Saving Arthur Page: Telling the Truth About PR

September 6, 2016

Among its many uses, the U.S. presidential election is filling a less recognized but critical need: It’s a showcase to the opaque game that’s played in every industry of influence — from advertising to sales, marketing, public affairs, politics, military information operations and, especially, public relations.

Rushmore Over TeddyMore than other political cycles, 2016 raises issues of transparency, truth and principle, so for me it demands the telling of a story of my first craft, PR, and the people who write its history.

In 2001, I was invited to join an elite association of chief communications officers (CCOs). It was cryptically called The Arthur W. Page Society, a a who’s-who of PR, colleagues effused. At the time, I was founder and chief executive of a thriving technology PR and research firm and while Page membership is generally reserved for CCOs, there was room for a few consultants and academics. I pursued the opportunity and was soon admitted.

It was an awkward marriage from the start. The society had little experience with Silicon Valley or tech; it was dominated by CCOs of packaged goods, energy, insurance and pharma companies. I was a fish out of water.

When I asked my first question at my first conference, “How do you keep competitors in check?” I should have known to walk away. My agency’s success was owed to the obvious but somehow radical observation that communications serves a competitive purpose. But at this and so many successive Page meetings the idea that corporate communications should endeavor to position, re-position or even de-position a reputation, brand, product or issue was a conversation stopper. Learn The Page Principles, was the advice of knowing officers. These were sacred reflections of Arthur W. Page, the CCO of the telephone giant, AT&T, from 1927 to 1946. The same AT&T that history records as a stifling monopoly. The same AT&T that in 1982 was dismantled under the threat of antitrust laws and an emboldened U.S. Department of Justice.

To his namesake society, Mr. Page could never be culpable for his firm’s demise; he stood his watch long before the DOJ came sniffing. But I was not so sure. The man’s strategies were clearly effective and formative, his successors were ardent admirers, and communications then as now is one of the great game-changers in business, politics and elsewhere.

I remember so many toasts by Page Society presidents to Arthur himself, not just to the so-called principles. Raising our souvenir Jefferson Cups, this was the society’s pledge of allegiance, a kind of offertory to the man and his wisdom…except that the seven Page Principles so easily attributed to Mr. Page’s legacy were neither uttered nor ever written by Mr. Page. Worse, those who did write them had little if any actual working experience with the pioneer practitioner. Beyond the testimony of disciples, there are no records that he said or wrote such things, only the interpretations of his work by the late PR chiefs Larry Foster of Johnson & Johnson and two Bell System veterans, Jack Koten and Ed Block. Of the three, only Koten may have met or briefly worked with Page.

This begs an uncomfortable but justified question: Should The Page Society and PR historians rely on the second-hand accounts of well-intentioned but inherently biased actors?

I came to this slowly. Upon my first reading of The Principles, I rolled my eyes at the charming sentiment, particularly of principle #1: Tell the Truth. Though many have tried, no credible communicator can say straight-faced that telling the truth is always possible because facts are interpretable and as advocates to our firms and clients our first obligation is to interpret the truth. This is not to say CCOs are inherently dishonest or that they are oblivious to the costs of lying (or the benefits of being honest). It is only to say that they are required by virtue of their function to make sense of said facts and to weave their respective agendas neatly and powerfully into the fabric of their marketplace.

 Raising our souvenir Jefferson Cups, this was the society’s pledge of allegiance, a kind of offertory to the man and his wisdom…except that the seven Page Principles so carefully welded to Mr. Page’s legacy were neither uttered nor ever written by Mr. Page.

One aphorism that is attributable to Mr. Page is this sensible insight: All business begins with the public permission and exists by public approval. Oddly, this pearl didn’t make it into the principles. I asked my fellow members why, but no one knew. I continued to toast the man but it became for me a national anthem kind of moment. The principles now rang hallow. #5: Conduct public relations as if the whole enterprise depends on it, seemed more worthy of the boy scout law. #7: Remain calm, patient and good-humored, held all the gravity of a Hallmark greeting card.

My skepticism of The Page Society and its inspirations grew as white papers were reverently presented, first touting the importance of authenticity. Next came studies on values and character and, later, with all the rolling thunder of a modern product launch, The New Model. Little of it resonated. We members were advocates to our clients and companies, functionally engaged in the concept of embellishment and, yet, we were being lectured to de-power a high-powered and critical practice. Pushing authenticity on communicators seemed akin to reminding actors to be convincing. And as for values and character, we were out of our depth. These are well-studied in psychology, sociology, anthropology and other mature fields, but virgin to communication. Yet, no higher authorities or works were involved or invoked to help us understand the social control that is implicit in the management of such intimate intangible traits.

