An annual conversation with PR Guru, Part III

GUEST: Howard Rubenstein
VTR: 12/08/2008

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

And back at this table for what hopefully is becoming our annual end-of-the-year conversation between yours truly — just another innocent in the practice of persuasion for profit — and THE public relations Guru of modern America, is Howard Rubenstein.

Of course, in the service of full disclosure, I should note right up front that my guest has become a good friend and benefactor to The Open Mind … despite the fact that I titled our first program together about the sometimes not-so-fine and often quite controversial black art of public relations and publicity that he practices so successfully, I called it, “Not Quite The Oldest Profession … but …”.

Well, my guest smiled then, for Howard Rubenstein is both too good humored AND too expert at what he does for his clients – invariably the wealthiest, best connected and most powerful people around – to do more than smile at unkind references to “spinmeister”, “pitchman” or “Mr. Fixit”.

More to the point, when our mutual friend Ken Auletta wrote his noted New Yorker Magazine profile of today’s guest, he titled it “The Fixer … Why New Yorkers Call Howard Rubenstein When They’ve Got A Problem”.

And Lord knows that as we mark the end of 2008, many New Yorkers – many others, too, of course – have “got a problem”. Which leads me to ask my guest just how he deals professionally with the new grim facts concerning America’s present economic plight … so different then when he was at this table before. How do you do it? What do you say?

RUBENSTEIN: There are certain ground rules that I have. First, don’t lose your cool, because too many people even thinking they will be decimated by the economy, flip out. They become irrational in the actions that they take.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

RUBENSTEIN: Ah, they start firing … they start firing irrationally … they, they destroy their own reputations by acting erratically. So what I tell a client is, “analyze your situation, see where you have your strengths and your weaknesses, come up with a plan of survival, if it’s survival that’s at stake. Be calm about it. And keep your audiences informed about what you’re doing or what you hope to do.

Inform your staff. If you have customers, let them know. But look as if you are in control and if you look like you’re in control, you probably can maintain a measure of control. There are so many things beyond your own ability to, to have a stable ship. All of these economic disasters that we face every day … make one … make a person discouraged. But don’t be so discouraged that you become less functional and lose the ability that you have.

HEFFNER: Howard, what … that raises the question of “how do people take that?” You’re right, of course, in what you say about becoming less functional. But do we, do they have the capacity?

RUBENSTEIN: Not always. I’ll give you an example of a crisis we were all through … 9/11. The planes hit. The buildings came down. And there was such a loss of lives.

My own staff came to me and said, “We have no role in our society any more, we’re superfluous, we’re hangers-on.

I said, “You’re absolutely wrong. What you have to do is figure out what your clients can do and what they can say to enhance the reputation of our comeback. Become part of the comeback rather than duck under, under the table. And it worked. So I gave them encouragement to look for a solution that was positive.

They went to … we went to all of our clients and some and the hospitals opened their door far more widely. Some lawyers gave free service to the families that needed help. There were a whole series of actions that they took showing that we were resilient. So there are things you can do.

HEFFNER: But Howard one might be cynical and say, “Well that had only to do with life and death, now we’re talking about dollars.”

RUBENSTEIN: (Laugh) You may be right, but to many people dollars are life and death. And in reality you’ll see people, probably see more homeless people. Just think of a person that puts in 20 years and then finds that that person was hyped in terms of the value of his or her home. And suddenly loses his home or her home. And the bank, unless there’s a rescue operation that seems to in, in the making … the bank throws him out. What are they going to do? That’s terrible.

So, what I’m encouraging my clients to do is come up with a plan that’s positive, recognize the problem, don’t try to hide from the problem, the problem’s there. And then see what they can contribute to towards the solutions.

And there are solutions. Work harder. Become more valuable. Give good advice. If you … if you’re selling a produce, see how you can reduce the price of that product and still survive? There are a lot of things you can do. We’ll get through this, it might take a year, it might take a year and a half. And what you read, some people are predicting we’ll hit bottom in a year, year and a half and then five years of recovery.

Well, we might have to get used to a less exuberant, less rich life. Our lifestyle during the last number of years has gone beyond reason. You saw $10 million dollar bar mitzvah’s and you (laugh) … you saw things that the average person looked at, didn’t criticize … but looked at it and said, “how is that possible?”

You heard of bonuses of hundreds of millions of dollars given to the people that helped, helped tear us down. So I think there’ll be an awakening across the board in America where we’re more reasonable and we do the right thing.

HEFFNER: What do you think that will translate as, politically.

RUBENSTEIN: Ahem, I think … I think you will find that Obama … our President-Elect and President has given courage, enthusiasm and hope to so many millions of people. I think the political scene is going to shift dramatically so that they’ll be a joining together for a common solution.

