I had the pleasure and honor of working for and with Marilyn Laurie during the years that she rose from the mid-level executive ranks to become the first woman member of AT&T's top executive team.
While many people have spoken glowingly and accurately about Marilyn's skills and instincts as a PR practitiioner, one of the keys to her steadily-expanding influence in the corporation - which I observed firsthand - was her intensity and tenacity in learning the inner workings of the business itself.
Marilyn broke through the glass ceiling at AT&T in some of the toughest, most technical and most male-dominated parts of the business.
Marilyn first cracked the glass ceiling by becoming head of the PR organization at AT&T Bell Laboratories, one of the most intellectually demanding work environments in the world. While at Bell Labs, she earned the trust and respect of AT&T's top scientists and thinkers by demonstrating an almost uncanny ability (for a liberal arts graduate from Barnard College)to quickly grasp key technological concepts, enabling her to gain a "voice at the table" in top-level policy discussions and decisons.
My first assignment working directly for Marilyn was when she was promoted to head up public relations in AT&T's newly formed Technology Sector,under AT&T vice chairman James Olson, which encompassed not only Bell Labs but all of AT&T's far-flung manufacturing operations from the former Western Electric Company, and other unregulated parts of the business.
This was a no-nonsense, rough-and-tumble environment where only the toughest survived. But this little Jewish woman from New York held her own in discussions and debates with the hard-nosed leaders of this enterprise, again earning their respect by her knowledge of the key technical and marketplace issues facing this part of the business - and by the clarity of her arguments and the courage of her convictions.
From there, I followed her when she was chosen to head up PR at AT&T's long distance business and then its largest operation, serving all of AT&T's end-user customers. As Marilyn moved around and up through the business, she continuously enhanced her credentials as one of the most capable thinkers and counselors in the business -someone to whom the top leaders of the business increasingly came to see not only as an advisor on PR issues, but someone whose advice was welcomed at the decision-making table.
Certainly, Marilyn would not have risen to the top of AT&T's communication and brand management function without having sterling PR skills. But I would submit it was her unquenching thirst to learn and understand the business itself that led her to the inner circle of AT&T top management.
PR people always contend that we can best serve the business if we have a seat at the management table. Marilyn achieved that "seat at the table" (and brought all of us PR people along with her) not by pleading for a place at the table, but by earning it.
In my mind, Marilyn Laurie will always be the ultimate role model for public relations leadership.
No one will ever fill Marilyn Laurie's shoes, but for years to come aspiring PR people will look to her as an example and a role model.
Marilyn, we miss you greatly.
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