PR industry remembers Ed Block and Ward White

Block led the drive to end AT&T's connections with apartheid South Africa; White oversaw communication around Northwestern's decision not to invoke its "act of war" exclusion following 9/11.

Ward White and Ed Block: two legends of the PR industry
Ward White and Ed Block: two legends of the PR industry

The PR industry lost two iconic figures this month — Arthur W. Page Society cofounder Ed Block and Edelman’s Ward White.

Block died last Wednesday at his home in Key West, Florida at the age of 89. White died August 9 at the age of 76 from an embolism after battling cancer for five months.

Block was cofounder of the Arthur W. Page Society and the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, two of his most lasting contributions to PR.

Prior to that, Block served as SVP for PR, advertising, and employee information at AT&T from 1974 to 1986.

There, he played a key role in handling corporate comms for the divestiture of the Bell telephone companies in 1982, and ending the telecomms operator's business in apartheid South Africa in 1986.

"I know he was the first one to advise AT&T to vote against apartheid and remove their business from South Africa," said his wife, Sheryl. "A lot of people thought that was ridiculous for him to do, but it worked out very well. His bosses said he had the ability to see beyond what was happening today, to see the big picture, so he could guide the company in that direction."

In 1986, the LA Times quoted Block as saying: "We don't want to be seen as grandstanding. I don't want AT&T to look sanctimonious or look like we're taking a cheap opportunity to look good."

While working at AT&T, Block also established the AT&T Foundation, which annually provided $10 million for five years to establish the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. Block also advised President Gerald Ford in the early days of his administration.

Asked what she would miss most about her husband, Sheryl said: "You’re not going to like this answer: I won’t have anyone to go to the grocery store with."

Then she laughed, explaining he used to go to the local family owned grocery store and talk to everyone he knew there. In retirement, Block remained active in the Key West community, where the couple first bought a home in 1972.

A story by the Key West Citizen, where Block served as a member of the editorial board, remembers him fondly not only for his career in PR, but also for helping preserve the local theater and establishing the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys.

A born competitor

Ward White was chief strategy officer of Edelman Southwest, past co-chair and trustee of the Institute for Public Relations since 1994.

"He was someone you should aspire to be," said CEO Richard Edelman, "and a damn good mentor to the Edelman network."

Edelman recalled the tennis matches White and he would play at PR summits he helped organize. White couldn’t help but talk smack.

"He’d say, ‘I’m going to beat your ass, I’ll beat you next year, and so on,'" Edelman said. "That is Ward White in a nutshell. He was a good guy and he was optimistic to the end."

White served as VP of comms at Northwestern Mutual Fund from 1990-2003, then as VP of corporate relations for two more years afterward. Prior to joining Northwestern, he was president and CEO of Bozell Public Relations Worldwide, which was later subsumed into Weber Shandwick, and president of Golin/Harris East.

For 11 years, Deanna Tillisch worked for White in Northwestern’s comms division. She was hired by White in 1992.

"The greatest gift Ward gave me was the feeling I could accomplish anything I set my sights on," Tillisch said. Even today, she still uses some of his favorite aphorisms: "The three most important words you can say to your manager: completed staff work" and "Hire attitude, teach skills."

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, White played a key role as Northwestern’s management decided to not invoke its "act of war" exclusion, which would have allowed insurance companies to avoid paying out on policies.

Tillisch said White was part of the decision-making process to help map out a proactive comms strategy for an enterprise known as "The Quiet Company" during this difficult period for the U.S.

"Ward elevated the value of comms, not as an after-the-fact measure, but as someone with a seat at the table," Tillisch said. "[After 9/11] we let policy owners know we were going to be there for them, that they didn’t need a death certificate, and that we would pay them within five days."

Tillisch explained that, under White’s leadership, Northwestern became one of the first financial services companies to leverage "behavioral economics." It built a body of research around how customers make financial decisions and allowed field workers to use the program as a tool for pitching Northwestern products to customers, helping it build a plan customized for each consumer.

In effect, Northwestern’s use of behavioral economics became a marketing tool unto itself. White also became a student of earned media and saw advertising as a tool in much the same vein as PR, Tillisch added, with marketing rolled up under his communications department for a long time.

"He was an important bridge between the old generation and the new," Edelman said. "He was a counselor to the CEO and understood the power of marketing as well, which is defining the new CCO."

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