ANALYSIS: Profile - A PR man who presses everyone's buttons - Though some have accused him of attaining more press for himself than his clients, Richard Laermer achieves PR's highest goal - he's never ignored

Mention Richard Laermer's name in New York and technology company CEOs who know him, start raving or ranting. The 40-year-old founder of RLM Public Relations triggers strong emotions among clients, ex-clients and the journalists he works with. He's either loved or loathed and there seems to be no middle ground.

Mention Richard Laermer's name in New York and technology company CEOs who know him, start raving or ranting. The 40-year-old founder of RLM Public Relations triggers strong emotions among clients, ex-clients and the journalists he works with. He's either loved or loathed and there seems to be no middle ground.

Mention Richard Laermer's name in New York and technology company CEOs who know him, start raving or ranting. The 40-year-old founder of RLM Public Relations triggers strong emotions among clients, ex-clients and the journalists he works with. He's either loved or loathed and there seems to be no middle ground.

Why? To some, Laermer is a tireless drumbeater who, critics charge, flogs his own talents more than he touts his clients. But others claim he is one of the most capable pros in the business.

To give an example, RLM counseled client, Nerve.com, an erotic literary Webzine, which has an accompanying hard-copy magazine. His advice was to launch the day the Communications Decency Act came up before the Supreme Court.

Laermer says: 'Nerve had the chance to taunt the Federal government for its anti-first amendment stance and we got national coverage.' Yet ask Nerve.com's CEO Rufus Griscom about the publicity coup and you're greeted with a 'no comment.'

But other clients rave about him. Brian Flynn, CEO of Annotate.net, a Manhattan-based information technology firm, and an ex-Citibank employee, claims: 'RLM is incredible. I've worked in the past with Burson-Marsteller and Ruder Finn, but Richard and his team are disciplined and really understand my business.'



Doing it his way

Laermer is certainly no shrinking violet. RLM, which has been specializing in dot-com startups, has 'had more successful launches than NASA,' reads the company information.

It's no wonder. Laermer is a consummate multitasker and conducts phone interviews as he bangs out e-mails. He makes no apology when the rudeness is pointed out to him. 'I'm sort of an e-mail addict and do a minimum of 550 to 800 e-mails a day,' he boasts. 'I'm an incredibly fast typist - 200 words a minute. People actually come to watch me type,' he jokes.

Currently, Laermer is on a sabbatical pounding out his eighth book, a tome on trend spotting for Penguin/Perigee. His first book, the breezy Native's Guide to New York, has sold 85,000 copies. He also created the Native's Guide to New York forum on CompuServe.

As well as being an accomplished author, he is boss to 31 people. By his own reckoning, Laermer says 2000 revenues were dollars 3.38 million.



From freelance to founder

He's come along way since his 20s, when he freelanced for The New York Times Arts section and USA Today, among other publications. 'I'd get boring PR stuff that would go straight into the circular bin,' he remembers.

So when he got his first real job in 1990, as public affairs director of Columbia University's Business School, he vowed to make news. 'Academia was a bunch of people going nowhere. All they wanted me to do was send out press releases,' Laermer recalls.

Instead, he shook up the school's seminars by inviting thought leaders like The Economist's executive editor to give talks on subjects such as the elder George Bush's role as President. 'To be perfectly blunt, Columbia paid me crap. dollars 45,000 a year, ridiculous,' he says.

But he maintains his efforts there were so successful, he got time off to write a book and then eventually took a severance payoff. 'Hey, I'm legendary at Columbia,' he adds, in his self-effacing way.

He opened Richard Laermer Media (RLM) in 1991 promoting a book on how executives 'were using or misusing' computers. He was paid around dollars 1,000 a month, a figure, that he recalls 'didn't pay the electric bill.' He worried that he wouldn't make it.

But Laermer didn't take long to hit the big time, thanks to his ability to translate technology concepts and their purveyors into mainstream news by going beyond tech trade coverage. He also had a Rabbi, Seth Goldstein, a client at Venture Capital firm Flatiron Partners, who sent technology start-ups RLM's way. By the late 1990s, RLM was riding the dot-com wave with 21 clients.



Overcoming adversity

But waves crest and Laermer has seen his fair share of clients fall on hard times with the dot-com crash. Kozmo.com, the less-than-an-hour Manhattan delivery service, described by Laermer as 'one of '99's biggest stories,' almost ran out of cash, but has since been rescued by a new infusion from Flatiron Partners.

Laermer says he's 'wallpapered the (agency) bathroom with client stock options taken in addition, not in lieu of fees.' He adds that RLM is still commanding monthly retainers of dollars 25,000.

Yet Laermer's reputation has taken some hits. MOUSE, a New York City nonprofit training the city's teachers in technology and helping wire schools, hired RLM for six months at dollars 9,000 monthly.

'They just didn't understand what we did,' says executive director Sarah Holloway. 'We were interested in reaching an educational audience but they didn't have the connections and didn't get us anything.' Holloway sacked RLM after four months. 'They didn't meet their promises.' Laermer sued and MOUSE settled.

Rebuts Laermer: 'I love it when folks revise history. I have dozens of e-mails from Sarah's boss, Joanne Wilson, their CEO, who begged us to promote her as the MOUSE spokesperson. We got her in Business 2.0, Redbook, Software News, Silicon Alley Reporter and on NY1 in a few months plus Ed.net, Technology and Learning and Parenting News. But when Sarah fired us, she gave us no reason whatsoever.'

Yet Silicon Alley Reporter editor Jason McCabe Calacanis is no fan of RLM's chief after the MOUSE flap. 'I've met a lot of PR people and I've never heard worse complaints from people I respect than what I hear about Laermer. In my opinion, a PR person should know better than to sue a non-profit.'

Other clients claim they are largely satisfied with his work. Michael Diamant, CEO of IClips in New York, says: 'We work with him occasionally on messaging issues, but we have a great team and we're happy.'

He may be the high profile frontman, but Laermer tends to trust his account teams to get on with the job. 'We have no illusion that Richard works on our account,' says Kevin McDonald, marketing vice president for Portera, a Californian maker of PR and ad agency contact software. But McDonald reports he's had 'excellent results' with RLM.

According to another client, Lynda Rasoevich, marketing chief for ePod, an interactive advertising firm in New York, working with this Manhattan firm 'is a chance for us to get out of the Silicon Valley bubble.' She is a happy RLM client, but quips that Laermer is 'a little overcaffeinated.'

But as long as his hyper nature is matched by the hype he can generate for clients, Laermer will be hard to ignore on the New York PR scene.



Richard Laermer

founder, RLM Public Relations



1980-1990

Freelance writer for The New York Times, New York Press, USA Today, New York Daily News, Reuters, New York Post Saturday Review, People, US, Editor and Publisher, 7 Days, Interview



1990-1991

Director of public affairs for Columbia University Graduate Business School



1991

Opened RLM Public Relations, New York City.



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