Howard Rubenstein

A Further Conversation with a PR Guru

VTR Date: December 6, 2007

Richard Heffner talks with public relations guru Howard Rubenstein.


GUEST: Howard Rubenstein
VTR: 12/06/2007

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

And perhaps now I can get today’s guest to continue our conversations on an annual basis.

For it was just a day short of a year ago that I first got him to sit down with me to discuss the wily arts of what I then had the temerity to call “not quite the oldest profession”.

Indeed, Howard Rubenstein does consider his work as a public relations counselor and sometime publicist very much a profession…and, as I noted last time, he’s both too good humored AND too expert and successful at what he does for his many clients – usually the wealthiest, best connected and most powerful people around – to do more than smile tolerantly at unkind, unprofessional references to “spinmeister”, “pitchman”, “flack”, “huckster” or just plain “Mr. Fixit”.

Even here in the studio a year ago when we were taping our first program together, we had a print observer watching every move my guest made, parsing every sentence.

Later Ken Auletta, who has written his noted “Annals of Communications” for the New Yorker magazine for many years now – and who has himself several times been a guest on The Open Mind – he published a profile of my guest titled “The Fixer … Why New Yorkers Call Howard Rubenstein When They’ve Got A Problem”.

Of course, Ken Auletta’s judgment was nothing more nor less than unexceptional. For as he 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 élan 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….”

Well, now “A somewhat achromatic gentleman…”. I had to look up that word before daring to ask Howard Rubenstein how he likes being called “colorless”. That’s what it is.

RUBENSTEIN: Well my wife tells me my suits and ties are colorless (laughter) … she doesn’t deal with my personality that way. I don’t look at myself as colorless, I look at myself as balanced. And not shooting off from the hip or getting angry at every slight or in a crisis losing my temper or my dignity.

HEFFNER: Well, Ken rather indicates that those are your … those are your stock in trade.

RUBENSTEIN: Well, it was hard at the beginning of my career. I was 22 years old and with a temper. But I soon tempered that. Because it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work being vitriolic or volcanic.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, as I watched our program on the air last year and as I read Ken’s piece, I wondered whether that is the slogan “don’t let people remain angry, it doesn’t do them any good.”

RUBENSTEIN: What happens when a person gets angry … if I got angry at someone that slighted me or my clients, I keep it within … I’d burn up … it bothers me and the person that I’m angry at doesn’t even know it. If you don’t shoot off in the news media. And they don’t care.

In fact they’re very … they often are joyous over the fact that they’ve reached your inner psyche, have stimulated you to anger and know that you’re really bothered. Even if you’re bothered, you should mast it and maintain your dignity.

HEFFNER: Is that what you tell your clients?

RUBENSTEIN: I surely do. Because … for example … some of my clients get attacked in the news media. Almost all the time, for some reason or another, the scrutiny is intense.

And they’ll call me and they’ll say, “I want you to call the Editor immediately and scream at them and say that it’s unfair.” I say, “Calm down. You’re going to make some terrible mistakes if you keep that attitude. Analyze the problem. See if you’ve done the right thing, then analyze if their criticism of you is correct. If they wrong, there’s a nice way of saying it.”

HEFFNER: But you know, it, it occurs to me that you say this to a lot of New Yorkers. Have you purposefully focused your client list on New York?

RUBENSTEIN: Well, at the beginning, that’s all I had. That first …

HEFFNER: Well, you had Brooklyn.

RUBENSTEIN: I had Brooklyn, New York. Ahmm, most of my clients are New York based, but a large number now are international in scope, like Rupert Murdoch, he’s based here in New York, but he’s certainly international. I have many of them like that. Time Warner and many others like that.

But all the media is here, all the opinion-makers are here. The financial community is here, and I figured, “what a wonderful place to build your business.” And yet we get people from California, from Florida, Chicago and virtually all over the place.

HEFFNER: Well, if we focus on New York …


HEFFNER: And I think of your early relationship with Mayor Beame …


HEFFNER: How much trouble are we in, here in New York … I mean when you look around it looks wonderfully clean and bustling …


HEFFNER: And rich, rich, rich.


HEFFNER: Are we in trouble?

RUBENSTEIN: In 1973 when I helped run Mayor Beame’s campaign and he became Mayor. Then shortly thereafter … a few years afterwards, we went into a near bankruptcy.

In fact, not too many people know that the legal papers were signed by a judge throwing New York into bankruptcy. They weren’t served. Ira Milstein, a famous lawyer from Weil, Gotshal still has the original papers. We were within a few hours of bankruptcy.

