Interview With PR Legend Howard Rubenstein
Jeremy Pepper interviews Howard Rubenstein, the legend who founded Rubenstein Associates, Inc.
Howard J. Rubenstein has presided over the agency which bears his name since he founded it in 1954. Today the firm is one of the nation’s largest independent public relations agencies with a staff of more than 180.
In addition to overseeing the agency’s day-to-day activities on behalf of its hundreds of clients, he serves as a valued counselor to some of the most influential and active figures in America today. He has served as a member of numerous civic and philanthropic organizations, and currently sits on the Executive Committee of the Association for a Better New York, which he helped to found. He is a trustee of the Police Athletic League, the Central Park Conservancy, the Inner City Scholarship Fund of the Archdiocese of New York, is a member of the City University of New York Business Leadership Council, and was a member of the 1997 N.Y.C. Host Committee for the 39th Grammy Awards. He is vice-chairman of the N.Y.S.-N.Y.C. Holocaust Memorial Commission and is a special advisor to the N.Y.C. Commission on the Status of Women. He has served on the Mayor’s Committee on Business & Economic Development for Mayors Beame, Dinkins and Giuliani, and is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also served as a consultant to the United States Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, and, as an attorney, he was assistant counsel to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
You are a legend in public relations, having run your firm since the 1950’s. What do you credit for the secret of your success?
When I started, I didn’t think it would be as successful as it is today. I treated this as a profession from the beginning, not succumbing to the image of huckster, braggart or spin doctor.
I began in the industry by studying it, learning about it, and not just being a flack that could place a story in the paper, an item in a column.
Public relations is about understanding the client’s needs, working to find the best way to help the client in an ethical way.
The fact is that we are ethical and modest at the same time, and that is the key of our success.
What are some of the proudest moments in your career?
I have many proud moments in my career, but it comes down to sticking with it.
I dropped out of Harvard Law School after 2 months, knowing I did not want to practice law. I opened my business at my mother’s kitchen table with one account that billed at $100/month. My father was the Crime Reporter for New York Herald Tribune and he taught me to write in a newsworthy way, how to place articles; he set me on my career.
I stuck with it, and built my agency to what it is today.
The second important moment was finishing law school at top of the class, sticking to it and then coming back to PR.
I knew it was possible to be successful in the PR industry, but I wanted to see if I could be successful in law. I went back to St John’s Law School, and graduated first in class. I became an assistant counsel to the House Judiciary Committee – a very powerful group. But, in 6 months I realized I liked working in public relations more.
The third turning point was moving my business from Brooklyn. I was first in my mother’s home and then in Bensonhurst, and it wasn’t prestigious. I had a small office on Court Street in Brooklyn, and when the borough started to go downhill with the economic downturn I moved across the bridge to Manhattan. I saw the broader potential in not being pigeonholed as a Brooklyn PR person.
When I moved to Manhattan, I met with the top real estate development people, about 40 years ago. And, I have stayed with these real estate developers to where we are now one of the largest real estate PR firms in the country, with extreme loyalty.
The fourth proud moment was in 1973. Abraham Beame ran for the mayor, and I represented him during the run-off election. I received a fair amount of public credit for changing his image and turning around the campaign.
We already had good clients – about 30 by then – but suddenly the agency was thrust into the NY City scene. For years, I have represented politicians – mayors, governors, congressman – where we all started together, and ended up in great State and Federal jobs.
With Mayor Beame, I helped him and the city during the fiscal crisis. Working with the city and staving off bankruptcy, I learned about how politics, banking, and finance work; I thrive off those relationships.
But, while I was working with the mayor, we turned down business so there would be no conflicts of business. When Mayor Beame left office, the business took off like a rocket and grew rapidly.
Other highlights include my 30 year business relationship with Rupert Murdoch, who first came on as a client and is now a friend. And, my 20 year relationship with George Steinbrenner. I have never had a harsh a word with George – he’s a winner, and I love a guy that wants to be a winner.
What has changed in public relations for the better and worse in the past 50 years?
For the better, the status of public relations has increased and improved. When I started, public relations was looked down as a snake oil business. Now public relations is part of the highest levels of management and politics. Businesses, politics, countries, entertainment – all of them understand the enhanced value of public relations, and how important it is for image.
The downside is that there are too many people in public relations who lack a sense of diginity. These peopel will do and say anything to bring attention to themselves, and not the clients. The clients should always come first.
Public relations has been tarnished by the spin-meister phrases, back to what was wrong in the beginning when I first started.
How has technology changed public relations? Do you see people depending too much on technology?
