Howard Rubenstein

Not Quite the Oldest Profession, But …

VTR Date: December 7, 2006

Howard Rubenstein considers the profession of public relations.


GUEST: Howard J. Rubenstein
VTR: 12/07/2006

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

And when, some years ago, a very dear and wonderful friend of mine got himself in trouble, I begged him to go for help to my guest today. He didn’t, and I think he hurt himself with that failure at self-preservation.

Now, not that I knew my guest any more than anyone and everyone who has some idea of what goes on in the real world and had heard and read about him and his amazing accomplishments over the years.

For I didn’t – and don’t – travel in his circle among the movers and shakers of our times, as Howard Rubenstein very much does and has done for many of the more than 50 years he has practiced the sometimes not-so-fine and sometimes quite controversial arts of public relations and publicity.

Now, my guest refers to his work as a public relations counselor and publicist as a profession…but he’s both too good humored AND too expert and successful at what he does for his clients – usually the wealthiest, best connected and most powerful people around – to do more than smile at unkind references to spinmeister, pitchman, flack, huckster, or Mr. Fixit.

Howard Rubenstein surely does “fix it” for so many clients, and I appreciate that … but I’d like first to ask my guest today just why he considers public relations a profession…and what makes it so.

RUBENSTEIN: When I first started in it, I didn’t look at it as a profession. They were flacks and spinmasters and hacks, and I had dropped out of Harvard Law School after two months at the school. I didn’t want to be a lawyer.

HEFFNER: I don’t blame you.

RUBENSTEIN: (Laughter) And I, I went back to Brooklyn and my father was a journalist, he worked for the New York Herald Tribune. He was a crime reporter.

And I was untrained and unemployed. And he said, “Why don’t you go to work for the Tribune as a copy boy? How much? $35.00 a week.

I said, “Pop I can do better than that (I hope)”. And he said, “why don’t you try public relations?” And I did. He got me the first account, which was an old age home … Home for the Aged in Brooklyn. $100 a month. But I looked around and I saw that a public relations wasn’t given any respect. If you couldn’t get into Walter Winchell’s column and you couldn’t make up a story … you were looked down on.

And there I was working on my mother’s kitchen table, in Bensonhurst, with two fingers pecking away at a typewriter and running stories around to the newspapers and I decided I would treat it as a profession and, and try to earn self-respect for myself and the profession. And that’s what I’ve been trying all these years.

In fact, after I was in business about four years … had a tiny office in Brooklyn on Court Street … I went back to law school … St. John’s University Law School … at night. And for four years at night and it was a grind … I mean I … I became a lawyer, passed the bar, graduated first in my class at St. John’s. But I still didn’t want to be a lawyer and my mom kept saying, “Oh, you’re going to be a lawyer.”

So … from that time on she never called me a PR person, she introduced me as …

HEFFNER: My son, the lawyer.

RUBENSTEIN: … my son the lawyer. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) All right. Now, as a professional lawyer …


HEFFNER: …and you are.


HEFFNER: We know what the rules and regulations are. Sometimes they’re not abided by …

RUBENSTEIN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: In the law.

RUBENSTEIN: That’s right.

HEFFNER: But what about PR?

RUBENSTEIN: There are no rules and regulations in PR. That’s what, at times, makes it unseemly. A PR person very often set his own rules.

But I have my own rules. I have rules. Rules of the road. Live with integrity. Don’t lie. Really be direct. Don’t be a spinmeister. Serve your client well; take on unpopular causes. But do it with integrity. And my rules all involve determining the need of a client. What do they need? What are their goals? Not what they’re demanding. Not what their ego calls for, but how can you get them to where they want to be? And, and how do you do it appropriately?

So, the rules of the road that I have for my own staff. We have a lot of people working for me. We have over 200 people. We have lectures for them. Give yourself self respect by earning it. Be honest in how you talk and deal with a client. Never, never lie to anybody and certainly not to a reporter. But don’t lie to anybody, it’s a good, it’s a good thing to act that way. Those are my rules of the road.