And the unions and others stepped forward and met the payroll … New York City didn’t have payroll money. And that would have been a disaster. And some people were saying “Teach them a lesson, Abe (Mayor) … teach them a lesson … let’s go into bankruptcy and we’ll show them.” What a horrible mistake that would have been. We came out of it and we came out of it … ah, in a strong way.

Today, even though there are signs nationally … and even internationally … of, of weaknesses in our economy … with the sub-prime mortgage problem … with the lending by banks drying up … with many of the heads of major … of our major financial institutions resigning … New York is still strong. You can see … we’re not overbuilt, there’s still a big demand for apartments. The commercial space is zooming … the cost is very high.

But I think we have to be very cautious in New York because the, the issue of greed … the issue of overreaching desire for more and more and more. The issue to show up on the stage and be number #1 financially. To show your power. To show your exuberance, to be snotty, actually … is a terrible recipe and too many of us in New York have adopted that recipe from a cookbook that should be shut.

HEFFNER: Too rich for our own good?

RUBENSTEIN: Too rich? Not necessarily too wealthy or rich. But too grasping and greedy to be richer than the next person. There’ll always be somebody that has more. And if your goal in your life, in your business life … after you’ve earned a decent living is more and more and to be richer and richer, if that’s your prime goal, you’re making a big mistake.

You can always earn money if you do a good job. If you’re honorable and ethical and really produce, you’ll earn money, no matter what the economy is. I’ve been through so many recessions (laugh) in the 54 years of my business, that I’ve seen it. Just stick to what you do and do it well. And be honorable, be ethical. But there are some people, when money is a goal, they’ll stretch the boundaries of ethics because they’ll say, “who’ll know, I’ll just do it.”

And do you know, everyone knows after a while. Your reputation spreads and what do you have in your life? You have a good reputation, hopefully. But your reputation … good or bad travels with you.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve got a lot of dough, too, Howard.


HEFFNER: You’ve got a lot of dough …that’s what they have.

RUBENSTEIN: Yeah, but look at how many have gone to jail with a lot of dough. Look at the millions and millions in fines and penalties. Look at the loss of their reputation and friends. Just look at that.

It’s not worth it. A lot of dough … you can’t take it with you. If you … these people have enough for four airplanes … they don’t’ need four airplanes, they need one … maybe. The should … they could also fly commercial. Not a big deal. That’s my attitude, at any rate.

I mentioned many times my father who was a crime reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, said “Draw an ethical line in the sand and don’t cross it.” And he said, “You know, it’s good business.” And a lot of people don’t realize that being straight, honorable, ethical is really good business. People will deal with you, they’ll trust your word, they won’t go in back of you to see if you’re lying. But if you have a reputation of greed and overreaching desire for more money, and more display of wealth, they’re not going to trust you. They may smile at you, they may try to do a deal with you, but they’re not going to be your friends if there ever was a time of confrontation or crunch.

HEFFNER: Howard, let me ask a question. I read from Ken Auletta’s New Yorker profile of you before and he said you’re not the flamboyant type, like Eddie Bernays …


HEFFNER: And I wondered what … we touched on this the last time we spoke together here. But I’ve really wondered what you thought of Bernays’ belief that his uncle, Sigmund Freud …


HEFFNER: … had accurately pointed at the key to getting people to do what you want them to do for whatever your reasons may be. You appeal not to their minds, but to their feelings, to their emotions. And I wonder, not to the rational person, to the irrational person … has that entered at all into your …

RUBENSTEIN: Well sure, everyone I deal with … usually … if they can afford my services, or even if I volunteer and they want advice and promotional activity and publicity … all of these people have a very big built in ego …usually. Some mask it, some don’t.

And then you start giving advice to them. And sometimes you try to keep them cool, below the radar and you say to some of them “Don’t look for high decibel levels all the time, it’s going to cause trouble for you; people will be jealous of you.” And then they sometimes balk, and they say, “Well, no …”, it’s like an aphrodisiac to them … publicity, high profile … being on the front line, and they become emotional about it, getting to your question. When you have a very emotional client and I have plenty of them … I’ve had some that have run afoul of the law. I have some that were just raking in tens and hundreds of millions and suddenly they became emotional about themselves, their egos got puffed up and it was the beginning of trouble. Because … I know why trouble comes … when you’re at that level and you’re not modest, there are others around you that are either jealous of you, or disdain what you’ve done or know about your background. And those people … if they have any influence at all … in politics, in business … in media, will take you down. They’ll all be somebody …

HEFFNER: Well, I understand the … your use of the word or the concept of modesty …


HEFFNER: And moderation.