There has been a massive increase in technology. When I started, I used to mimeograph copies of the press release and by the sixth copy, it was so blue and smeared. That’s how you got out the release, instead of using email. There were no cell phones, and it was a very tough business.
Today, with the technology and instant communications, with the 24/7 news cycle, it’s different and you have to be more cautious. Public relations people shouldn’t just rush to do something and not pay attention to details. It’s a whole different ball game. It’s much more risky if you don’t know what you are doing, because something you do in NY will appear everywhere instantly.
There’s no such thing as a local story anymore; because of cable, blogs, the information is massively replicated.
You don’t really publicize your agency, which is rare for this field. Is that a conscious effort to stay behind the scenes as much as possible?
I try to stay behind the scenes. I do not send out press releases on my agencies. We are the spokespeople for our clients, so we are in the news. Each of the divisions of Rubenstein Associates – Rubenstein Communications run by my son Steven, and Rubenstein Public Relations run by my son Richard – work very closely together.
The work speaks for itself for my agency.
Right now, there’s a bit of discussion on what are the differences between public relations and publicity. Do you envision yourself as more of a PR professional or publicist?
Publicity is a tool – a narrower function of public relations. You get the name out there, the business known. Public relations is far broader with strategy created, the direction you take a client, and then using the tool of publicity, possibly, to get the message out.
I’m both – a good press agent, because I know how to publicize things. But, starting as a press agent has also taught me how to handle crisis and to advise clients on what to do. One goes with the other – a person that’s good as a press agent, publicity at any cost, will hurt a client. It’s not a wise idea to be just a one trick pony.
I look for people that are public relations generalists. People can manage a client, but they have to be able to function for the client. If you lose touch with that aspect of PR – the publicity – you will lose the knowledge of how it functions and what to do.
Strategy is not always executable. You need to have an interesting hook, an interesting story to move via publicity. There’s a big disconnect between strategy and the promise of the execution. If they are not linked, you have a big problem on your hands.
As the PR man for a newspaper, was it sometimes difficult to deal with reporters at that paper when they wrote negatively about your other clients?
Not at all. I have an understanding with them – you do what you have to do, and I do what I have to do. Frequently the newspaper might whack a client of mine, but I have an advantage that they will listen to what I have to say. But, I have the same relationship with the other papers and the wire services.
I represent a lot of media, so I divorce my pitching from the advice I give them. But, since they respect me, they will pick up the phone when I call.
I don’t use email – I pitch via phone first. Reporters don’t want to be inundated with weak pitches, and email is an easy way out for pitching weak pitches.
Who do you see as the best of the next generation of public relations and publicists?
My two sons. They’re really good, and they are going to run my businesses.
What advice would you give students entering public relations and publicity?
They should be as knowledgeable as they can be about current affairs – watch the news, read newspapers, read magazines. But not for just entertainment, but for the news. I look for candidates that are good at English, knowledgable about History, understand Psychology. The people need to be personable, and definitely have to be able to write. It’s amazing how many people cannot write, but can pitch.
I look for people that can write and edit, as well as pitch. And, the people have to come to the standard that I value, and draw that ethical line in the sand and never cross it. Be a straight shooter, don’t lie. Anyone that is devious in public relations is going to be found out, and will fail.
Public Relations seems to be under fire right now – both internally and externally – with the different crises of late, and now the fear that Lizzie Grubman’s MTV Show is going to portray the industry in a bad light. What do you think is the biggest issue for PR in 2005 and beyond?
The issue is portraying ourselves as professionals who are ethical, and not looking for a quick dollar. Waive the dollar on behalf of your reputation.
Public relations is becoming a throwback to the 50’s – paying reporters, doing whatever it takes.
I resent that it’s the Sweet Smell of Success all over again.
Do you think the public still has a limited understanding of what PR professionals do? You’ve been in business for 50 years… was it always this way?
The public never understood what public relatins people do – they just see the shows and movies, and hear what the press agents are saying, and know a lot of it might be lying. The public thinks we are just flacks that bully our ways for covers, red carpets, attention.
That’s not what we do.
The public has no idea on what a decent, good PR person does. Nor do they believe we have an education, and profession that works very hard.
Your company does not have a blog – what are your views on the blogosphere and pitching blogs? Any short-term or long-term plans for launching a Rubenstein blog?
So far there are no plans on launching a blog, but they have proven to be very succesful as a form of communications.
Any last words for the readers?
Join the PR field, it’s great.
He authors the popular Musings from POP! Public Relations blog which offers Jeremy’s opinions and views – on public relations, publicity and other things.