HEFFNER: How do you account for the fact … this is a little bit of autobiography, I gave the Commencement Speech at a college some years ago, but not all that long ago. And the Dean gave out the degrees by area of study. And he said, “Will the candidates for history please stand up?”


HEFFNER: And six young people stood up.


HEFFNER: Political science and three stood up.


HEFFNER: English … seven.


HEFFNER: Public relations. And it looked as though the whole damn place stood up. What accounts for its …


HEFFNER: … popularity.

RUBENSTEIN: … that’s surprising. When I went to the University of Pennsylvania, I took … oh, perhaps two or three courses … total … in public relations. I sort of was interested in it. And they were taught by a person … who was a newspaper person … who years later I figured out … didn’t know what he was talking about. There was no demand at all, probably four people in the class.

The change came about when communications became central to the running of businesses, the running of politics, the running of nations, the running of wars.

And public relations, for good or for bad … because very often it’s used as an inappropriate tool … now is on the front burner of everyone’s mind. You read about it all the time. Who’s the PR person? Who’s the spokesman? They must be really crafting what the client is doing. The client didn’t say that, the PR person said it.

And as a result, a lot of young people in colleges are interested in it. You’re in the action of today’s society, whatever it is. I know in my business we, we recruit and hire young people right out of college. And they’re enthusiastic, they’re bright, they’re well educated, they’re educated in all the things you talked about.

I don’t necessarily hire someone who has a public relations degree or a major. I’ll take someone that’s good in English and history and mathematics and science … if they’re curious and they want to tell a story. If they want to solve a problem, that’s what I take. And you’re better off with the wide array of interests in the hiring.

I, I … actually I think I’d resist somebody that was very narrow-minded and only said, “I’m a good publicist” and nothing else.

HEFFNER: Is it good for us, or bad for us … at large … that there is the increased interest in communications.

RUBENSTEIN: I think it’s good for us because the young people that are coming into it are well-educated. And when I started … I didn’t find that. They mostly all have college degrees, they’re not hustling, they’re looking for a profession. They’re looking to do, I think, what I was looking to do. I know the young people working for me treat it as a profession. I think it’s good for us because the standard of ethics that they have, just coming in and trying to learn the field, that standard is higher than it was than when I entered the field.

HEFFNER: High enough?

RUBENSTEIN: No, no. Absolutely not. It will never be high enough. You know why because there are others that sort of denigrate what they do by their actions.

HEFFNER: Like what?

RUBENSTEIN: They’ll make up a story. You go to a client who’s in trouble, and the client will say, “What do we say?” … big trouble raging all around. “What do we say?” and the inappropriate PR person might say, “Well, let’s say this (not knowing any facts). Let’s say this. Let’s deny it. Let’s say this … all wrong … the media’s wrong …shame on the media. Their at fault, not you.”

Well, that’s not right. I, I approach it differently. I say … if they ask me what do I say? I say, “Hold that. That’s not the first question. The first question is ‘what did you do? Was it right or wrong. Do you have to change something? Do you have to apologize for something?” And then after you determine the factual content of their problem, then you determine what you say. You have to do it in a timely way, of course. But, the people in PR that look at themselves as flacks and depreciate their own value and only look to get name recognition for a client. I think they denigrate the profession and themselves.

HEFFNER: How in the world did you build the client list …

RUBENSTEIN: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … that you have?


HEFFNER: I looked through the list of your company’s clients and … corporate, individual …whatever … incredible.

RUBENSTEIN: It was one little step at a time. When I started I mentioned I had a home for the aged, one hundred dollars a month. And then someone saw something in the paper that I placed and I asked them, “How did that ever get in?”. And they say, “Well, this young kid …” I was 22 years old … “he did it.”

And then a politician hired me and then a hospital and then from … it was one step at a time and each step led to a step up. First it was a volume of small accounts. And then I met some mentors and people in the field that sort of liked me and they adopted me. And they say, “Well I’ll introduce you to somebody.” So sooner or later someone introduced me to Rupert Murdoch. And he hired … he retained me 30 years ago. And you can just imagine what a wonderful opportunity that … I still represent him … and News Corporation and The New York Post.

