ANALYSIS: Profile - Howard Rubenstein: hard hat, velvet glove/Howard Rubenstein is known as PR’s premiere power broker but it’s an image he’s rather uncomfortable with. Larry Dobrow chats with the legend and finds out what makes hi

Howard Rubenstein is among the best-known pros in the history of PR. He has the ear of everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Kathie Lee Gifford.

Howard Rubenstein is among the best-known pros in the history of PR. He has the ear of everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Kathie Lee Gifford.

Howard Rubenstein is among the best-known pros in the history of

PR. He has the ear of everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Kathie Lee

Gifford.



His client roster includes the New York Yankees, Weight Watchers,

PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the School of American Ballet. He has met

with every president since Harry Truman and has been a confidant of

every New York City mayor since Abe Beame.



Is it surprising, then, that he is more often referred to as a power

broker than a mere PR pro?



It’s a perception that clearly irks Rubenstein, though he responds to

questions about it with the cool detachment of Michael Jordan at the

free-throw line. ’They attribute power to me that I don’t have,’ he

says, punctuating it with a shrug.



When talking with Rubenstein, you don’t get the sense that you are being

’played’ - though you suspect that you probably are. He is incredibly

eager to please, insisting that you take one of the copies of Alan

Axelrod’s book, Patton on Leadership, that sits on a coffee table in his

almost disturbingly huge wood-paneled office. He speaks smoothly and

evenly, and seems to have two different smiles - one that glides across

his lips when social protocol demands it, another for when he is

genuinely amused. On his hand rests a New York Yankees 1998 championship

ring that is roughly the size of a child’s head.



Misunderstood



Entering his 45th year in the PR business, Rubenstein, 67, has become a

larger-than-life figure. His biography has been rehashed many times

over: son of a journalist, a law-school dropout and eventual graduate, a

4:30 am riser who jogs four miles and returns 20 phone calls before most

PR pros get out of bed. Yet so many details about his life have been

bandied about that people forget he wouldn’t have his celebrity without

first having assembled one of the PR industry’s best businesses. And one

of its most misunderstood.



Rubenstein Associates is not a celebrity-centric shop: only 10% of its

accounts deal with celebrities or sports, with the vast majority of the

agency’s business coming from real estate, healthcare and

corporate/financial clients. He also talks up his non-profit work, which

he claims takes up 30% of his time. Though Rubenstein won’t reveal

billings - ’I’m a private company. There’s no advantage in me giving

details’ - he hints that the agency would rank ’around third or fourth’

on PRWeek’s list of New York agencies, which places the firm’s fee

income somewhere around dollars 30 million.



A trained lawyer, he considers this vital to the counsel he has

given.



But while most assume that Rubenstein considers himself above PR, but he

is in fact one of its biggest boosters. ’When I first started, PR was

not considered a true profession, which is why I went back to law school

at night,’ he recalls. ’But it’s a very demanding profession. I was

totally wrong in my assessment of PR.’ Rubenstein is clearly proud to

have contributed - ’in a very small way, of course’ - to the evolution

of the industry, and is pleased by how its reputation has increased over

the years: ’A few years ago, I never would have given an interview to a

PR publication.’



Rubenstein also pays closer attention to trends within the PR industry

than those who buy into the power-broker hype might realize. His firm

has quietly moved into the hi-tech space over the last year, and he is

following the acquisition-happy climate with great interest. ’I will

never sell to an ad agency or a larger PR firm,’ he states firmly,

answering the question before it is asked.



He admits to being somewhat out of touch with others in the PR

community.



’I’ve been a loner to a certain extent,’ he says. Still, those with whom

he has forged relationships hail him as one of the industry’s icons.



Harold Burson has lunched with Rubenstein annually for the last seven or

eight years. ’I’d read so much about him that I wanted to meet him,’

Burson says. ’Howard is much more thoughtful and low-key than I’d been

led to expect, and I enjoy our time together.’



Adds Lizzie Grubman, ’A lot of people in my generation aspire to be like

him. He’s amazing at what he does. Nobody is better.’



While not everyone has a kind word to say about Rubenstein, it is

telling that his critics quiver at the thought of giving on-the-record

opinions.



’The place is a complete sweatshop, but don’t quote me on that,’ says

one. ’The old guy is losing it,’ says another, who calls back two

minutes after the phone conversation has ended to ask, ’You’re not going

to use my name, right?’



Positive side of the street



Rubenstein responds to these allegations with a dismissive wave of his

hand. ’I function on the positive side of the street,’ he says. Michael

Gross, who this year wrote a not-entirely-flattering profile of him for

New York magazine, agrees with this assertion. ’There are PR people in

this city who are vile, back-burning, scum-sucking dogs,’ Gross

says.



’Howard Rubenstein is nothing like that. He was gracious and a gentleman

in the face of the inevitable, and did a great job spinning

himself.’



About the profile, which highlighted several perceived conflicts of

interest and portrayed him as an almost Godfather-like figure,

Rubenstein seems almost indifferent. ’You can either cooperate or not.

I’ll cooperate with almost any article,’ he says, adding, ’I’ve never

looked for that kind of publicity.’ But what about the little 45th

anniversary shindig he threw last week for 3,000 friends, colleagues and

clients - including over 1,000 members of the media - at New York’s

famed Tavern on the Green? ’That’s different,’ he says.



As for the future, Rubenstein scoffs at claims that the firm will

collapse after his retirement. ’We have 500 clients, and I don’t deal

with 95% of them.’ While insisting that he won’t abdicate the throne any

time soon, he talks enthusiastically about a strong team (which includes

sons Richard and Steven) that has been put in place.



’I can disappear from here tomorrow on vacation and feel comfortable

that all clients would be served.’ Really? ’Well, I might take a cell

phone with me,’ he admits.



HOWARD RUBENSTEIN

PRESIDENT, RUBENSTEIN & ASSOCIATES

1953

Graduates Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania

1954

Founds Rubenstein Associates, gets first client (Menorah Home and

Hospital for the Aged)

1959

Receives JD degree from St. John’s Law School

1960

Works as assistant counsel for the House Judiciary Committee

1973-1977

Handles PR for NY mayor Abe Beame



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