KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY: In this age of consolidation, family-run PR agencies still abound. Isadore Barmash looks at the dynasties that control some of the big and small agencies - and at the difficulties of running a family firm

Family businesses in America are fading away - that’s the impression anyway; numbers are hard to come by. Experts in PR generally agree that family-owned PR agencies are on a downward spiral, too. And yet, it is still easy to uncover many such companies when one goes looking for them.

Family businesses in America are fading away - that’s the impression anyway; numbers are hard to come by. Experts in PR generally agree that family-owned PR agencies are on a downward spiral, too. And yet, it is still easy to uncover many such companies when one goes looking for them.

Family businesses in America are fading away - that’s the

impression anyway; numbers are hard to come by. Experts in PR generally

agree that family-owned PR agencies are on a downward spiral, too. And

yet, it is still easy to uncover many such companies when one goes

looking for them.

In fact, some of the best-known firms in the business have multiple


Other familial combinations include husband-and-wife teams and


One reason PR is family friendly is that the barriers to enter the

profession are relatively low. But that doesn’t mean that running a

family business doesn’t have its snafus. In fact, the family

relationships themselves can present difficulties. Blood or marital

lines can be both a blessing and a mine field. Many married couples

couldn’t imagine working with their spouses (without resorting to

murder, that is) - and yet there are many examples of such successful

teams in PR.

In most cases, it takes an unusual degree of bonding and laying out of

boundaries. For children of PR pros entering the business, there can be

special problems of competition and autonomy - especially when the

parent is a PR star. ’Some sons or daughters won’t work in the old man’s

agency, because they’ll be in the constant shadow of the parent,’ says

Howard Rubenstein, the prominent New York PR man, sire of a family PR

firm himself.

’They prefer to go out and prove themselves elsewhere first and may come

into the agency later. It’s a way of proving that they earned their way

rather than inherited the job.’

Yet Rubenstein’s own children came into the business through his


Richard is now president of two units of Rubenstein & Associates:

Rubenstein Public Relations and Rubenstein Industrial Relations. Steven

is president of Rubenstein Communications. A daughter, Ronni, a lawyer,

comes in once a week to do some writing and legal work for the firm.

Even Howard’s father, the late Sam Rubenstein, who had been a crime

reporter for the old New York Herald Tribune, worked briefly for the

agency. ’It was a great experience,’ Howard says. ’Sam taught us how to

think as a reporter. A lot of PR men don’t have that luxury.’

In addition to Rubenstein, some of the best known - and biggest -

’family’ agencies are Chicago-based Edelman PR Worldwide (see sidebar)

and New York-based Ruder Finn.

If David Finn, chairman and CEO of Ruder Finn, proclaims his original

intention to build a family business - and he does vociferously - he

backs it up by employing his four children. Each has a sharply divergent

responsibility, which, the father says, may be why they all get along so

well. ’But they are all in effect partners,’ Finn says. Peter is

chairman of the company’s executive committee. Daughter Amy Binder is

president of Ruder Finn America and is involved with hi-tech accounts.

Kathy Bloomgarden is in charge of global activities and healthcare. And

Dena Merriam supervises cultural creative work. (Two of Finn’s

grandchildren have now joined the firm.)

’We’re one of the few, large independents left,’ says 78-year old David

Finn, who started the company with William Ruder in 1948. ’We like it

that way. My children share a common commitment to the future growth of

the company, that it will not be sold. When times were not so good, they

did not run out and seek a buyer.’

Indeed, about 15 years ago, rumors that Ruder Finn might be sold

abounded, and 14 employees took off. The Wall Street Journal front-paged

a story about the so-called imminent sale headlined, ’A Family Affair.’

But the agency held fast. ’Now, it’s exactly the opposite,’ says Finn.

’We have less turnover than most agencies because the company is so

secure.’ The agency, one of the biggest, has 240 year-round clients and

many individual projects, he says.

Married teams

Despite the inherent difficulties of forging a successful

husband-and-wife team, there are many of them out there. But their

members stress that working in this way takes some hard preparation.

Anne and Jerry Klein, who have built one of the biggest PR agencies in

the Philadelphia market since their 1985 start-up, kept stepping on each

others’ toes on various activities in the early months of Anne Klein &

Associates, in Marlton, NJ. ’We decided to go to a management

consultant, who asked us what we would like to do in the agency,’ Anne

relates. ’Jerry, who was an attorney and former broadcaster, wanted to

handle the business side, financial and computers. I wanted to be in

charge of the PR and client sides.’ When the consultant suggested they

divvy up the work accordingly, they readily agreed. (They do collaborate

on crisis management, though.) ’It helps that we took opposite sides of

the office to work in,’ Anne quips.

