PR's crisis guru, John Scanlon, dies at 66

NEW YORK: PR executives, journalists, lawyers and poets gathered

last Tuesday to attend the funeral of John Scanlon, 66, whom PRWeek

recently hailed as one of the greatest PR people of the 20th


Scanlon, known for taking on clients with major image issues, such as

Monica Lewinsky and tobacco firm Brown & Williamson (B&W), died the

previous Friday morning of a suspected heart attack.

He had spent the day preparing former Sen. Bob Kerrey to address

students at The New School in New York.

Speaking at the funeral, which was held at the Cathedral of St. John the

Divine in Manhattan, were close friends, including ABC anchor Peter

Jennings, Daily News columnist Pete Hamill and Nobel prize-winning Irish

poet Seamus Heaney.

The 500-strong crowd reflected Scanlon's huge circle of influence and

included US News & World Report writer John Leo; antitrust lawyer David

Boies; Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter; renowned journalist Carl

Bernstein; Time managing editor Jim Kelly, and former client and Sony

CEO Howard Stringer.

When Stringer worked for CBS, Scanlon defended the company's news

division against libel charges by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, former

chief of staff of the US Army.

While Scanlon had countless friends in the media, he rarely leaned on

them. According to Kelly, Scanlon merely asked people to lend his

clients an ear.

Kelly remembers how Scanlon was able to get 10 magazine staff in a room

to listen to the CEO of American Airlines: 'We were there for 90 minutes

listening to pricing structures. He just managed to get you to


Scanlon's reputation fumbled at one stage while working for B&W. He was

much criticized for putting together a report containing questionable

information about Jeffrey Wigand, a former B&W employee who became a


Scanlon's role in the debacle was immortalized by actor Rip Torn in the

movie The Insider, but Scanlon said he never saw the film. 'I prefer my

fiction in print,' he told PRWeek at the time.

Michael Powell, a partner at Westhill Media Strategies, where Scanlon

worked, said: 'John liked controversy. He liked to be involved in

high-stakes debate and liked to prepare himself to argue on both


Among Scanlon's other famous former clients are Ivana Trump during her

divorce battle with Donald Trump (who was represented by rival Howard

Rubenstein) and the Rev. Bruce Ritter while he was embroiled in sex


'John was a criminal defense attorney. And everyone is entitled to his

or her defense in the court of public opinion,' said Kelly.

At the funeral, Jennings told of how Scanlon would ask new employees

questions such as 'What were the names of King Lear's daughters?'

Heaney read a poem he had composed for Scanlon's 60th birthday called

Himself, Forever.

Scanlon began his career as a New York schoolteacher before becoming an

advisor to New York mayor John Lindsay in the early 1970s. He then

became a partner in Abernathy MacGregor Scanlon, and later a senior

counselor at Edelman.

As manager of crisis communications at intelligence firm DSFX

International, he represented a Sudanese businessman whose factory was

bombed by the US government.

In October 2000, Scanlon set off for a new venture named Westhill Media

Strategies, formed in partnership with Ed Reilly, Lou Colasuonno and

Deborah Hayes.

His clients there included Sotheby's chairman Alfred Taubman and the

Rev. Jesse Jackson. Said colleague Michael Powell, 'His office looked

liked that of an English literature professor rather than a PR


He had stacks of unread articles. It was a very cerebral setting.'

Scanlon was also a mentor to many in the profession. These include Dan

Klores, who remembers Scanlon as 'liking a good fight and respecting a

good adversary,' and newcomer Elliot Sloane, who said, 'He read more

newspapers than anyone I know. I will miss him very much.'

- See Letters, p. 10.


Graydon Carter editor, 'Vanity Fair'

'We have been friends for 23 years. He never pushed a client, but would

be helpful if they were in the news. He thought like a trial lawyer and

was a master of rhetoric. He lived a good life and worked a good life,

and kept the two in balance.'

Jim Kelly, managing editor 'Time'

'He was always clear about what was professional and what was

friendship. He managed to remain friends with journalists because no one

ever felt used by him. He never sold a product, he was a PR person who

represented ideas.'

Peter Jennings, senior editor/anchor ABC News

'I first met him 20 years ago. He collects friends like you would

furniture and old books. But he knew the difference between a friend and

a contact.'

Dan Klores, Dan Klores Communications

'For years we flirted with going into business together. It was

wonderful to be able to call him and ask his advice or take on any

situation. He had a feud or two ... and would tell you if you were full

of shit.'

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