PROFILE: From copy to crisis, Schwartz has his PR act together

Structure is a mainstay of Gil Schwartz's life. Good thing it is. If it weren't, he could never handle the chaos that comes with being CBS' head of PR, and still write his column for Fortune.

Structure is a mainstay of Gil Schwartz's life. Good thing it is. If it weren't, he could never handle the chaos that comes with being CBS' head of PR, and still write his column for Fortune.

Gil Schwartz was once a struggling actor and playwright. He appeared in the soap As The World Turns, but his character was shot in the trunk of a car, ensuring no comebacks. Schwartz has been luckier in the corporate world. His speechwriting gig at Teleprompter turned into a larger PR role, as the company became Group W, and then Westinghouse. He survived the mergers, washed up on CBS' shores, and rose to EVP of communications. His day starts at 9am, when he confesses to yelling at journalists before "plotting lunch. His regular haunt is upscale New York restaurant Michael's, the school cafeteria of the media world. "It's the kind of place you go when you want your lunch registered, he says. It's almost impossible to direct conversation with the highly entertaining Schwartz. He is, after all, a master of manipulation. In fact, he once wrote a book called What Would Machiavelli Do?, a satirical manual on how to become mean in order to get to the top. His latest business title, Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up, offers advice on managing the boss. In a section about keeping the boss informed regularly, he writes, "You exist to be a student of the elephant, and of all others. Know its likes and dislikes. A few nuts in your pocket may do more than a backpack full of stew." You won't see Schwartz's name on the jacket, though. He writes under the pseudonym Stanley Bing, which allows him to witness the madness of corporate life without conflicting his role as the top communications strategist at CBS. "I was always fascinated by structure, groups, and organizations, and the way they work together in big companies, says Schwartz of his inspiration for writing about life inside major corporations. "I was a protozoa on the body of a corporation, but there was no subject too small: the role of lunch, who you yell at, who yells at you." Bing's column runs in Fortune. His editor, Tim Smith, says only one column was ever spiked. "He wrote one about Monica Lewinsky that was so toxic we had to put it in the safety deposit box. The editor said he felt like his favorite dog had just ruined his favorite rug." Smith notes that Schwartz has a somber side too. His columns in the aftermath of 9/11 were so poignant, Fortune submitted them for journalism's Loeb awards. He's a finalist; the winners are due to be announced today. Accolades aside, Schwartz's job has him dealing with heavy fire on a daily basis. His colleague, Carl Folta, SVP of corporate relations at Viacom, explains, "You are up against the other networks. These are major businesses, and there's a daily scorecard." In the weeks before CBS was due to air 9/11, a documentary by the French-born Naudet brothers, the network was attacked for exploiting the event for commercial gain. Family complaints were fueled by what Schwartz calls a "disinformation campaign by professional victims groups, politicians, and various other interests." He dealt with the matter by talking directly to victims' families. "It was a very intense period. I found it much easier to deal with people personally, than put them through a chain. I felt bad for them. We all thought about whether to do the program, whether it was right, how pain would be minimized. We came to the conclusion that it was our responsibility to show it. The victims don't own an event. We all own it." Folta adds that one of Schwartz's strengths is his ability to bring perspective to a problem. Not long after the 9/11 furor, both the State and Justice Departments, on behalf of Daniel Pearl's widow, asked CBS News to reconsider its decision to air parts of the video of Pearl's death in Pakistan. The network didn't air any graphic sequences, but was criticized by other networks. CBS issued a statement about its position, and Schwartz added, "You have to say what you think, and say it clearly. If people don't agree, then that's their right. He later defended the decision in an article for The Boston Globe. Back at Black Rock, the name of the building where CBS is headquartered, Schwartz says his staff is given a fair degree of freedom. PR execs for entertainment, news, sports, stations, and the mini-network UPN all report to him. "There's a lot I don't know about, and a lot I don't need to know about, says Schwartz, who keeps up with around 200 phone calls and 100 e-mails a day. "It's mostly people covering their asses, he says. Keeping the hatches battened at a media company is an almost impossible task. "How can leakers accept a pay check? I want to throw those people out of the window." While he's both writer and executive, outsider and insider, he takes afirm hand with reporters who get on his bad side. "Do not betray, he warns the unscrupulous, and don't ever call him or any other PR executive a "flack." "You are dead if you shaft a journalist, he says, acknowledging that PR pros get shafted all the time. One instance involved executives being hoodwinked into giving reporters access for a straight business piece that turned out to be another personalities-at-war story. It's unclear whether Schwartz's ultimate boss, Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, reads Bing's Fortune column. "Very little of what he writes is based on actual events, says Folta. Playtone, Tom Hanks' production company, has optioned the TV rights to another Schwartz book, Lloyd: What Happened? The story follows a stressed corporate executive whose life starts to fall apart after he is put in charge of a venture involving downsizing management. It's described as a corporate Band of Brothers, likely to wind up on HBO. Would Schwartz ever give up the hot seat at CBS to pursue the life of a screenwriter? He doesn't think that's necessary. "I have a mini-brand here. There's Bing and there's Schwartz." ----- GIL SCHWARTZ 1981 Public Affairs Associate at Teleprompter, rising to manager PR when Teleprompter was acquired by Westinghouse 1984 Comms director, Group W Cable 1987 Comms director, Group W Television 1989 Comms VP, TV Station Group 1993 VP, corporate comms for Westinghouse Broadcasting (which acquired CBS) 1996 SVP Communications, CBS 2000 EVP Communications, CBS Television.

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