I think it would be a tragic mistake if the Republican Party or the Conservatives in the Democratic Party said, “Well, he’s a Liberal and he’s gone too far.” If they took him on and criticized him politically, we’ve got to pull together and anyone that goes against that, because they’re used to it … they used to … “oh, he’s a, he’s a Democrat, gotta take him on.”

Anyone who does that is going to suffer. So I think we’re in a moment of a change in our political life, in our political lifestyle. And it’s all for the good.

HEFFNER: Do l you think that that change that you see and I’m sure you’re right, but do you think that, that change was more reflected by or in turn will create the election of a Black American?

RUBENSTEIN: Will it create the election of a Black American for other positions?

HEFFNER: No, no, no, no. I …what I really mean was where we far enough along in our economic problems …

RUBENSTEIN: Yes?

HEFFNER: … that that contributed largely, in your estimation, as you read American politics, as you read what happened on November 4th … did that contribute …

RUBENSTEIN: To an election of an African American?

HEFFNER: Yeah.

RUBENSTEIN: No. Absolutely not.

HEFFNER: You really don’t think so?

RUBENSTEIN: I don’t’ think so. What I …

HEFFNER: You think it would have happened otherwise?

RUBENSTEIN: What it contributed to was a desire to elect an intellectual person. A person with understanding. Someone that has been through hardship. Lots of hardship. He didn’t come up the easy way. So, I think no matter what his color, not matter what his religious persuasion, he was the right man at the right time. For how he spoke, how he brought those thousands and thousands of people together. Not because he was Black, but because he had a great message. And, and I, I give a lot of credit to him.

HEFFNER: Do you make the comparison as many others do to FDR?

RUBENSTEIN: Well, FDR who was a master of presentation. His Fireside Chats were wonderful. I, I was a kid during those terrible years. Obama has that skill. He’s convincing and I think he’s very honest. Yes, I can compare him to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

HEFFNER: I’m interested you, you use the word “honest”. You feel …

RUBENSTEIN: Oh.

HEFFNER: … and you’ve talked about that before. In talking about dealing with clients, you say your recommendation always is to be straightforward and to tell it as it is.

RUBENSTEIN: So many clients come to me in deep trouble. Now … probably the kind of business we’re getting now … is primarily crisis management. They’ll come in and you know they’re in trouble, it probably hit one of the newspapers, The Post or somebody. And they’ll say, “Well, why don’t you say such and such?” And I’ll say, “Is that truthful?” And they look at me askance (laugh).

HEFFNER: What’s that got to do with anything?

RUBENSTEIN: You know what, let’s make up something. I said, “Look, if you tell me a lie and I project the lie. I, I wouldn’t project it if I knew it were not truthful.” And I project it. And that reporter runs it, and then a month later he finds out that you lied … you’re going to suffer tremendously and I keep asking the question, “What’s your good name worth?” And they say, “Well, it’s worth everything.” And I say, “Well, don’t lie”.

Rather say nothing. Rather than say nothing than lie. And you can always take the truth, even though it’s harmful, it seems to you, and present it in a way that you’ll show that you have honesty working for you. That you deserve another break, that you’ve dealing with your problem. Too many, too many people in difficulty don’t even think that way. They think “What do we make up? What do we say?”.

It isn’t the question of “What do we say?” It’s “What did you do that was wrong?” And if you did something wrong, correct it. And then go forward with it.

HEFFNER: Now, in Ken Auletta’s piece and anything that’s written about you …

RUBENSTEIN: Nice … (laugh)

HEFFNER: … reference is always made … each time you’re here I make reference to “New York’s great PR Guru”. What do you think’s going to happen to the Empire State, given the fact that it is the seat of Wall Street and given the fact that if the papers are representing it correctly, the great landlords of New York are going to be in trouble, or are in trouble now, too.

RUBENSTEIN: MmmHmm. Many of them are in trouble. New York State is facing the greatest challenge in my 55 years of doing public relations. We’re fortunate in having David Patterson as our Governor. No one gave him a second thought when he became Lieutenant Governor.

He stepped up to the plate and I’m very close to him, I’m a friend of his for a lot of years, and a friend of his father’s. And he said, “I’ve got to tell the truth”. Just what I’ve been talking about. “And I’ve got to lay it on the table early on. We’ve got to do something about that. We must have a balanced budget.”

They can pass a balanced budget in the state and maybe it will still be unbalanced, but unless we find ways to enhance our revenue, to cut our expenses and to convince the public that it’s the right thing without violence, without more crime, we’re going to be in a terrible, terrible condition.