HEFFNER: Do I have to blame you … Howard …


HEFFNER: … for the things that Rupert Murdoch does and for the things that he broadcasting interests do on the air?

RUBENSTEIN: No. Not at all. I have nothing to do with content of what his New York Post and television operations in others. I have nothing to do with that. I advise him … and I’m not the only one … he has, he has a wonderful person on full time staff, Gary Ginsberg, and others … who deal with that.

HEFFNER: But then, what’s the relationship between Howard Rubenstein and what his clients do? Do for a living? Do publicly? Do privately?

RUBENSTEIN: If it’s a lasting client and somebody that really needs whatever services I have, first I get to know them personally and their goals. I don’t look right away to publicize them. I look for their goals. I look for the techniques to get to their goals. And that might involved, “who do I introduce them to? What organized groups should they be talking to? Who are their publics?”

I try to identify their publics. And the publics might be all their employees and no one else. It might be vendors. It might be voters. It might be … oh, anybody that’s interested in what their doing and their future. Once I identify their goal and their publics, I come up with a plan … “this is how we get there”. With a timeline usually. Once we determine … together … I don’t, I don’t say, “Here’s what you’re going to do”. I never do that. I listen a lot. I listen more than I talk actually. I’m talking more now than I usually do.

HEFFNER: Keep … keep it up.

RUBENSTEIN: (Laughter) So once I determine what our goals are and how we get there, then I use the tools of my trade. That might be persuasiveness, it might be straight publicity. It might be organizing forums and special events. It might be going silent. It might be saying to somebody, “look, don’t seek publicity.”

Now very often when there’s a high crescendo of publicity and I have publicity and I have clients that are in the midst of a vast amount of publicity, I’ll tell them “cool it.” It all …the decibel level shouldn’t keep going up. You really have to have peaks and valleys of attention or else you’re going to bring upon you things you don’t want.

What are those things, they ask? I say, “First, you might believe it. (Laughter) You might, you might be on an ego trip rather than on a trip to reach your goal.” And that sort of catches on.

HEFFNER: What happens … does it happen that you don’t approve of your client’s goals? Or do you disassociate yourself from right and wrong … agree or don’t agree.

RUBENSTEIN: They are two different questions. I might disagree with their goals and maybe even how to get there, but if their goals are honorable, I’m okay. I will adopt their goals, even though I see it as a different way … those are their goals.

But if their goals are sought through inappropriate means, something illegal or something bordering on inappropriate, unethical … I’ll drop them. Or I’ll … what I’ll first try to do … and I’ve dropped many clients … not taken on any clients … I would, I would try to convince them to change that attitude.

And I’ll try pretty hard. The question I ask them is, “What’s your good name worth? What’s it worth to you?” And that brings them up short. And they say … usually they say, “it’s worth everything”. And once they say that, I say, “then evaluate what you’re about to do. Now make believe what you’re going to do is known by everybody … it appears on the front page of the Times or the Post … how would you feel? How would your family feel? And they come up short again, they say, “Well it wouldn’t be so good, you’re supposed to cover it up.”

I said, “Nah, then we’re not for each other, or you have to change your attitude.” It’s not complicated, very simple. And everyone should ask that in anything they’re doing in life.

HEFFNER: Howard, when this program … our conversation today goes on the air and the 27 people who are going to watch it, have watched it. What likelihood is there that I’ll get a letter saying, “Howard Rubenstein, let me tell you something about him.” I know about your friends.


HEFFNER: Have you made a lot of enemies in the course of this half century and more?

RUBENSTEIN: I’ve tried not to. And I’m not negative in how I deal with people or problems. I don’t think you’ll find me … perhaps over the years there may have been a time, but very, very rarely will I say anything negative about anybody.

