Up to date with a PR Guru

GUEST: Howard Rubenstein
AIR DATE: 09/14/2013
VTR: 06/21/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And some years ago, when today’s guest and I did our very first program together, Ken Auletta, the noted media journalist whose brilliant “Annals of Communications” have long been featured in The New Yorker magazine, was sitting out there in our control room watching and listening, gathering material for what became another of his noted New Yorker “Profiles”, this one about my guest and titled “The Fixer … Why New Yorkers call Howard Rubenstein When They’ve Got A Problem”.

As Ken Auletta wrote, “For years, many of the city’s wealthiest and most visible personalities have been represented by a somewhat achromatic gentleman who is paid to keep them in the public eye in times of triumph, out of the press in their hours of shame, and, in general, to provide advice, comfort, and refuge as the moment demands.

“Wearing dull suits and dull rimless glasses, this gentleman (and that is his demeanor: mild and well-mannered in an old-fashioned way) has none of the swagger or elan of the public relations men of an earlier era, like Ben Sonnenberg or Edward Bernays…

“And yet he is ubiquitous, trusted, a kind of gentle fixer for those who run New York: its governments and newspapers, its cultural institutions, boardrooms and sports teams…”

Of course, I had to look up achromatic, as in “a somewhat achromatic gentleman”, before asking my guest how he likes being called “colorless”…but that’s the way it is.

And we just went on from there with what was soon becoming something of an annual end-of-each-year conversation between this real innocent in the practice of persuasion for profit and the public relations GURU of modern America, Howard Rubenstein.

Stuff happens, of course, and though my guest has become a good friend and even an Open Mind benefactor, it’s actually been several years since we have spoken together on the air. And, putting New York’s City’s Mayoral election aside for the moment, I’m eager to hear now what issues and ideas he believes loom largest for Americans generally here and now at mid-2013. Howard, what do you think’s most important?

RUBENSTEIN: Ah, there’s a lack of trust in our political system.

HEFFNER: For good reason?

RUBENSTEIN: Often for good reason, but often for not good reason. People look at the politician today as a bad person, a person who’ll lie at a moment’s notice in order to achieve his or her goal. And that’s colored the system and discolored the system.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by “discolored the system”? If it’s black, it’s black.

RUBENSTEIN: No. When you paint a picture black and you’re extending that color to the entire system. That’s wrong. Because most of the public officials that I’ve dealt with over the years, and deal with today are honorable.

A handful, though, are looking for the money. And when your goal is money, that’s trouble.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about corruption now.

RUBENSTEIN: I’m talking more than corruption. I’m talking of a, a subtle form of legal bribery where, “Oh, I will give you a contribution …” and then two weeks later they say, “You know I have a little problem … can you solve it?” And they never exchange this for that, but it’s clear that that’s the process underway.

HEFFNER: So money talks.

RUBENSTEIN: Money has always talked in politics and it talks too loudly. It talks too much, it’s time for a re-evaluation and an accurate description of what our governance should be.

HEFFNER: Well, if money talks and our friend, Floyd Abrams, who will be here at this table later today, and it’s Floyd who probably has done more to enable money to talk from his legal position, from his concerns for freedom of speech, the Supreme Court has said that money is speech and if you can’t limit speech, you can’t limit money. Do you go along with that notion?

RUBENSTEIN: Ahem, money, while it talks can’t be used as a hammer. Can’t be used in a trade. Even if it’s subtle. So, yes, money talks. They’re all out fund raising. They can’t get into office without raising substantial money.

But there has to be a cut-off, what does it buy? Shouldn’t buy anything … except, perhaps, “I’ll listen to you. And I’ll make an evaluation.” But, we should never let money determine the outcome.

HEFFNER: But, you see, when you say it enables you to say “Please listen to me, here is what I want to say.”, that’s what the free speech advocates say … that if you have money shall we restrain you, prevent you from saying “Here is what I believe, here is what I have to say?”

RUBENSTEIN: No. The politician and the person governing should listen to everyone, not just the person who has contributed to his or her campaign. That’s the weakness of the system. But it’s the system. If a person contributes, they have an open door. Okay, if the door is open, it shouldn’t determine the final outcome. The judgment by the politician should be independent of the money.