New York State certainly will survive. We have too many assets. But look what’s … look what we’ve lost. We lost the revenue from Wall Street. We lost the enormous number of … the unemployment figures that are coming through and the taxes on there. Our retail trades, our retail stores are showing real signs of distress, all cutting back on our city and the state. And don’t forget the City is in the same posture, perhaps a little healthier than the state right now.

Our Governor has to face it and he’s got to convince the other public officials in New York State that they should go along, maybe without kicking and screaming. Maybe without political … without political karate chops at him.

If, if, if he can convince them of that and his integrity in doing it, we’ll do just fine.

HEFFNER: How are you betting?

RUBENSTEIN: I’m betting that it will be very painful. But I’m betting that Malcolm Smith who will … he’s the … he’s really going to head the Senate. And Shelly Silver who does head the Assembly with a tremendous majority … I think they’re both … both men of integrity and will … and will deal with our Governor in a way to solve it. But it’s not going to be easy.

They each have their own constituency. But you know the, the real constituency … the whole public … end to end in our state. Upstate is a disaster zone.

HEFFNER: Economically.

RUBENSTEIN: Economic disaster zone. It’s really terrible. Very hard to solve. New York City, on the other hand, has a great sign of resiliency over the years. Somehow that has to be put together where we work together.

I think we come out of it, but it’s not going to be next year.

HEFFNER: If you had to make a guess … or a bet as I just asked you …

RUBENSTEIN: (Chuckle)

HEFFNER: … what are the more basic changes that you think will take place in this country, given what happened on November 4th, given what’s happening now economically?

RUBENSTEIN: The basic change will be a move towards reality. I think the American public will finally accept that there, there’s no birthday cake on everyone’s table every day. They’ll accept the fact that maybe their standard of living will have to go down for a while. They’ll accept the fact that they have to work a little harder … the unions will have to accept the fact they can’t have these “no-show” jobs. You’re reading about them now. They’re starting to talk about, “Oh, well maybe we could do away with the no-show jobs where they get paid.”

Across America there’ll … I think there’ll be a desire to face the reality of an economic crisis that isn’t a six month crisis, or even a year crisis. That’s one change that I see.

And I think the political campaigns in the future will deal with that side by side with our foreign policy issues. If you’ve … most people have noticed that until the, until the assassinations in India … that our foreign policy concerns were sort of put aside.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

RUBENSTEIN: … even though we were still losing people there. But, with our economic insecurity and our foreign policy fear that terrorism has spread way beyond what we anticipated, I think it’s time for a reality check for all Americans. And I think it’s time for us not to criticize each other strictly on a political basis.

HEFFNER: How … you’re the most realistic person I know … how realistic, however, is that last wish …

RUBENSTEIN: The criticism?

HEFFNER: Yup.

RUBENSTEIN: That’ll last a while because anybody that steps out now and reverts to the old politics will be criticized himself or herself. If your … if it doesn’t look like you’re pulling together towards a common goal of economic survival and extricating our self from the military roles that we’re in … in two wars … anybody that looks like they’re not pulling in the same direction will suffer politically.

But I’ll tell you, three years from now … three years from now the extremists in both parties (laugh) will surface again. I don’t … I’m not saying what I see will happen longer than two or three years. But in two or three years we could, we could be on a role and we could look like we’re coming out of it.

HEFFNER: Howard, let me turn to one aspect that I know is on the minds of so many people. Has to do with the automotive industry.

RUBENSTEIN: Oh.

HEFFNER: Which is big, big, big. As your friends in the housing of New York are big, big, big. What would you be doing if you were … if you were emperor?

RUBENSTEIN: First they made among the worst public relations blunders I’ve seen in my career.

HEFFNER: The planes.

RUBENSTEIN: Flying in the big jets … parade themselves as masters of the universe. What a mistake. The next mistake they made visually was driving (laughter), driving into Washington. In the front … sitting in the front with a driver next to them …

HEFFNER: You wouldn’t have had them walk? Would you?

RUBENSTEIN: No, I would have had them get on to a commercial airline … even first class or even coach, if they wanted to. But at least first class. And not be so obvious in their public relations move.

Secondly, they didn’t come in with a plan. They came in with a cup and they thought people would drop the coins in the cup. Isn’t happening. Well, it will happen, short term and probably long term. Because the lost of that industry, either through bankruptcy or merger … long and short term will result … probably, it could be a million people unemployed. All of the, all of the issues, all of the things that supply the auto industry will be on the line.

