The scene, a dream sequence for any normal mortal, is but a gathering of friends for Howard Rubenstein, who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his public relations agency, Howard Rubenstein & Associates. That he can bring together not just a stellar crowd, but a crowd of wildly contrasting characters from so many walks of life, says a lot about the incredible influence of this slight, quietly spoken 72-year-old New Yorker.
By dint not only of whom he knows, but also what he knows-his media savvy, diplomacy and honesty have been key to building, and saving, the reputations of hundreds of America's most controversial figures-Mr. Rubenstein has become a New York institution in his own right.
Indeed, one of the centerpieces at the party was a giant golden apple-a symbol of Mr. Rubenstein's sway over much that goes on in the city? No, that wouldn't be his style. His firm simply represents the "Golden Apple Festival," along with another 450 clients, most headquartered in the city. Rubenstein & Associates, founded in 1954, now handles the media relations, and often crisis communications, for clients from BMW to Bear Stearns and Beth Israel hospital.
The handful of wide-eyed folks wondering how they'd stumbled into such a fantastic party scene-that would be the press-are every bit as important to Mr. Rubenstein as the clients, former clients and old school friends who show up to fete him. Some might see Mr. Rubenstein as a master of spin, but most profess a great deal of respect for the PR man.
Take CNN host Larry King, who grew up with Mr. Rubenstein in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. "When [sportscaster] Marv Albert was accused of being rough with women, he had a private meeting with me," says Mr. King. "Howard made the setting comfortable and didn't set any ground rules. PR people diffuse the battle and decrease the war place. The aim is to bring out the plus side and play down the minus, but to do that you need the confidence of people," and Mr. King says he trusts Mr. Rubenstein to guide him. "You know, if he says what you're printing is wrong, you should wait a while. He has a great sense of the world around him."
He's an important news conduit, too. New York Daily News baseball columnist Bill Madden says Mr. Rubenstein has been practically the sole source of information about Yankee strategy since Mr. Steinbrenner was "shut down" by his people. Mr. Madden says while the Yankees' PR folks certainly put their own spin on events, "he'll give me a straight answer."
And so it goes. Every person interviewed for this article said practically the same thing about Mr. Rubenstein-that, above all, he is fair. If you question Mr. Rubenstein about it, he always asserts that for a PR person to lie or deliberately deceive is a career-limiting move. In fact, Mr. Rubenstein has a paperweight in his office that reads, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."
It's not only his relationships with the media that clients value. Real- estate mogul Larry Silverstein, who owns the lease on the World Trade Center site and has battled with insurance companies over the size of the payout following 9/11, says of Mr. Rubenstein, "He is a super confidant, a greater adviser because of his depth and exposure to everyone of consequence in our world. There isn't anyone he doesn't know or isn't known to-government individuals at the highest level, the development community. Never in all the years have I heard him say anything derogatory in nature-that's remarkable."
New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has prosecuted numerous Wall Street firms over unfair practices, says, "I've known him since I was a junior lawyer for shared clients, and sometimes adversaries. He's always been forthright about the facts. He has a sense of dispassion and the hyper-emotional responses tend to fall by the wayside."
If there is one criticism some journalists have leveled at Mr. Rubenstein, it is that he sometimes works for people whom they regard as undeserving of his help. And, certainly, Mr. Rubenstein has dealt with some of the trickiest clients at some of their stickiest times. He most famously represented Donald Trump during his divorce from Ivana (he was fired and later rehired by The Donald). He also handled Leona Helmsley during her trial for tax evasion and real- estate mogul Charles Kushner, who recently pleaded guilty to tax violations and paying a prostitute to blackmail his brother-in-law. To paraphrase New York Gov. George Pataki, who also spoke at the 50th anniversary party, "If Howard had represented the rats during the plague, they wouldn't have gotten such a bad name."
While Mr. Rubenstein is quick to point out that he's a day-to-day media relations man and an agency manager, not just a master of disasters, his description of a typical day in the office does sound like that of the ultimate crisis-handler. "I get calls, somebody may have said something totally racist, and the roof falls in," he says. "It can ruin careers; some are from well-known people. I get calls on harassment in the workplace from men and women. I get them all the time. I get calls from corporations that have had products that appear to be defective and some of them don't want to do anything."
the hard line
So what does he advise? "I've a very hard line on them. If someone dies, you're in trouble. Sometimes the lawyers are more dismissive." In fact, he says he won't take on every client who calls, although he might give them a little free advice. Recently he declined to work for embattled New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, who approached him for help in winning support for his choice of security adviser, Golan Cipel. It was later reported that Mr. McGreevey was in a relationship with Mr.Cipel, who quit the post.
"I try to calm them. I ask if they can look at the problem with balance and honesty," Mr. Rubenstein adds. "Then we get a real crisis team together. It usually involves a CFO and a lawyer, maybe someone from HR." The last thing on his mind in these situations is the press release. "I don't say, `Let's get a statement out.' That's the last thing." It is interesting to note that he'll often have a client's law firm hire him, rather than the client, so there is some element of courtroom privilege if he's drawn into a legal case.
In many ways, Mr. Rubenstein is a young 72. He runs every day in Central Park. He thinks incredibly fast. But he does have an old-school, gentlemanly manner about him; he rarely uses a computer and doesn't send e-mail, further evidence of his measured manner. "You lose caution, and when you press a button it's gone forever," he says. "When you write or dictate, you are more thoughtful," he says.
