Chapter 5 – “Educate the Public!”

Unlike most big businesses in the early 1900’s, AT&T was concerned with their image in the public eye. eyeAT&T was a privately owned, soon-to-be nationwide monopoly of the telephone as 1900 came around. During a time of predominantly anti-corporation and anti-monopoly, AT&T needed to gain trust in the public before the government could put any stops or regulations on the formation of the monopoly.

President of AT&T at the time, Frederick P. Fish believed that working with the Publicity Bureau would help the business’s corporate plan. James T Ellsworth took on the AT&T account, an experienced journalist. Ellsworth wrote what appeared to be “impartial” feature stories on AT&T to build trust amongst the public eye. He then networked and created good relationships amongst editors and publishers in the country in areas that pose possible threats for AT&T’s expansion. These areas often had smaller, independent telephone companies that may not be prone to partnering with AT&T. When Ellsworth spotted problems in various cities, he targeted the cities with advertisements, in order to help both the company, and build relationships with the newspapers there. This was a quick success.

Unknown  Unfortunately, the success did not stabilize. It was time for one of the first companies in the U.S. to engulf their own public relations officer, not to contract their work externally. AT&T created an Information Department, with Ellsworth as its head. Theodore Newton Vail, the newest president of AT&T implemented this change, as he was a unique executive. He saw public relations as a vital part of the success in a business. Vail was also concerned with turning short-term profit into long-term success. Most importantly, Vail was insistent on education the public of the correct information on the company. He believed that if the public trusted AT&T, they would feel more sympathetic for this business, which would help them if the government tried to impede regulations on monopolies.

To create trust amongst the middle-class consumers, Vail would align AT&T’s interests with the publics by doing three things:             1. Establishing long-distance rates that were no longer just for corporate use, but for individual household use             2. In a male-dominated society, they would incorporate women as best they could by having only women be their telephone operators             3. Promising good work conditions, and wages comparable to similar industries, as well as benefits for the sick and disabled.

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”-Mahatma Gandhi

AT&T’s major obstacle would be to present itself as a sympathetic corporate personality. This would then hopefully allow for AT&T to propose to the public the idea of a nationwide monopoly – and influence acceptance upon the matter. As the Information Department grew, not only did they do publicity for the company, they provided extremely important “intelligence summaries” every week. These were presented to executives to summarize trends in public opinion and profiles of potential opposers of the future monopoly proposal. AT&T was performing crisis management, and PR strategy. AT&T began holding public debates on various political topics. AT&T was making history with their scripted local forums.

AT&T…One System, One Policy, Universal Service” –Vail

As Ewen compares Vail and Tarde’s similar beliefs, he reminds us that this was a different public now, “…individual consumers bound together not by the tendrils of kinship and community, but by modern instruments of communication.”

As AT&T avoided catchy slogans, and worked more towards corporate social responsibility and image, some companies do the same today. A great example is General Mills. This major food company concentrates on three things: health, communities, and the environment. General Mills has been well renown for their global social responsibility and philanthropic efforts in developing nations. Another one of their successes is that each year over the past decade, they have reduced their waste significantly. General Mills also thrives in their treatment of workers and their families. For their full social responsibility pamphlet click here.

As the climate and economy have been unstable, it has become increasingly important that companies take responsibility in how they treat their communities and environment. This is a great time for companies to put a halt to their influential advertising, and to educate the public on what they do BEHIND the scenes.

Forbe’s list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens.