David Finn

Fifty Years … and Running

VTR Date: November 17, 1998

Guest: Finn, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Finn
Title: Fifty Years … And Running
Recorded: 11/17/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ruder Finn, one of the world’s largest independent public relations firms and, let it be noted, The Open Mind’s benefactor/landlord.

“The Value of Values” was the Conference theme … to which one after another, a whole cadre of impressive dignitaries paid their professional respects … among them: Rodney Nichols, President of the New York Academy of Sciences; Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of The New York Times; leading plastic and microsurgeon Dr. William Magee, President of Operation Smile; Thomas Krens, Director of the Guggenheim Museum; Daniel Vasella, President of Novartis A.G.; and Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations.

All of them — and others, too — went on to praise Ruder Finn and its indomitable Chairman and CEO, David Finn, my good friend and my guest today.

Well, his company is fifty years old now, and my Open Mind soon will be forty-three. That means we’ve both been around the track — as observers and participants in nearly a quarter of our nation’s history. And I want to begin our program today by asking David Finn the most obvious possible question: in what ways has he changed his mind, his feelings, his sense of American values since mid-century? David?

FINN: Well, Dick, it’s an obvious question, but not an easy one to answer. First of all I think … I recall a well-known writer about Japan, American author, who wrote that when he first went to Japan, the first week or two, he really thought he understood this unusual culture. But after a lifetime, he came to the conclusion that he knew nothing about it. I feel a little bit like that, about not only values, but about public relations in general. You know in the first year or two or three that we were in business, I thought I knew what I didn’t know, but I didn’t know what public relations was all about. I had to learn it as I was going along. Now, I don’t know what I don’t know. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Progress? Or the opposite?

FINN: Well, I suppose it’s progress. It’s good to know … it’s good to have a sense of your limits of your knowledge. And that has to do with values as well. Values are so difficult to get your arms around. And I remember the first time we grappled with, with ethics and our business. We had the sense that there probably was a right or wrong. And now I’m much less sure about how to define right or wrong. Some wise man once said to me that “an ethical dilemma is when there are two rights in conflict with each other”, you have an obligation to your family, or whatever, to your company and you have an obligation to community or your set of principals … and what are you going to do if they conflict. And so I found, as one friend of mine said, that there are not only two sides to a question … he said he figured there’s an average of seven sides to every major issue. How do you find your way through that, those dilemmas … it’s very difficult.

HEFFNER: Well, you know I was … I looked through and read an earlier version of your … what is it, your seventieth book … “The Way Forward, My First Fifty Years At Ruder Finn” …

FINN: Right.

HEFFNER: Just 70.

FINN: Seventy. I have more coming, but …

HEFFNER: Well, I know that there are more coming …

FINN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … where that came from. But I was impressed with the times you were confronted with, ethical dilemmas. And at your conference on “The Value of Values”, I wondered how you would sum up the value of values? Which is in a sense a very funny title … “The Value of Values” … if the answer isn’t obvious, then why ask the question. But it is an important question.

FINN: You know, I asked my friend, Dean Morton … Jim Morton, who is now the Chairman of the Interfaith Center and was the Dean of St. John’s Cathedral for many, many years. Wonderful person, who’s dealt with ethical issues in all kinds of world problems. I asked him to sum up the Conference, and after the Conference was over I was … I was sorry that I had sort of thrown him a curve ball because it was difficult to sum up what everybody had said. He did he best. I think he did a good job. But, as I said at the opening of the Conference, there’s a double entendre for “The Value of Values”. On the one hand, it means “are values really valuable?”. We all espouse values and we know what they are. Our responsibilities to our various friends and constituencies and principals and so on, but do we live by them? So what … how much good is done by speaking aloud and in writing about our values? Do they really effect our behavior? So that’s one meaning of the value of values. The other meaning is a more positive one. That values espoused by corporations or institutions or nations have value. How … and what is the value of all these values that we espouse. So I was thinking about those two elements when we chose the title of the Conference. It was actually a suggestion by one of our Board members, Willy Peterson, who’s a Professor at Columbia Business School. In the course of discussing what our Conference would be on, he came up with that phrase and I loved it.

HEFFNER: But isn’t the assumption made by most people, and you may want to correct that assumption … certainly it’s the assumption that I make, that in the world of public relations, corporate public relations, that the value that you’re talking about has a dollar sign on it, “this is how valuable it is … it’s worth 20 bucks … it’s worth 20 million bucks”.

FINN: Yeah. You know, Dick, one of the projects that I have prized a lot over the years is producing what we call “Thoughts and Images”. And these are sayings from various sources, usually I pick out from readings that I do, combined with images of sculpture, which happens to be my “thing”, photographic sculpture. And many of those, many of those quotations argue against what you just said. And we put them up on our walls of our conference room and we enclose them with our Newsletter, and make portfolios and send them to our clients, in order to try to remember that the value of what we do in our business as in life, is there importance to life and to living. And not in terms of the dollar sign. There are many employees that we have in our company who find it difficult to even charge for their services. I mean I had a meeting this morning with some colleagues in my office about a project that our people think is wonderful to work on … it’s doing good because it’s good to do and not because we’re going to make a buck out of it. We have to charge for our time because we have to pay salaries, and we have to pay our vendors and we have to pay rent, we have to be in business. But our purposes is not … as an organization, I hope … as people is to make a lot of money. Our purpose is to do something useful with our lives.

HEFFNER: David, that approach. How positive an approach is it? For your clients, which or who are in business to make a profit.

FINN: They hire us and they pay us money and they want to know or make sure that they’re getting “their money’s worth”. Now how do we evaluate what they’re spending with us. That’s a problem that confronts them and that we have to address. And we try our best to demonstrate that what we are doing relates to, or helps to fulfill a particular corporate or institutional goal. May be money, it may not be money. I mean if we work for a museum, it’s not money, particularly … it’s prestige, it’s recognition, it’s visibility, it’s presence in front of potential sponsors, but it’s not raising money. And if we do it for a corporation, it’s not the … I mean for the most part it’s not the price of the stock, or the sale of their product … it’s … although sometimes we do work for marketing a product. And we like to feel that what we’re doing helps to sell that product. So, but the goals that our clients have are much more unclear, very often, than is implied by your thought that ultimately it is the dollar sign that measures what we do.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m a stockholder.

FINN: Of ….

HEFFNER: In corporation X.

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And corporation X has retained Ruder Finn. What must my fix be on what you do?

FINN: That’s a difficult question to answer. I once attended a seminar at Columbia Business School, many years ago … and I tried to espouse this idea of mine, which I must admit I’ve had pretty much all my life. So, in that respect I haven’t’ changed. I’m an idealist. And I’m still an idealist, I was an idealist in the past, and I tried to express this to the Columbia Business School students. And they asked the same question you did. They said, “as a stockholder I don’t want to pay money for these vague objectives and ideals that you espouse”. And I say that the people who run businesses, whom I’ve known … I said then and I feel as strongly, if not more strongly today, the people who run businesses are human beings. And of course they have a responsibility to their stockholders and to their customers and to society and to their employees and so on. But they want to feel that what they’re doing in their company is worthwhile. Most of the people I know feel that way. I just did a series of interviews of CEO’s with the Business Committee for the Arts of corporate leaders of companies that sponsor arts programs. And the question was “why”? Why do they sponsor arts programs? Is it the bottom line results that the marketing effects that you get from sponsoring art exhibitions. There should and could be such an effect. Or is it because the corporate leader feels that being involved with arts is a good way to run an important company and show the values of that company. I interviewed 28 CEO’s … some of these interviews are published in Forbes magazine and now a book has been published. And I must say I am gratified by the results of those interviews which to me demonstrate that those people really have a feeling for art.

HEFFNER: Alright. Now let me ask you this question. In the fifty years …

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … since you have been in this field, do you feel that there is a growing cadre of such people or that in this age of the marketplace uber alles that it is a present force, but not a growing one, and one perhaps that is diminishing.

FINN: Well, I must say that with all the mergers and acquisitions that are taking place that we’re involved in and that people in the public relations business have been involved in … many, not most, large public relations firms have been acquired by public companies. So in that climate there may be a threat to the kind of person that I’m talking about. We’ve remained independent …


FINN: … as a PR firm. And one of the reasons is just for that very, very point. I feel strongly, I don’t know how my successors will feel, but I feel strongly that our company Ruder Finn should stand for something, should be a certain kind of company, should behave in a certain way, should try to do things that we feel are good and useful in the world. And if I sell my company, the one who buys it may not care at all about those things. So I’ve been asked how much money will you sell your company for? There must be a price. Please name a price. Don’t hesitate. Whatever it is, it’s a starting point. And I have always answered, and I have been asked that question many times, “there is no price”. And they think I’m unrealistic. And they say “why”, and I say, “there’s no price for my life, I wouldn’t sell my life for any particular amount of money”. And my company for me is my life, or part of my life anyway. And so I think there is a diminishing number of people I’m afraid … although not necessarily younger people coming up into the business world. Remember we’ve gone through periods where younger people were dedicated to all kinds of causes and are sensitive to the attraction of serving society. So maybe a manager of tomorrow, a young manager may be sort of a rebirth of the kind of person I’m talking about.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but now let me be … let me pin you down. Do I understand that it’s harder to find such individuals today? It seems to me that’s what you’re saying.

FINN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Conceding.

FINN: It may be harder to find. I think … you know when I see IBM selling its art collection because that’s a good corporate move and I see Readers Digest running into a lot of problems and selling a lot of its art collection. That I’m sure DeWitt Wallace would somehow have managed not to sell, I think that it is harder to find people who are committed to those values come hell or high water, we’re going to stick by them. But I find young people in our own company are very attracted to this commitment to values, they’re very excited about it. People join our company because they sense that we are a place that cares.

HEFFNER: Those are the people who are committed …

FINN: Yes.

HEFFNER: … so they come to the organization …

FINN: Right.

HEFFNER: … that is committed.

FINN: Right. We attract people like that.

HEFFNER: Right. But the question is whether, by and large, whether as the millennium approaches we can anticipate another thousand years marked much more by the ???? kind of self-seeking, self-serving, rather than the values that that symposium, your Conference, espoused.

FINN: Yeah, we’re guessing, aren’t we? We have no …

HEFFNER: Sure we’re guessing.

FINN: … no way of determining …

HEFFNER: No, but you have a better … I would guess you know how many clients there are and whether it is easier to find those, and I’m not talking about the museums and the do-good institutions … are there more or fewer of those who feel that they can and should do good without doing it only because doing good enables them to do well.

FINN: I think the pressures in our increasingly pressured society are making it more difficult even for museum directors and college presidents to have that set of values.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

FINN: Well, museum executives, the directors, they have to have a Board of Trustees, they have demands being put upon them, they spend money on buildings. The pressures on them to consider the financial and economical aspects of their enterprises are enormous. The same thing with colleges and universities. So I think pressures on institutions and corporations, and perhaps governments, as well, are getting more and more complicated and difficult to deal with. So the people who are, who do have ideals, you know, the old story that the letter “L” is no good any more because it stands for “liberal”, and liberals are to be dismissed. And the same thing is true with idealists. I’m a Liberal and I’m an idealist. And I find people who share my ideals and my liberalism. But I find a lot of people who have difficulty behaving that way.

HEFFNER: David, you do a lot of work overseas. And you travel a very great deal … mostly when I want to see you, you’re in Timbuktu …

FINN: Right.

HEFFNER: What about this question “value of values” in other countries?

FINN: You know, my friend Kofi Annan, who was … participated in our Conference is very much aware … I think I’ve learned from him how you need to understand and respect the values of other cultures. It’s very hard … that’s one thing I’ve learned. I used to think that the world was pretty much the same, even though I knew it was different, I thought that I could behave as if it were the same. And I’ve learned more and more that there are different values in different societies and one has to try to listen carefully. As Kofi Annan says, “listen with your whole body” to what is being said and what is not being said. So I think that I couldn’t make a judgments about people in other societies. I do find people with a sense of values … their values in other countries, and I don’t know whether the trend is for more such people or fewer people.

HEFFNER: Well, if we focused on the world of the aesthetic …

FINN: Yes.

HEFFNER: Is there greater respect for the … and now let’s say small rather than capital “v” for the value of corporate involvement in fostering an interest in the arts, which has always been your great interest.

FINN: Yeah. You say, “greater”, greater or lesser … I, I …

HEFFNER: Than here.

FINN: Than here? I think it’s growing in other countries. And you have counterparts to Business Committee for the Arts growing in Israel, and in Japan, and all over the world so I think the corporations in other parts of the world are looking at America and saying to themselves, “why are they doing all these things?”. You know, business support of the arts fifty years ago, when we started in business was virtually nil … didn’t exist. Today there are billions of dollars being spent by corporations in the arts. That’s a sea change in attitude. It’s not just to make more money for the stockholder. It’s because more people drifted to the top of management who felt the arts and other values of society were important, and I think the business leaders in other parts of the world are looking at us and saying, “we should do that, too”. You find in Japan you have department stores have galleries, you have corporations creating museums. There are some wonderful things happening around the world that I’m quite excited about. Matter of fact, we could learn from them.

HEFFNER: Well I wondered whether the fact that our government does not participate as much, as I gather governments do in other countries has been an important consideration in the growth of business interest in the arts.

FINN: I think that’s true. But there are also tax problems … you know, in our country corporations can deduct contributions to non-profit institutions. You can’t do that in England or France. So there are great differences. You know I’m on the National Council for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and I see the struggle every year to get our budget approved by Congress. But I must say that even though the government may do less than other governments, some of the things we’re doing are quite wonderful.

HEFFNER: Like what?

FINN: Through the Endowments.

HEFFNER: Like what?

FINN: Well supporting public television programs, historic programs having to do with the Constitution … values. Many of the major programs on PBS are supported by one or the other or both Endowments. The scholarships that they support … that the Humanities Endowment supports around the country. Publications. One of the projects that we’re involved in is having to do with websites on education. Now there is something like over fifty thousand websites on education. So if a parent wants to find some guidance on, on an educational issue or question, how is he going to find his or her way through those fifty thousand plus websites? So one of the projects we’re involved in is screening those websites and selecting those which are really most valuable. Maybe a hundred, maybe two hundred. And that’s matched with a grant from a corporation to help undertake that project. So a lot of unusual projects which the world doesn’t know about that I think that the government is making possible.

HEFFNER: Then if that’s the case, if that’s the atmosphere, if that’s the climate of opinion, then you must be terribly optimistic about the next fifty years for Ruder Finn, given its orientation.

FINN: Well, I tell you. I’m optimistic because I’m a born optimist, and I don’t know how to be pessimistic. However, I am worried because I think I remember in my reading of history that at the turn of the twentieth century, there was a great deal of optimism about where the society had finally reached, and that the unlikelihood of wars and inhuman actions in the twentieth century. And now we look back at what has been called the bloodiest century in history … the twentieth century … the end of the twenty century. And now we look to the twenty-first century. What will that be like? One of the projects I suggested to the Secretary General is that he call a Conference of the world’s religious leaders in the year 2000 to discuss that very issue. How can they work together with the UN to make the twenty-first century not be the bloodiest century again in history. So I’m worried, but I’m hopeful

HEFFNER: Why religious leaders, David, do we have so much evidence that through the Inquisition, or through the Crusades or through what-have-you, through the religious wars of one kind or another that religion has been such a powerful force for peace?

FINN: No, it hasn’t … historically … you’re right and I made that point many times myself. But I think that religious leaders today are very outspoken about their commitment to peace, to world peace. I hear it from them and Kofi Annan hears it from them, and maybe through his leadership some process can be developed that would use their resources and their energies and their powers to work towards world peace.

HEFFNER: David, do you think that … and we have a minute and a half remaining … do you think that what it is that you strive to achieve is fostered at all by the marketplace psychology that seems to be most characteristic of end of twenty-century America?

FINN: I don’t know … why do you …

HEFFNER: Well, whether we can identify the value of values, as you would have us do, when the marketplace values, ethics that making it and making it big, better than the next guy looms so large.

FINN: No. I think the marketplace values have been with us for quite a while now and I think they’re firmly entrenched. But just think of the things that are being done in this country for third world countries, for impoverished people. You heard at our Conference, Bill McGee, the surgeon who goes around to third world countries to operate on children with cleft lips and cleft palates. To give them life … in a forty minute operation he can give them a whole life So, he’s going on a world journey of hope, he calls it … eighteen countries, and operate on five thousand children in nine weeks. He’s doing that as a contribution. He doesn’t make any money out of it, doesn’t get any personal power or influence out of it. I find that a lot of projects like that … that are quite wonderful and we have an opportunity to work with them. So that’s exciting, gives me hope. That’s not marketplace psychology, that’s the desire to do good. For it’s own sake.

HEFFNER: David, you’re always going to feel that way. And I’m so pleased that you do. Thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

FINN: Thank you for inviting me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program