Student teams in my DePaul Leadership course last spring selected legends in public relations they wanted to know more about. I am now particularly pleased one team selected Larry Foster, although at the time I don’t think they had any idea how lucky they were to talk with a true giant in our profession before his passing on Thursday at the age of 88. See next article for Larry’s advice to students.
Larry had a commitment and passion for our profession that was evident in everything he said and did. He was a founder of the Arthur W. Page Society and lived the organization’s seven Page Principles. Roger Bolton, President of the Arthur W. Page Society, eloquently remembers Larry in the following note to Page members:
Larry was truly one of the most prominent, influential and respected leaders of our profession. He was widely known for the guidance he gave to Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol crises in 1982 and 1986.
Bill Nielsen, who succeeded Larry at J&J, remembers him fondly:
Larry Foster was an extremely thoughtful and caring friend and colleague. By any measure, he was a giant in the public relations/corporate communications field. Many lessons can be drawn from his life of work by those of us who followed in his footsteps. Most important for me was the example he set for truthful, exact and precise communications, whether he was writing or speaking. He believed strongly that communication leaders should strive for influence and deliver real impact.
In the discussion of issues, Larry would speak when he had all of his thoughts organized. Then, based on his own experience, good judgment and personal integrity, he selected exactly the right words to communicate his ideas clearly and completely. He was direct and to-the-point and he was a master at generating and encouraging corporate management’s resolve to “do the right thing.”
I deeply admired his strength of character, his creativity and work ethic, and the tenacity with which he approached every leadership role he held. His loss creates a deep void. It was my sincere pleasure to know him — to be his friend — and to be guided by his great instincts.
Ed Block, the former senior vice president of public relations for AT&T who founded the Page Society, saw in Larry the credibility and reputation for leadership and integrity that made him the ideal person to be the first president of Page who did not come from the Bell System.
Recently, Larry sent me a brief reminiscence of the early days of the Page Society as his contribution to our 30th Anniversary celebration in Boston. Larry wrote that when Ed called him to offer the Page presidency, “I believed strongly in the potential of the Page Society to become the best professional society for public relations and communications executives. I decided if I were going to take the assignment I would try to enlist into the membership the best, most competent and best known public relations executives in the country…. The rest is history.”
Indeed it is. Over the years, the Page Society has grown in prestige, scope and impact, largely because of the vision that Ed Block, Jack Koten, Larry Foster a handful of others had the foresight to create. The genius of what they did was their commitment to the Page Principles and recruitment of the best and brightest in our field.
Page Society Chairman Jon Iwata remembers, “Larry Foster, like Arthur Page, believed that the corporation exists to do more than generate profit. He believed it has a responsibility to serve society. And he saw communications leaders as having a special duty to guide management to act accordingly. He inspired generations of chief communications officers, I among them. He leaves a significant legacy.”
Larry is also the co-founder, along with Ed and Jack, of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication, a research center at the Penn State University College of Communications dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other forms of public communication. The Page Society and the Page Center are not formally connected, but the two organizations cooperate frequently.
Larry was inducted into the Page Society Hall of Fame in 1994. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Larry spoke of the critical role the CCO plays in the enterprise:
It is one thing to be invited to the Board Room to participate. It is another to make an important contribution to the deliberations.
We have learned to play the role of “Loyal Opposition” when important decisions are being discussed and debated – a voice that helps others focus on what is in the public’s or the customer’s best interest, as opposed to what may be seen as a more expedient course of action. As we have come to learn, what is in the best interest of the public and customer is ultimately in the best interest of the company.
It takes courage to take a stand against the rising tide of management opinion, and we will not always be right. But presenting an opposite view often opens the door to alternative solutions, and that is an important contribution to the process and to the result.
I was fortunate to get to know Larry when my term as chairman of the Page Society led to my membership on the board of the Page Center. I had seen him around for years, and certainly knew of his reputation, but it was only when I began to see Larry in action up close that I realized what a determined, principled and visionary leader he was.
Larry simultaneously exemplified two characteristics that don’t often reside in one person: courage and modesty. The last paragraph of the Hall of Fame speech excerpt that I quoted above demonstrates the power of that combination.
He was a beacon of light whose commitment to integrity in public communication now is spreading inexorably around the world through the work of the Page Society and the Page Center.
Larry graduated from Penn State in 1948 and began his career as a reporter for the Newark News before joining Johnson & Johnson in 1957, where he was asked to help form the company’s first public relations department. He became corporate vice president of public relations and reported to three chairmen over his 33 years with the company.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ellen Miller Foster; brother, Kenneth A. Foster; daughter, Cynthia Falck, and husband, Brian; son, David L. Foster, V.M.D., and wife, Lucy; daughter, Nanci Carlson, and husband, Carl; son, Gregg M. Foster, and wife, Sandra; son, Lawrence G. Foster, III, M.D., and wife, Patricia; ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A funeral mass will be held 10:00 a.m., Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, at The Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, 315 1st St., Westfield, NJ. Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers contributions would be appreciated to the Central PA Food Bank, 3908 Corey Road, Harrisburg, PA 17109, or the charity of your choosing.