ANALYSIS: Profile - Falbaum: cycling across ethical landscape.Born in Nazi Germany and raised in China, Berl Falbaum has been a wanderer most of his life. But he recently found the time to pen a novel, exploring the ethical dilemmas that PR pros face dail

Detroit is Motor City and cars here are generally more personal statement than mere utility. But Berl Falbaum is into cycling. Ducking across a busy suburban boulevard on the way back to his office after lunch, Falbaum wants to take advantage of the gorgeous day. ’If a client hadn’t called me to a 3:45 meeting, I’d be heading out to put in 50 miles on my bike before dinner,’ says the Detroit newsman turned PR pro, journalism teacher and now, novelist.

Detroit is Motor City and cars here are generally more personal statement than mere utility. But Berl Falbaum is into cycling. Ducking across a busy suburban boulevard on the way back to his office after lunch, Falbaum wants to take advantage of the gorgeous day. ’If a client hadn’t called me to a 3:45 meeting, I’d be heading out to put in 50 miles on my bike before dinner,’ says the Detroit newsman turned PR pro, journalism teacher and now, novelist.

Detroit is Motor City and cars here are generally more personal

statement than mere utility. But Berl Falbaum is into cycling. Ducking

across a busy suburban boulevard on the way back to his office after

lunch, Falbaum wants to take advantage of the gorgeous day. ’If a client

hadn’t called me to a 3:45 meeting, I’d be heading out to put in 50

miles on my bike before dinner,’ says the Detroit newsman turned PR pro,

journalism teacher and now, novelist.



’See, I’ve got the rack on my car,’ he continues, pointing not to the

expected Cadillac or Lexus but rather a mundane 10-year-old black Ford

Tempo.



Falbaum’s novel, A Matter of Precedents, is not about bike touring or

cars, however. Instead it lays open the ethics of business, labor

unions, PR, the media and the bar in a tale concerning a factory worker

dying from lung cancer, attributed to many years of asbestos-dust

exposure.



The hero is Tim Kaufmann, vice president of communications for Thompson

Brakes, and wage slave to CEO George Simmons, the number one designated

villain and an unprincipled bully. Naturally the CEO and the company

lawyer, villain number two, try to sweep it under the rug rather than

simply pay up.



Kaufmann struggles to balance company loyalty with integrity and savvy

media relations while on the firing line with investigative reporters

egged on by the victim’s union local chief, who uses the issue to climb

the national union ladder. And in a further ethical twist to the

situation, the hero and the reporter, Sue Merriman, while arguing

ethics, have a love affair.



A writer and a scholar



The novel grew out of one of the wiry PR counselor’s sidelines -

instructing journalism classes at two Detroit-area universities. Prior

to Precedents, Falbaum had published four non-fiction volumes of

humorous memoirs about Detroit journalists, their hangouts and camp

followers.



’I wanted to try my hand one time at a novel,’ he explains, expressing

the secret ambition of many fellow scribes. ’But I knew my

limitations.



I read a couple of novels, and they were all dialogue. I said to myself,

’I can do that.’ ’ As a result of his teaching, he also wanted to ’tell

a story about ethics in a corporation, PR and the media.’



Falbaum, 61, insists the characters in his novel are entirely fictional

and, outwardly at least, that seems to be the case. For example, apart

from the job, the CEO bears no resemblance whatsoever to one-time ’boy

wonder’ Bill Agee, who hired Falbaum in 1977 as his speechwriter when he

acceded to the chairmanship of Bendix - an auto and aircraft parts

maker. Agee later created a scandal in the business press by naming a

female staffer with no PR experience as his VP of PR, denying to

reporters a romantic interest and subsequently marrying her. Of this

real-life drama, there is nothing in Falbaum’s novel.



The book’s characters and dialogue seem real except for some unbroken

monologues about ethics between the book’s romantic duo, the PR guy and

his sometime-nemesis, an investigative reporter.



Overall, Precedents is gripping. Despite the preaching, the plot moves

along and the ending is both satisfying and plausible. The villains use

blackmail to try to win the case in court but, in the end the guy in the

white hat wins - or at least his personal code of ethics does. Of

course, he loses his job and his girlfriend in the process. Villain

number two takes the fall while villain number one slips out

unblemished. It’s corny, but a good read.



’Fiction is easier than journalism,’ the author notes, ’because you

don’t have to deal with facts.’



Falbaum’s background is a strange mixture of the highly unorthodox and

quite typical. ’Berlin, 1938,’ he answers when asked where and when he

was born. His father, a simple tailor, and his mother, a domestic, fled

Nazi Germany with their year-old son just before World War II broke

out.



Jewish refugees had few choices then, and the Falbaum family wound up on

the other side of the world in Shanghai. ’China was the only country

which would accept persons without passports,’ he explains. Japanese

troops already occupied Shanghai in 1939. After the Pearl Harbor attack,

the city’s 20,000 Jews were crowded into the Hongkew Ghetto but

otherwise remained unmolested by Hitler’s allies.



After the war, the Falbaums emigrated with 10-year-old Berl to

Detroit.



He learned English quickly, becoming a translator for his parents. Today

he speaks unaccented Midwestern. ’I’ve always had a passion for words,’

he says.



This passion led Falbaum to write for his junior-high school

newspaper.



Through daily persistence, he wrangled a job at the Detroit News,

copyreading classified ads after completing high school. He attended

Wayne State University in Detroit, continuing part-time at the News

until obtaining his journalism degree in 1960. By then a newsroom

copyboy, he soon graduated again - to full-time reporter.



Falbaum had been the News’ city hall bureau chief for four years when he

quit to be press secretary to Michigan’s lieutenant governor. In 1974,

he entered corporate PR with Detroit Edison. His stint with Bendix

lasted from 1977 to 1983, when Bendix disappeared in a contested merger

with a New Jersey company.



Falbaum then served five years as VP of communications for the Perry

drug store chain, until he set up his own PR shop, with Perry as his

prime client.



Riding solo



Today his 11-year-old, largely solo practice consists of speech writing

and media relations. His special focus is staging media seminars for a

variety of clients, including government agencies, corporations and

non-profits.



Falbaum took up cycling seven years ago because his joints couldn’t take

the pounding of running. His proudest achievement is depicted in

snapshots on his office wall: in 1996, with a group of 80 other riders,

he completed a 3,700-mile coast-to-coast bike journey in 51 days.



Is there significance to Falbaum’s unpretentious car, long-distance

cycling and obsession with ethics? Perhaps he marches to a different

drummer, or perhaps it stems from his upbringing, half a world away.



- A Matter of Precedents is published by Proctor Publishing, Ann Arbor,

MI.



Berl Falbaum - President, Falbaum & Associates



1970: Press secretary for Michigan’s lieutenant governor



1974: Enters corporate PR with Detroit Edison



1977: Speechwriter for CEO of Bendix Corporation



1983: VP of communications, Perry Drugs



1989: Founds Falbaum & Associates



1998: A Matter of Precedents is released.



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