If somebody wants me to run a smear campaign … that happens all the time … they won’t use the word “smear”; they’ll just say, “Attack them, they’re attacking me … attack them.” I won’t do it. I always operate on the positive side. Even after we have a confrontation with somebody. I try to make peace with that somebody. The person who carries anger and hatred in his own heart for somebody hurts himself.

The other person generally doesn’t even care or know. So I get rid of that. I, I get rid of those feelings. And I might ignore somebody, but I won’t be on the attack.

HEFFNER: Are you really that good?

RUBENSTEIN: I hope … I’m …

HEFFNER: I mean “good”.

RUBENSTEIN: No, no. No. No, of course not. Cause you don’t know what’s going on in your head all the time. Sometimes you just have to contain all that. But, I thought it out and … I keep a lot to myself … I try not to express hatred or anger. When I was first starting I had … had a high level of temper … I would, I would give people a hard time in my own office. Clients I very rarely gave a hard time to. I was smart enough not to lose a client because of my anger. But, I think I’m more measured today than I have been.

HEFFNER: Edward L. Bernays …


HEFFNER: I. V. Lee …


HEFFNER: Those people.


HEFFNER: How do they fit into your sense of public relations?

RUBENSTEIN: Well they were, they represented some very big names and they were the fathers of … the beginnings of modern day public relations, giving away dimes.

They came up with … I’ll call them “stunts”. They were, they’re very clever. But I’ll tell you a story, when I was first starting I went to the Public Relations Society of New York. I had a wonderful, big client. And the person who was lecturing was a big name. And he was talking about how he taught … how he sold refrigerators to Eskimos. I thought “That’s a smart guy”. And I went up to him … I had a real estate client, and I said, “I’ll share my fee with you, I’ll give you half the fee” (it was the biggest fee I ever saw). And I said, “If you teach me how to do this, I’ll give you half my fee. You don’t’ have to do anything, just teach me.” And he said, “Get lost, kid.”

(Laughter) Well, that started an episode where I dug in … I, I … you know, I didn’t have it easy in the beginning of my career. I dug in and I said, “I’m going to do it.” But the unfortunate part of that episode is for years I had nothing to do with the Public Relations Society of New York. I refused to go to a meeting. I said, “If that’s what it is, that’s not for me.” In recent years, though, I’ve, I’ve gone to some of their events, I’ve helped them on some events, I’ve spoken at a few of their events because I want to encourage kids to really get into the field and do well.

HEFFNER: There’s a documentary that the BBC did a number of years ago. It focuses on … it begins with Freud and it goes to him nephew Edward L. Bernays …


HEFFNER: … and it says there’s a line that you can draw between recognizing the irrational …


HEFFNER: … in our beings and then the manipulation …


HEFFNER: … of the irrational. To what extent does the word “manipulation” relate to what you’re doing.

RUBENSTEIN: You run into that all the time. I’d be disingenuous if I said I don’t see manipulation. I see manipulation by clients. Some of them try to manipulation me! Into believing something that I know isn’t so.

HEFFNER: But, Howard, I’m asking … do you manipulate?

RUBENSTEIN: About do I manipulate? I try to convince people of something. It depends on your definition of manipulation. If I’ll go to an Editor, I don’t’ try to manipulate them, I try to be a good salesman, I try to convince them of the right or wrong of what I’m selling, or what I’m talking to them about. I don’t look at myself as a manipulator. Not at all.

HEFFNER: You don’t look at yourself …

RUBENSTEIN: As a manipulator.

HEFFNER: But if I were to say …


HEFFNER: … hey there’s a lot manipulation that goes on in that mumbo-jumbo that is public relations. Would that be unfair?

RUBENSTEIN: I think that would be unfair as it relates to me.

HEFFNER: I got ya.

RUBENSTEIN: Sure you find the manipulators. You look in politics, every politician has a manipulator.

HEFFNER: Well, you’ve been very much involved.

RUBENSTEIN: In politics?