HEFFNER: Well, how are you going to deal with that, Howard.

RUBENSTEIN: Ah …

HEFFNER: … you’ve watched this go on now for many decades.

RUBENSTEIN: What I would do is start at a very early age … with lessons in civics for the young kids, all through high school telling them what’s right and what’s wrong. I would make it part of the curriculum, it’s not now. You never … you never hear of anybody in high school having a civics lesson on the wrongs and rights of governments. We have to put that in a system, make it part of their education.

HEFFNER: I’ll bet it was part of your education in New York as it was part of my education in New York.

RUBENSTEIN: It, it sure was. They made it clear to us what was right and wrong and don’t cross that boundary. And it stayed with me.

And, by the way, it’s helped because people will trust what I say. If they can’t trust you, if they think you can be bought, that’s danger. And that’s not the way our government should operate.

HEFFNER: Well, we don’t teach our children any longer at the very beginning what the nature of our governmental structure is. I think maybe money talks as loudly as it does … and I wonder if you agree with this … because the public generally doesn’t understand the intricacies of American government as we were taught it.

RUBENSTEIN: The public has no idea of what is going on behind the scenes.

What I would do is make a mandatory course all through public school, junior high school and high school and in college in terms of ethics, governance, appropriateness so that we can engrain the proper attitude and, and actions to the kids as they are growing up. No one is doing that now. And there, there really should be a public demand for that.

HEFFNER: Well, one sometime back, when Steve Axinn … the, the noted anti-trust attorney was here as a guest, talking about other things, we go on the discussion of this subject of, of teaching civics … and I sort of needled Steve because he was saying, “This is what we should do in our schools …” just as you’re saying it.

And I basically said, “Well, why don’t you do it.” We’re now in a fiscal crunch … we’re always in a fiscal crunch … why don’t you and your fellow lawyers, who know the intricacies of American government, why don’t you volunteer to teach it in the schools.”

And he said, “That’s a great idea, I’m going to do it.” And, as he tried to follow up … he found that there were so many bureaucratic obstacles to this. You can’t just walk into a New York City school and teach …

RUBENSTEIN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: You have to be credentialed, or you have to be invited. You have to be “vetted”. So I don’t know how in the world we’re going to lick this problem.

RUBENSTEIN: I would run a political campaign on that issue. You use politics to beat that issue … to death … so that they say, “Yes, you’re welcome in.” I’d put the pressure on the people that will decide. I would … all these lawyers … visiting the people, telling them what they need … demanding action … but it has to be a continuing heavy-handed campaign to do what’s right.

HEFFNER: Well, lawyers play a major role in New York life certainly …

RUBENSTEIN: Yes.

HEFFNER: … but I, I, I didn’t want to stay with New York life and I gather, Howard, you’re saying that if you look at this nation in general … this is a major problem for us.

RUBENSTEIN: Well, it certainly is. First, the money is talking loudly … nationally. Secondly, I don’t see anyone leading an ethical charge. Someone should take that on and lead a charge to open up our schools and our system to teach the young people growing up what’s the right thing to do.

When, when I meet a client that’s in difficulty and they want my help … the first thing I ask them, “What’s the right thing that you should have done?”

And they, and they will tell me. I say, “Then why didn’t you do it.” And they said, “Well, it all got back to the money, and therefore we’ve got to start educating from kindergarten on about the right thing to do to make this a livable country based on ethics.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s not dismiss the dollar …

RUBENSTEIN: No, I don’t.

HEFFNER: You’re concerned about the influence of the dollar. But when we talked the other day and you said that you were optimistic …

RUBENSTEIN: I’m a …

HEFFNER: … about the money, the economic, the well-being, the wealth of our future … that you’re optimistic about what’s happening … where all around us we have “woe is us” because of the recession that isn’t over for many, many, many Americans.

RUBENSTEIN: If I were a pessimist …

HEFFNER: Yeah …

RUBENSTEIN: … I would make no progress in this area. So I come at it with optimism. I look at different things … education, the arts, the high tech, the media, the advertising, the construction industry, sports …I’d look at that conglomerate and delve into them saying, “You’re part of the solution.” And put heat on them.