HEFFNER: Let’s switch that around a little. It’s one thing to give advice to your clients in terms of the way they should comport themselves …


HEFFNER: What about the efforts … you must a times make … to change minds in the general public … to …


HEFFNER: …. deal with public opinion. Is that only a matter of the presentation of your client … the modesty that you …


HEFFNER: … demand of him or her?

RUBENSTEIN: No. Modesty is just one element; it’s a stage that you’re on. You’re on a stage … you’re on a public stage if you want to change someone’s opinion, you’re an actor, perhaps or maybe you’re acting out … factually … what has gone on.

Sometimes, if a person’s image is really damaged … inappropriately … maybe the facts haven’t come out … so you can approach the change of an image by presenting factually in a calm way … not as a screaming (laugh) … “tell you what I’m gonna do” press agent. But factually present what the client or the person seeking coverage is really all about. And what do you do? You go on to shows like this and talk openly.

You go before small groups. You do one-on-one meetings with people that help shape public opinion. You can’t do it overnight, too many of our theatrical stars get into difficulty because they seek publicity, the invite the paparazzi, they want to be in every day on the Page Six’s and all the gossip columns, they really project themselves and suddenly someone attacks them. And they, and they say, “Well, that’s not me.”

You hear it all the time, “That’s not the real me”. You’ve got to be what you really are on a constant basis to be portrayed as what you are. You can’t just be a façade.

HEFFNER: Okay. We’re now the last month …


HEFFNER: … of 2007. Just going into the Presidential year.


HEFFNER: How does what you say relate to the creation of opinion in terms of national politics. You want to get more people enthused about you, as a candidate.

RUBENSTEIN: Politics is really a different story (laugh) than the “norm” of people that want promotion. It’s probably the toughest game in town … tougher than …

HEFFNER: Well, play it a bit.

RUBENSTEIN: … tougher than business. Okay, first you have an ego-centric politician who thinks, “I should be President of the United States.” That alone is a jump in a person’s (laughter) self posturing and self-esteem.

So they’re all nameless people, many of them, who think they should be President (LOUD THUMP) of the United States. And by the way, many of them have the quality to be a good President. So then they go on to the stage, and the first thing they have to do is raise sufficient money or have sufficient money to tell their story.

So to tell you story and to raise your money, you’ve got to change your story very often. You see that … and I won’t name names. But you see politicians changing their stance. On everything from abortion and gun control to health insurance, to education … things that many of them have said for years … overnight they find a reason why they had to change.

Of course they had to change or they wouldn’t get the nomination. So, you find these people, ego-driven, money driven, seeking money … then getting up and saying, “This is what I am”, but very often it isn’t what they are.

Very often it’s what their pollsters say they should be. Very often it’s what the manager of the campaign says they should be.

So, I, I … take for example, New York City. We have a great Mayor … Mike Bloomberg. And for fair disclosure I worked for his corporation, for many years. He came to office with a different point of view. He says, “I’m going to be what I am and I’m going to look beyond the four or eight year term and try to do something that many public officials won’t … I’m going to look 20 and 30 years ahead and come up and lock in programs that will change the face and the psyche of New York.”

And he’s doing it. In economic development, in education … he was the first Mayor that got the control of our educational system.

HEFFNER: Okay. He did …


HEFFNER: And it isn’t out all that well.

RUBENSTEIN: It’s working out very well. I, I really disagree with you. I’m not emotional about it, either, but …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

RUBENSTEIN: … but if you look at it, the city is thriving economically and the economic development in our city is more than it’s been in the 54 years of my business career, where I’ve paid attention to it. Every borough is thriving. Usually, Mayors looked at Manhattan because Manhattan was the source of money, of financial support, of media, location. He looked at each of the five boroughs and if you, if you looked at his achievement in each … each one has grown, each one is developing.

For example, I represent the New York Yankees and people for years …

HEFFNER: The New York Yankees? That little ball club?

RUBENSTEIN: That little unknown … for 22 years I’ve represented George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. And we’re building a new stadium and it will be open in ’09 and the Mets have a new stadium going up. And most people said, “Well, you build a new stadium and that’s the beginning and the end of the development of the Bronx.” There were slogans and campaigns, The Bronx is Bouncing Back they would say. Never bounced back until recently. And now you see development, the increase in values … in an extraordinary way.

You look at, you look at Brooklyn. The downtown area of Brooklyn. The values of property there are almost matching Manhattan now.

Queens, the same thing. The waterfront. Staten Island is booming. It’s really a remarkable turnaround in the psychological approach to our own city. Our population will hit 9 million before too very long. And I remember when we were in decline.

HEFFNER: Howard, who owns New York?


HEFFNER: We used to say when I went to Columbia, “Who owns New York? WE own New York.”

