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
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.
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
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
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
’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
’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
’Howard Rubenstein is nothing like that. He was gracious and a gentleman
in the face of the inevitable, and did a great job spinning
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.
PRESIDENT, RUBENSTEIN & ASSOCIATES
Graduates Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania
Founds Rubenstein Associates, gets first client (Menorah Home and
Hospital for the Aged)
Receives JD degree from St. John’s Law School
Works as assistant counsel for the House Judiciary Committee
Handles PR for NY mayor Abe Beame