Lawyers have tremendous strength if they’ll exert it. That’s why I’m optimistic. We wouldn’t have made the progress we’ve done so far … if people were all pessimists.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but Howard, should I or should the people who are watching us … these two elderly gentlemen … I’m much older than you … but let’s say they see …

RUBENSTEIN: Not really, but okay.

HEFFNER: … two elderly … no I am … but is this, is this just a device … a public relations tool? Have we any good reason to be optimistic. I’m quite serious about this.

RUBENSTEIN: We have reason to be optimistic because we’re the only nation in the world, that has the economic strength, the intellectual prowess, the young growing force of influencers who can influence things. So I’m optimistic that if we can motivate them to take some steps, we can change things. If we don’t do it, who’ll do it? It won’t come out of Europe apparently. Won’t come out of many of the countries that we’re dealing with. We have to do it.

So, if I were a pessimist, I wouldn’t try. As an optimist, I’ll set a goal and I’ll try. I might fail, but that would not discourage me.

HEFFNER: Is that by the way, and this is the hint that I was giving … is that the secret to your great success in PR? Optimism.

RUBENSTEIN: I’m an optimist and I try to do two things … one get the facts straight, when I’m dealing with a problem. Because sometimes a client will try to deceive you. And I’ll say, “What’s the truth? Tell me the truth. Or I can’t help you”.

HEFFNER: Try to deceive you?

RUBENSTEIN: Yes. Of course. I’m the spokesman, I’ll be talking …

HEFFNER: I see.

RUBENSTEIN: … to the media and they, and they’ll come at me with what, what is clear to me is not accurate. And I press them very hard. And I say, “I can’t represent you unless you tell me the truth. All of it. Don’t be deceptive.”

When I get the truth, if the person has done something inappropriate … I look for an apology, a correction on his part or her part, I look to straighten out the wrong-doing.

If the person has done right, I’ll defend that person publicly. That’s why I’m an optimist because the media will listen to me, the public will listen to me talking for people, when they know that I’m telling the truth. So truth is the basic foundation on which any public relation program has to start.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you a question, which you may … because you’re a gentleman …

RUBENSTEIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: … not just an old-fashioned gentleman … as Ken noted you may just not want to answer this … but would you say that that was the same motivating factor for the early generation of PR people? The truth?

RUBENSTEIN: No. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: In a word …

RUBENSTEIN: No.

HEFFNER: Okay.

RUBENSTEIN: When I first started … 59 years ago … thereabouts … almost 60 … when I started it was the Wild West of … in terms of truth … and lack of truth. People would say and do anything to get a big story, to get a column item. Everything was for sale.

And that offended me tremendously. And that helped determine the direction in which I would go. My father was a journalist … he always lectured me about accuracy and truthfulness and ethics. And that was … those were the best lessons I ever had. But in my starting days … anything went.

You could say anything and do anything and no one will call you on it. That was wrong. Today it’s a lot better.

HEFFNER: Today it’s … what … professionalized … is that the point?

RUBENSTEIN: Well, it’s professionalized … people going into my field are better trained … but not only that … with the communication so evident where you do something in Brooklyn then ended in Brooklyn. Today you do something in Brooklyn … goes all over. Ends up all over the world. You’ve got to be very cautious that you’re not deceptive. The deception will be unfolded in front of everyone’s eyes. That’s the hammer that people have to keep everyone honest.

Doesn’t work all the time. There are plenty of things going on … as we all know. But the increase in the ability to tell a story worldwide really forces people to think twice before they think they’ll get away with an inaccurate statement or a lie.

HEFFNER: That’s a very interesting perception because there’s so much negative … so much negativity about the new media. About the spread of the new media. And yet you’re saying transparency comes from this.

RUBENSTEIN: Yes, it does. People should fear what, what they say if it’s inaccurate. Someone will expose them. There are no editors saying, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that … you can do this.” So people take advantage of that free hand … the Wild West.

And knowing that others will see it and can come back at you and ruin your own reputation … that should be … that should be able to thwart someone’s illicit activity.

HEFFNER: I think I told you this story … that once at Rutgers I was asked to give a commencement address and the Dean of that particular college, asked as he gave out degrees … would the majors in this field and that field stand up.

