then-recently established Federal Communication Commission (FCC). That agency had been created by Congress when it passed the Communication Act of 1934 to regulate telephone, broadcasting, and other communication services and companies. When it was first established, its primary attention seemed to focus on the radio industry. Then, in the 1950s, television became the center of attention for the American public and for the FCC. Nevertheless, the FCC also paid close attention to AT&T because of its near-monopoly and stranglehold on U.S. telephone service.
This scrutiny began in 1935, the year after the FCC was established. The Museum of Public Relations says, "What had started as a simple investigation into their advertising and sales practices soon became what had been described at the time as a 'witch hunt.'" At times, the witch hunt may have become painful or embarrassing for some of AT&T's managers, but Page's well-organized and efficient new approach to public relations kept it from becoming a disaster and helped hold AT&T together.
He continued to do that and to strengthen the AT&T public relations operation until he retired in 1947. But, that's not all he did.
Still working for AT&T during World War II, Page spent more time and did more good serving the U.S. government than the company.
His first volunteer service to the government had actually occurred decades earlier. In the years before U.S. entry into World War I his father was the U.S. ambassador to England, and Page was the editor of The World's Work. Knowing that the U.S. State Department had no employee newsletter or other mechanism for keeping its representatives overseas up-to-date on American business developments, politics, and public opinion, Page took it upon himself, acting as a private citizen, although with the full knowledge and "blessing" of the State Department, to regularly write and send long letters packed with such information to his father in England. His father, in turn, had them copied and further distributed to other State Department officials and U.S. government representatives in the British Isles and in Allied-controlled portions of Europe. It all came to an abrupt end when Page's father died.
More than 20 years later, soon after the U.S. entered World War II, Page was approached by Henry Stimson, a long-time friend and neighbor, who also happened to be one of the foremost American statesmen of the first half of the twentieth century. (He had, at various times, previously served as the U.S. Secretary of State, a U.S. Attorney, and the Governor-General of the Philippines.) He was now the Secretary of War and asked Page to chair the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation whose responsibilities included supervising information dissemination to American troops. Page agreed and began working with the committee. Other requests for his assistance soon followed.
Among them was a request to reorganize and streamline the Army's Bureau of Public Relations. That, too, was quickly and efficiently handled, and Page was planning to bow out of any further military assignments when Stimson came to him with one further request: would he help explain the Manhattan Project and its role in developing the atom bomb to the world? In fulfilling this request, Page wrote one of the most-widely quoted Presidential statements of all time, President Harry S. Truman's announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan with the world's first atom bomb.
In recognition of all that he had done, Arthur Page was awarded a U.S. Medal of Merit. It was, at the time, the highest honor that could be bestowed on a civilian by the United States. It was awarded by the President of the United States to civilians who "distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services in the war effort."
Even after he retired in 1947, Page strove to serve America's best interests and the world's.
Once again at the behest of his friend Henry Stimson, Page agreed to serve as a member of the Stimson Committee. It was a group composed primarily of successful businessmen who were lobbying Congress to gain support for the Marshall Plan, a recovery program that would pour millions of dollars of economic aid into the most devastated areas of Europe. It was enacted by Congress and signed into law by the President in April 1948. As a result, more than $13 billion of American aid was transferred to Western Europe during the four years it operated, 1948-1952. There are, however, still disagreements among experts about its efficacy.
Page's next big retirement project was helping organize the National Committee for a Free Europe in 1949. Its proclaimed dual goals were to fight communism and to promote democracy in Eastern Europe. -- Noble sounding goals, but there were unanswered questions and suspicions about the committee. A fall 1976 article in Public Relations Quarterly claimed it was "a 'black propaganda' organization supposedly funded by the contributions of American citizens but in reality a Central Intelligence Agency front," an accusation which may or may not cast a negative light on the whole operation and Page's role in it.
Today, Page's ideals are taught and promoted by the Arthur W. Page Society..
The Society, founded in 1983, is limited to senior public relations and corporate communications executives and educators. It maintains strict criteria and limited membership to ensure that it remains an exclusive assembly of the best and brightest in the profession and includes chief communications officers (CCOs) of global Fortune-ranked corporations and leading nonprofits, CEOs of the world's foremost public relations agencies, and distinguished academics from top business and communications schools.
Its members preach and practice six key principles of public relations that Page espoused throughout his working career:
- Tell the truth. Let the public know what's happening and provide an accurate picture of the company's character, ideals, and practices.
- Prove it with action. Follow through on promises, and practice what you preach. Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does, and only 10 percent by what it says.
- Listen to the customer. Understand what the customer wants and needs, and keep managers and employees aware of these wishes. Also keep them informed of what the public relations department is doing to promote company products, policies, and practices.
- Manage for tomorrow. Anticipate what will create positive public relations and eliminate any practices that create difficulties.
- Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it. No corporate strategy should be implemented without first and fully considering its impact on the public.
- Remain calm, patient, and good-humored. When a crisis arises, remember that cool heads communicate best.
Page's impact on public relations is summarized by the Museum of Public Relations as follows: "From the Progressive Era to the Eisenhower years, Arthur W. Page's thoughts, his philosophies, his principles and most importantly his words would change public relations from press agentry into an integral fabric of American corporations."
Table of contents
Father and Philosopher of Public Relations
|Ivy Lee was decades ahead of his contemporaries.||Practicing Public Relations|
5 June 2022