The Book Club

Spinning the Arrogant Monopolist

Dear Jack,
I guess I’ve read–and written–enough recent disquisitions on the history of spin that my mind naturally gravitates to theoretical nuance and new fact. And I do believe that Marchand’s exploration of organizational “soul” breaks ground in comprehending how communication works in the corporate setting.

In fact, the AT&T story you mention is an excellent example of the significance of self-reference in corporate image-building. Remember, AT&T–like General Motors–was an artificial construct, a loose confederation of once-independent companies cobbled together by a financier, in its case J.P. Morgan. The local telephone companies remained feisty and difficult to coordinate, leading to a technical and economic inefficiency.

N.W. Ayer’s “One Policy, One System, Universal Service” campaign, which debuted in 1908 and ran, in one form or another, for decades, had a deep impact on the culture of AT&T. Among other things, the need to coordinate national and local advertising fostered continual meetings between executives in the company’s New York headquarters and those at the associated Bell companies out in the hinterlands, “bringing together the eyes, ears and mouthpieces of the Bell System” and helping to create a corporate soul for the telephone giant. 

Mind you, Marchand concedes–as do I–that the primary purpose of AT&T’s campaign was political: It wanted to forestall injurious government regulation, perhaps nationalization of the phone system. The relevance to current events is striking; indeed, Marchand’s second chapter reads like an eerie foreshadowing of Redmond’s current PR nightmare. Marchand describes a “giant corporation, renowned for its arrogant attitude.”  Its anti-competitive tactics included “price-cutting, isolation of independent competitors, buyouts of key companies.”  Its leader had a “distaste for competition,” believed the system he controlled was a “natural monopoly,” and thought that “any reasonable customer wanted the broadest service.” Yet for his tactics, the company “paid a heavy price in public suspicion and antagonism.”

Now, I’m loath to offer you folks PR advice. For one thing, I’m not a professional. For another, I’m pretty pissed off at Microsoft right now: Every time I type the words “Dear Jack” on one of these missives, a disgusting little animated computer with feet pops up on my goddamn Office ‘98 screen and asks if I’d like help writing a letter. 

But it seems me that Microsoft (and that Edstrom lady, and those Brooks-Brothered lobbyists in D.C.) might take some lessons from the AT&T corporate image story.

First, you can’t talk through two–or in Microsoft’s case, four or five–sides of your mouth. If you’re going to try to lull the consuming public with softly enthusiastic “where do you want to go today?” TV commercials (and by the way, I think most people would answer the way I do, which is “home”), you can’t at the same time bludgeon the public’s Justice Department with legal stonewalling and self-serving monopolistic double talk. 

Second, in the words of the Ayer advertising agency, you’ve got to “keep everlastingly at it.” The consistency and clarity of AT&T’s advertising over generations was inescapably part of the company’s political success–not least because AT&T was forced to live up to the standards it was setting. (If Microsoft Word kept getting better with each iteration instead of slower and duller, and if Windows ever became anywhere near as elegant as the Mac’s OS, I think Redmond would find itself in more favor.)

Third, you gotta submit to some regulation to forestall something even worse; recall that AT&T was able to hold off Federal oversight–and even potentially more onerous municipal regulation–for decades, because it worked to craft regulation at the state level. 

And finally, if your chairman is gonna have his deposition videotaped, best to have Joe Pytka do the shooting.

As for Ford’s current Holocaust quandary, the answer is simple: Blame Edsel, and move on.