And in history a couple straggled up … and in philosophy a few … very few got up. When it came to public relations … my god … the whole place stood up.

Your field must be very crowded now. Or are … do these kids just major in it and then …

RUBENSTEIN: (Laugh) When I started PR was looked down upon terribly. When I said, “I’m in PR, they said … oh my god … “, it was looked down upon.

But as the sophistication of communication increased, people trained for it. Educated themselves and became … many became … professional. I’m a lawyer … I went back to law school in order to have a professional feeling that will buttress what I’m doing in public relations. It’s a profession now. In the past it wasn’t.

HEFFNER: And … ah … jobs for young people.

RUBENSTEIN: They have to be well educated in … it’s not the new media anymore … but in the digital world. If they don’t have that education, very tough. In a recession that has been world-wide … certainly in this country … in a recession the job market in PR is somewhat limited unless you have the skill that I’m talking about … the new media skill … the use of the digital world … than it’s wide open. That’s what we’re hiring.

HEFFNER: But you’re saying beyond that … the training, the, the introduction of the notion of ethical considerations …

RUBENSTEIN: Is the base. And every year in my own office we … I give and others give lectures on ethics. And when we say “You’ve got to be ethical and it’s good business”, they’ll say, “Good business?” …

HEFFNER: HmmMmmm.

RUBENSTEIN: … yes, it’s good business. People will trust you, they’ll listen to you, they won’t go in back of you to determine if you’re lying. They’ll trust my word and if you can do that for yourself … whether you’re here or some one else … you’re building your future. That’s my point of view.

HEFFNER: Howard you, you wrapped it up with, with all of this optimism … that you experienced. Do you think that our, our economic situation is going to better substantially in … I mean we have so many unemployed.

RUBENSTEIN: I don’t think you will see a rapid improvement in our economy. I think it will be a very slow assent. And that’s troublesome for me … but that’s what it is. And it’s, and it’s challenged by continuing inflation. Just look at the cost of food and clothing and all the basics.

So you have inflation and a very slow assent in the gross value of what’s produced. So, I think that’s a big problem. But I don’t get discouraged, I try to look at the long view … even at my age. And the long view would say, if you stick to it … and you stick to an ethical standard and you work hard … hard work … it’s not an easy job .. got to work hard … got to think hard …

HEFFNER: Ahhh, you’re, you’re just old fashioned.

RUBENSTEIN: Well, I hope the young kids coming up are old fashioned in a way. They will do better being old fashioned with those elements in front of them. And that they listen to them.

HEFFNER: Howard, what about … not our are immediate New York political scene. What’s your thinking about the thrust … in just a couple minutes that we have left … of American politics. I know how you feel about money in politics.

RUBENSTEIN: Unfortunately, race against race, religion against religion … ethnic background against ethnic background. Wild, continuing hateful controversy have moved in on our political scene and it’s very disturbing for me.

They’re not fighting over the issues, they’re fighting on their ethnic, religious backgrounds. And that’s wrong. We have to educate our young people, and our old people … get away from that. Make the controversy on the issue, and I’m for you. Make the controversy on your color, I’m not for you.

HEFFNER: In comparison with what’s going on in the rest of the world …

RUBENSTEIN: Yes.

HEFFNER: … you’re talking about being civilized.

RUBENSTEIN: Yes.

HEFFNER: You’re calling for a civilized people.

RUBENSTEIN: Yes.

HEFFNER: How do we stack up?

RUBENSTEIN: We’re probably better than most. (Laugh) From what I’ve been reading and hearing. We have a solid base in our country that we have to expand and we can’t let it float based on money, as I said. We have to pay attention to the values we have here … the values that created our country. We’re the only ones. We’re the only ones … take advantage of it, project it.

HEFFNER: How, it’s, it’s good to hear optimism, it’s good to hear a moral lesson spoken and when I started the program I said we agreed a few years ago we were going to do this every year … so let’s go back to our agreement … and let’s try to do this every year … even as we grow older and older still.

And I want to thank you for joining me here today on The Open Mind.

RUBENSTEIN: Well, thank you, you’ve been wonderful.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.