HEFFNER: In political life in terms of the politicians you know …

RUBENSTEIN: Well, I know a lot of them. But I’m … I don’t work for them any more. Years and years ago, after Abe Beame lost in his re-run for Mayor, I decided I’m not going to work for any politician for money. I’m not going to be on their payroll. That will keep my independence, it will avoid conflicts of interest. So, no I don’t look at myself as manipulation for any politician. I’ll help a politician, though, I will.

HEFFNER: Conflicts of interest.


HEFFNER: Why do you mention that?

RUBENSTEIN: Ahmm, you always run into a conflict of interest potentially. We have a large business. We have about 450 or so, maybe even more, clients. In every walk of life and a lot of them in specific areas, clustered in areas; if a direct confrontation comes … I always make disclosure to them, they know who my client are. If they go head-to-head, they’ll know it. I’ll either pull back or I’ll ask each of them, or I’ll say …I’ll take one of them, the other will know, but I’ll never … in using subterfuge take on both sides of a fight … on each side of the flight and go after the other.

HEFFNER: Yes, but I see your name so many times.


HEFFNER: In the press. I have the feeling that everyone major in New York is represented.

RUBENSTEIN: But that doesn’t pose a conflict.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean.

RUBENSTEIN: That doesn’t pose a conflict if I’m not attacking another client, or ..


RUBENSTEIN: … there’s no conflict there. I have a lot of clients and many of them are in difficulty, and many of them are not. There are some that are building wonderful businesses. But they prefer to use a spokesman. I’ll tell you a story. I’m walking out of my building where I live and the doorman says to me, “Tell me … you’re spokesman for all these people, don’t they speak English?”

HEFFNER: (Laughter) What’s the answer to his question?

RUBENSTEIN: (Laughter) The answer is of course they speak English but they prefer not to be in the limelight so they ask me to talk for them.

HEFFNER: Why would someone prefer not?

RUBENSTEIN: Because many of my clients don’t want personal publicity and when they’re in a passionate battle, or a very heavily contested situation … they’re lawyers will tell them, “You’re better off not speaking, get a spokesman.” That happens all the time. And I’m very cautious in what I say. And I can’t say something that I don’t know. I’ll never make up an answer, I’ll never presume there’s an answer. They might ask a client something and he knows the answer and I tell him “You may never lie”, so they’d rather not face the question.

HEFFNER: Howard, how come … and we just have a few minutes left …


HEFFNER: … you see so often people who are in trouble these days who use the rationale of “addiction”. “I’m an alcoholic …”


HEFFNER: “… I’m this … I’m that … I’m going to the asylum …


HEFFNER: … to the institution …



RUBENSTEIN: They’re using it too often as a fig leaf and it’s overused. There … I have some clients that are in that … if they really need … if they really need help they should seek help. If they’re really an alcoholic, they should see it. But they shouldn’t … I don’t think they should play on it. They can announce it and then pull back and disappear. The best solution to a problem like that is disappear for a while. And … disappear … solve your problem, then come back healthy … off alcohol, off drugs and reestablish your reputation.

HEFFNER: Or just disappear without having to do anything else.

RUBENSTEIN: No. Then they’re bound to end up in the media again because, if you’re an alcoholic and you don’t deal with it, you get in the car again and you’ll run someone over, you’ll do something. And you’ve got to watch out for that. You’ve got to ask what’s the right thing to do and try to do it.

HEFFNER: Two minutes left. Question … what are you going to do when you grow up?

RUBENSTEIN: Oh, I’m going to …

HEFFNER: Or what do you want to do?

RUBENSTEIN: I’m going to keep doing this thing. I, I don’t intent to retire. I have two sons that are closely associated with me in business. And we work well together. I have a wife that puts up with my long hours. I love doing what I’m doing because it takes me into so many corners of interest, so many intellectual challenges. I love to read. I read the newspapers and the magazines. I watch, watch news programs because I’m in the middle of so much of that and I feel I’m a part of society and I love New York.

HEFFNER: Good answer. Howard Rubenstein thank you so much for joining me today on The Open Mind and come back again soon.

RUBENSTEIN: Well thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you. 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 $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.