Those people showed a sense or arrogance … those people being the leaders of those corporations … they should have either gotten together, or on their own … come up with a plan before they asked for a penny. And said, “This is how we’re going to solve it.” They didn’t do that. They just said, “Send us the money, and we’ll keep going”. Wrong move.

They have to be specific and it has to be real. And if they have to fire people, so be it, but, but come up with automobiles that can sell, be competitive to the foreign automobiles that are coming into this market. They didn’t do that.

HEFFNER: But how do you respond to the argument that was offered by the Big Three … we have been responsive to the American people. I’ve never asked anyone that questions, but I’m asking you.

RUBENSTEIN: I don’t think they were responsive to the …

HEFFNER: You don’t?

RUBENSTEIN: No. I think they had an obligation to have the American people understand …

HEFFNER: Aha.

RUBENSTEIN: … what was good for the American people, long term in our environment … when the gas prices were raised like crazy, they had a responsibility to educate the American people. The foreign …

HEFFNER: How un-American that is, Howard, how un-American.

RUBENSTEIN: That is very American. Education is the basis of our society …

HEFFNER: Yes, but …

RUBENSTEIN: … and if those corporations didn’t’ realize that they had an obligation to come up with cars that were appropriate with gas mileage and all of the other things … greening of our car industry. If they didn’t realize that and then go out on an educational campaign … they missed the boat. Shame on them. They try to sell more of these huge, lumbering cars … they didn’t think …

HEFFNER: They succeeded in doing so because …

RUBENSTEIN: Sure, ’cause they …

HEFFNER: … we wanted them.

RUBENSTEIN: No. They sold it. They sold it to the American public. And they … shame on them, they knew better. They didn’t even make an effort towards conservation. And they all the information coming at them. They saw what the European market … what the European cars were doing. Sure, they thought they’d make a quick, easy buck. And they didn’t look long term to their own futures.

HEFFNER: And you don’t think that they really responded to what we … the people … wanted …

RUBENSTEIN: No, they … no. They had to, they had to present all of the facts. That’s what I was saying about truthfulness … all of the facts where this was leading. Sure they responded to bigger and better … all Americans want bigger and better and more …

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

RUBENSTEIN: … and get all the kids into one car and all. They responded to that, so in reality they did respond to the American ideal of bigger and better. And more expensive.

But they had a responsibility to the American public … long term … with what’s happening with, with our environment, what’s happening with the price of gasoline. They had a responsibility to sell the alternative.

HEFFNER: Okay. Now you said I could ask you anything I wanted.

RUBENSTEIN: Anything you want.

HEFFNER: Okay. Is that the message you essentially give to your clients. “You’ve got to teach. You have the responsibility to teach”.

RUBENSTEIN: I tell my clients that if they think something is correct and the public doesn’t know about it, accept it … you’ve got to find a way through forums, through publicity, through meetings one-on-one to teach the public, to instruct and teach and inform the public. So that you get the public to understand at least an alternative to what they are now doing.

HEFFNER: Now how do you respond to the people who say … “oh, you believe in nannies.” That the government should be a nanny, that big business should be a nanny …

RUBENSTEIN: No.

HEFFNER: … everybody has got to take care of these poor, poor benighted American citizens.

RUBENSTEIN: No. I believe that education takes poor … takes care of the people with less economic strength. I believe that’s our responsibility. People that have money and power and, an ability, an intellect, an education … people like that … they have a responsibility beyond lining their own pockets. That’s what I believe.

HEFFNER: That’s a wonderful thing to hear.

RUBENSTEIN: And I really believe it. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I, I’m convinced that you believe it. I hope that you’re able to convince your many clients and all the rest of us.

RUBENSTEIN: You know why I, I think it’s appropriate and I can convince my clients. Because the other way didn’t work. It worked for seven or eight years. And suddenly they’re stunned. It’s as if someone came out with a stun gun … bam … and they don’t know what to do. I think it is an opportunity for the more affluent, achieving, intellectual Americans to help the less fortunate through good educational moves.

Help our schools. Get those kids really interested in our schools. I’m involved with something called “Say Yes To Education” where people are guaranteeing college tuition and education to kids that graduate from different school systems. They, they’re starting in Syracuse. Right now they’ve done that in Harlem.

HEFFNER: Listen, we’re at the end of the program, Howard …

RUBENSTEIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: We’re gong to do this every year, you promise?

RUBENSTEIN: I promise.

HEFFNER: Okay. I’m … must say in ending that I’m absolutely fascinated by the fact that what you’ve just said, that not doing what you urge that we do … has put us in the position we’re in today. And I hope you’re right about our getting out of it as quickly as possible.

RUBENSTEIN: I think we will and I thank you for inviting me.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Howard. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an 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.

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