RUBENSTEIN: Who owns New York?

HEFFNER: Who owns New York? Are they … the real estate interests you represent?

RUBENSTEIN: I don’t … I represent a lot of the real estate industry and I can’t say … well, they own a lot of the property in New York.


RUBENSTEIN: And they are very strong in governmental affairs, no doubt about it. The financial community very strong in governmental affairs and a financial bedrock of our city. We don’t have much manufacturing here any longer. So the city looks to those two basic industries. They look also to the educational institutions, some of which I represent like Columbia and NYU and CUNY. They look to them as feeding the intellectual power into our city. Very important.

Do they own New York? Good part of it because they’re shaping the thought process and development … and development young people who will run New York.

Who owns New York? Maybe the scientists that are, that are doing things here. The politicians very often think they own New York, they get elected and then they say, they get … sometimes … overzealous. And they think they own New York. They only have a short leasehold. And with term limits generally, a very short leasehold.

HEFFNER: So what then will happen to a term limited Mayor Bloomberg?

RUBENSTEIN: Oh, Mayor Bloomberg has a great future. There’s a possibility that he would run for President of the United States. But I think there’s a very, very strong possibility that with his multi-billion dollar foundation, he will shape the future of New York’s civic and charitable life. And the country’s.

For so many years he’s given tens and tens and hundreds of millions away without publicizing it. He never once asked me to publicize any of his financial donations. That’s re … that’s quite remarkable. That goes back to the issue of modesty and knowing how you can help and you don’t have to boast about it.

HEFFNER: There are two … two other New Yorkers very much on the scene these days …


HEFFNER: … politically. Hilary Clinton …


HEFFNER: Rudy Giuliani …


HEFFNER: Mid-December ’07 …


HEFFNER: What do you think will happen?

RUBENSTEIN: Well, wouldn’t it be interesting if you have two New Yorkers running against each other and Mike Bloomberg jumps in … (laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Third party …

RUBENSTEIN: You might have three … (laughter) well, right now I’m endorsing no one. And I, you know, my endorsement means nothing, the truth of the matter.

But, look how fortunate New York has been to have people of that quality rise to the top of our national scene and right now head all of the polls that you see … many of the polls you see, not all the polls. We’ve had remarkable leadership in New York.

We also have, for example, you have a Chuck Schumer who’s a Senator over here, he came up … he was, he was an Assemblyman and he rose to national prominence. We have a Charles Rangel, who came out of the poverty of Harlem and now is one of the most powerful men in America. An African American with brilliance and stick-to-itiveness and calmness. But look, we have probably three New Yorkers who, right now are all being considered as a potential President. I think all three of them would make good Presidents. We’ll get one of them, I hope.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s fascinating to me, there’s no better spokesperson for …PR man for …


HEFFNER: … New York than you are.

RUBENSTEIN: Well, thank you.

HEFFNER: But, even with just a couple minutes left, I want to go back, if you will, to this question of … I know what you tell your clients … what you’ve told us you tell your clients. The question is … what do you tell the public? What, what do you want to appeal to the public? Scare? Fear? Economic prosperity? Wonder about ….

RUBENSTEIN: I’m positive in my nature. So I look at everything I get into first … what’s accurate and I won’t twist and present something that it’s inaccurate. And secondly I look to present the positive image for almost everything I do. Sometimes I’m defensive. I look to build New York. I look to tell people you can make it here … (laugh) that’s part of a famous song …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

RUBENSTEIN: But you can, you can. I had nothing when I started. Most of my clients had nothing when they started. New York gives us all an opportunity … minorities, people of color, people that are immigrants. I think, for example, we’ve got to do a lot for our immigrant population. Encourage them. Battle for them. Because they’re the bedrock of our economic society. That’s who I like to support.

HEFFNER: So you’re saying, if I may put words into your mouth, that you wouldn’t wage a campaign of fear.

RUBENSTEIN: I never do that. I play on the positive side of the street. People that live on the negative aspects of society and are fear-mongers, sooner or later destroy themselves because the people realize maybe the fear is falsely engendered and they get back at you. So just as a defensive matter fear is the wrong place to be.

HEFFNER: Howard, a year from now you’ve got to come back and we’ve got to see how all of this worked out. And by gosh and by golly we’re going to be able to unless we have another Supreme Court decision about who’s the next President of the United States.

RUBENSTEIN: (Laughter) Well, I’ll gladly do that. I enjoy talking to you and you have one of the best most informative shows that I’ve ever seen.

HEFFNER: And I’m not even your client.

RUBENSTEIN: (Laughter) That’s right.

HEFFNER: Thank you, 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.