Perhaps this cautious approach is born of Mr. Rubenstein's hybrid background as part public relations adviser, part lawyer. The son of New York Herald Tribune journalist Sam Rubenstein, he dropped out of Harvard Law School after a month only to return to law school at night. He jokes that he later represented Harvard during a crisis and got his tuition fees back.
Over dinner at Peter Luger's steakhouse in Brooklyn-a Rubenstein family-owned restaurant run by his wife, Amy-Mr. Rubenstein remembers the beginning of his career. He'd run over to local newsrooms with small announcements, only to be told by crooked hacks, "Put $2 dollars in the drawer, Rube, and we'll see what we can do." When asked why he didn't follow his father's footsteps into the business, he says he "didn't want to be a $35-a-week copy boy."
He had to move his growing business from his mother's kitchen because she refused to play secretary by answering the family phone, "Howard Rubenstein Associates." He left home with the ambition that he could prove that publicists could be much more influential than those portrayed in the movie "The Sweet Smell of Success."
"I never liked kissing butt," he confesses, and says going back to law school at night helped him make PR a profession. He now counsels PR executives not to be "yes men" to their bosses, but to act as a conscience and help them do and say what is right.
His client list grew from an old people's home in Brooklyn to some of the biggest names in the corporate world. He says winning Rupert Murdoch's business was one of the turning points in the growth of his firm-though he stresses his relationship with the New York Post is strictly arm's length when it's covering his clients.
Back in the `80s, Mr. Murdoch was battling not only the unions, but groups who were opposed to his ownership of the Post. Mr. Rubenstein fended off brutal attacks from pro-union columnist Jimmy Breslin, who turned his attack on Mr. Rubenstein as well as his mogul client. Mr. Murdoch even called the Rubenstein family home to say he'd understand if Howard wanted to wash his hands of the business. Mr. Rubenstein had no intention of deserting his client. He didn't. Breslin and the unions didn't sink either man, and Mr. Rubenstein remains in business with Mr. Murdoch. "Howard is an old and trusted friend whose strategic counsel and loyalty to me have been invaluable to me for decades," says Mr. Murdoch, through a spokesman. And just as News Corp. is a family-run business, so is Rubenstein & Associates.
in dad's footsteps
Sons Steven Rubenstein and Richard Rubenstein have followed their father into the office, and the two will jointly succeed their father. Steven says he was first aware of what his father did for a living at age 8, when he recalls President Jimmy Carter on the phone. He has recollections of his father running the mayoral campaign for Abe Beame during the `70s when New York City was suffering from a crippling financial crisis.
Mr. Rubenstein and Steven share a number of clients, while Steven has also built his own client base, which includes project work for Vogue and repping late-night host David Letterman. "We try to figure out what to do, you know this person, I know that person," says Steven, who loves extreme sports and sometimes disappears to trek in the Himalayas or go rock climbing in the Tetons-activities his father frowns upon.
The senior Mr. Rubenstein has no plans to retire and will continue to run the business as long as he's mentally capable, he says. After that, Steven is his most obvious successor, though Steven says it will be run jointly with his brother. "None of us want to be acquired," he says.
Over the years, Mr. Rubenstein has politely declined holding-company offers. Some estimate agency revenue around $75 million; others say between $30 million and $50 million. It's one topic of conversation that the Rubensteins won't indulge. Tom Harrison, president of Omnicom Group's diversified agency services unit, says Mr. Rubenstein made it clear he wasn't interested in selling from a very early stage. "Howard is his own man, an entrepreneur, one of the most powerful PR practitioners in New York. To be part of another company doesn't fit his genetic make-up," he says. Mr. Harrison credits Mr. Rubenstein as being a catalyst for other PR professionals who've also raised their game accordingly. Mr. Rubenstein, however, is no slave to measurement and does not play much of a role in PR trade organizations. He says effective PR is more about changing the minds of influencers than it is about collecting impression data.
working both sides
He's also managed to negotiate conflict in a way most advertising agencies can only dream of. Mr. Rubenstein works with Mr. Murdoch, but also works with Mort Zuckerman, owner of the New York Daily News, on his real-estate investments. He also worked both sides of an argument between a Manhattan theater group and a Catholic body that was protesting the representation of Christ as gay. Arguing freedom of speech, Mr. Rubenstein helped the play complete its run and has a metal hard hat in his office-sent by the theater company as a memento.
When asked if there's anything in his 50-year career that he hasn't done, he says, "I would like to have worked for the queen of England. I thought she had a challenge." Mr. Rubenstein came close to his dream of helping Elizabeth with her constant familial troubles, but once aides realized that Mr. Rubenstein repped Sarah Ferguson, duchess of York and former wife of the queen's son Andrew, they turned elsewhere.
Another unfulfilled ambition of his is to work as the press secretary to the president, although Mr. Rubenstein says he's long since given up working on political campaigns, and won't say what his own politics are. His take on the current political race is that George Bush is more adept at handling the media. "You can turn around an election pretty quickly with skill, though," he says, pointing out that candidates that fall behind tend to get easily discouraged. His advice to Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry would be to simply establish a central theme.
His only regret in terms of how his life panned out is that he wishes he'd had more training in journalism. "What I probably missed at the beginning was a solid education in journalism and PR. My parents intended me to be a lawyer, but finally I found my wish."
When asked what he'd like on his grave stone, he jokes, "He would have loved to do it all again." His crisis clients would probably rather not.