The New Model was a competent work, but half-built or over-built, I could hardly tell which. On one hand, it endorsed two-way (i.e., symmetrical) communications, ignoring the ever-necessary asymmetric advantage of business. On the other hand, it encouraged subtle manipulations of employees and stakeholders, ignoring the ethics of such activities because, Hey, we’re being symmetric. From the perspective of my descriptive framework of influence plays, it endorsed, at least officially, only those that are mutual, like the Challenge, never those that might manipulate, like the Bait. It seemed a reminder for communications leaders to walk back from the edge of advocacy and the underlying discipline I call influence strategy.

At Page conferences, I would count any reference to words with the roots compete, oppose and rival. I never ran out of fingers, even on one hand. So I knew it wasn’t a fit, an agonizing conclusion since lifetime Page membership amounts to private access to power players.

To a repeating silence, I authored a variety of op-eds about the society’s initiatives, both on its Page Turner blog and in industry media. And no wonder, the crickets, since each offered a candid and often contrary vision of corporate communications. “You’re exploring the dark side,” one PR educator explained. I returned to the Page Principles and began reading the works from which they were said to be born. I sourced every available speech by Mr. Page and used word search to reveal their origins. These are online at the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University, yet another memorial to Mr. Page’s ostensible wisdom.

 What can’t be ignored is that Page was a senior architect of a suffocating industrial giant that, while initially winning the permission of its publics, ultimately served itself far better than its customers and communities.

I was astonished that I could not find a single match. Never, for example, did any account contain the oft-quoted directives, “Tell the truth,” “Prove it with action” or “Manage for tomorrow.” There were no bibliographies, footnotes or citations to support the tacit claim that Page Society principles were Mr. Page’s principles, only long-form accounts by arm’s length surrogates.

My reading of Page writings was of course different from society fathers. Arthur Page presented as an operator (no pun intended). Subtle, clever, even cunning, and not unlike today’s most skilled business evangelists. Indeed, he seemed to comport himself with a thoughtful bearing but the context and the results of his work disagreed with his forming legacy. Your reading may be different from mine or the official Page line, that’s fine. But what can’t be ignored is that Page was a senior architect of a suffocating industrial giant that, while initially winning the permission of its publics, ultimately served itself far better than its customers and communities. The fated break up is testament. Page was good. Very good. But not in a way that today’s CCO might objectively celebrate.

When I presented my no-finding findings to society executives the reply was slow to come, stony and stunning. Actually, The Page Principles were derived from Mr. Page’s works, a staffer finally called and admitted. Derived. I suggested this should be clarified and, to the association’s partial credit, new language emerged that was technically correct but in such close proximity to the prose and pictures of a pipe-smoking Mr. Page that the illusion of his authorship was preserved. This is still the case today. To borrow from a recent missive of one prominent Page member, it was an exercise in truthinessa hedging of the first principle. In the fall of 2013, I resigned my membership.

So why has The Page Society deified an infamous monopoly’s top PR man? Because PR executives, like so many practitioners of advocacy, persuasion, communications and other forms of influence, are anxious for an idol. They know what their work involves. They understand and wield its power. And they are caught by this paradox: Practice a dumbed-down form of the craft and forgo a seat at the table. Or practice communications as a competitive function and manage for asymmetric advantage.

The dilemma is ageless. I remember, for example, how in 1980 the late PRSA president Joseph Awad beseeched a packed room of PR undergrads to think of the field as a “noble profession.” I was at the time the PRSSA national chair, fully steeped in PR doctrine, but it struck me as an overreach and served as an early lesson for how professional spinners are incurably prone to spin. Then as now, I don’t think PR is noble. It’s necessary, invaluable and quietly effective. And of course it’s not a licensed profession, though given its ability it should be, and soon. Like investment banking and politics, communications is otherwise headed for its own 911 moment.

What I remember more fondly than Jefferson Cup toasts and PRSA pep talks is an afternoon tea in 1984 with another father of PR, Edward L. Bernays. “Any nut, weirdo, kook, or dope can call themselves a public relations practitioner,” Bernays railed in his Cambridge, MA, study. He didn’t call himself virtuous or hope for such remembrance. Bernays embraced his work, not just as communications and influence but even as propaganda and in frank recognition of the power and peril it unlocks. Later, in 1991, I asked him about that very idea. Then, at 100 years of age, he chirped, “If I’m dealing with bread, and my bread is better than a competitor’s (bread), then I have to emphasize my strengths over the weaknesses of my competitors.”

It’s time to tell–and teach–the truth. It’s time to save Arthur Page from too noble a reputation and too pretty a portrait in PR museums and to objectively laud and learn from his accomplishments in industry. Specifically, it’s time for The Arthur W. Page Society to own up to the outcomes of his work, not just his outputs, and to allow for a diversity of interpretations. Generally, it’s time for communicators at every level to operate with real transparency, without shame or rationalization of their motives, and with the precision of Page and the honesty of Bernays.


Post by Alan Kelly

Composite graphic credits: Wikipedia and Page Laboratory Gallery