In St. Paul, Dennis McGrath and Betsy Buckley launched their McGrath

Buckley Communications Counseling this January, after separate, long

careers and 17 years of marriage. ’We’re entrepreneurial but we realized

we had to be different,’ says Buckley. ’We knew we had to have distinct

but complementary skills.’ Adds McGrath, ’Betsy had a highly-diversified

background. She had run a prison system, had been a stockbroker, had a

high energy and was an accomplished speaker. I had been in PR for more

than 30 years.’ That meant Buckley would supervise the structural side

of the account and her husband would handle the messaging.

’That’s valid, too, since I’m Irish,’ he says.

’I’m more Irish,’ she counters.

’That’s okay. Sure, we argue sometimes,’ he admits.

Leaving work at the office

Richard and Stephanie Stern, who originated the financial PR firm of

Stern & Co. in New York, in 1993, worried that they might exhaust one

another by taking the business home. ’Leaving the family dynamics at

home, not acting like family members at work, trying not to bring the

business home - those things helped us function during the day,’ says


The situation became even more complicated when their daughter Alison,

who had worked for Merrill Lynch, joined the family business. Much

devoted to her father, Alison didn’t want to unduly show it at the

office. She solved her problem with Richard by calling him ’Dad’ at home

and ’Dick’ in the office.

Similar adjustments and jockeying for position take place in firms run

by siblings. In 1993, Robert Mooers launched GreenLight Communications

in Newport Beach, CA, with his brother, Tom. ’To survive in a family PR

agency, you have to be innovative but it’s not that easy,’ Robert


’The only constant in this business is change. I like to think that’s

easy for a small agency but it doesn’t necessarily follow. You have to

work at it - all the time.’

Adjustments may be most crucial when the family firm involves more than

one generation. Gwinavere Johnston, founder and president of Johnston

Wells in Denver, says that she and her oldest daughter, Gwin II, who is

an executive in the agency, ’are very opposite people but we get along

incredibly well. We make up for each other’s deficiencies and recognize

each other’s strengths.’

’You anticipate lots of differences from your father when you go into

his business,’ says 28-year old Sam Cavior, about his father, Warren,

who founded New York agency Cavior & Associates. ’But you soon find you

are more and more like your parents than you think you are. But Dad’s

slower to catch on to computers than I am.’

Influenced by an intellectual property client of the agency, Sam Cavior

has decided to go to Columbia University Law School this fall. Says

father Warren, ’It’s fine with me, it’s a good move for him and I’m sure

he will be able to give us some valuable input.’

Generation gap

Different generations often take different approaches to running the

business. ’Dave and Bill Ruder like to manage everything,’ says Peter

Finn, executive committee chairman of Ruder Finn. ’I believe in letting

our senior employees do a lot of managing but then I believe in

attracting the best people.’

When Richard Edelman became European manager of Edelman PR Worldwide, he

recalls that the senior management, headed by his father, Daniel, had

insisted on keeping on an ’incompetent’ manager of a major European


When he brought the man’s incompetence to their attention, he was told

he could replace him if he wished. But instead of taking that one step,

Richard decided that ’it should be closed rather than just hire a new

man. It’s hard to start over on a bad foundation. It had been a bad


We opened a new office in the city and hired a new manager.’

Doesn’t always work

Not all family connections work out. In 1987, Ron Rogers, the son of the

late Henry Rogers, sold his business, Rogers & Associates, to Henry’s

firm, Rogers & Cowan, a major PR agency serving the movie industry.

Rogers & Cowan’s board then asked Ron to come into its agency and become

its head. And to avoid confusion and misunderstanding, Henry resigned as

chief executive and became head of the New York office.

’After about nine months, the directors and I had some differences about

running the company,’ says Ron Rogers. ’There were also some financial

difficulties. The result of it all was that Rogers & Cowan sold out to

Shandwick. But I never had any problems with my father. We were always

very close and enjoyed working with one another.’

Henry passed away in 1996. Ron Rogers runs his new agency, Rogers &

Associates in Los Angeles, which has 80 employees and hopes to have

dollars 10 million in billings this year compared with dollars 8 million

last year.

In another example of a situation that didn’t work out, Mark Burson

joined Burson-Marsteller in 1989, after his father, legendary PR pro

Harold Burson, stepped down as CEO. B-M is now one of the powerhouses of

the PR field with almost 2,300 employees - but Mark Burson is now

executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. He

stayed on as a group manager in the agency’s Los Angeles office until


’The opportunity afforded all the Burson-Marsteller employees to succeed

based on one’s own competence was never afforded to me,’ says Mark


’My father’s great ability is to put competent people in a job and then

get out of their way. That’s why Burson-Marsteller became such a great

and big company. In my case, he trusted others to treat me fairly but

they failed to do so. But it didn’t hurt my relationship with my


Mark declines to give further details, but adds, ’I’m glad to be working

in a place with Ronald Reagan’s name on the door rather than my


Harold Burson is now 79 years old and secure in his reputation as one of

the premier entrepreneur-statesmen of the business. ’I never had any

intention of starting a family business or a mom-and-pop firm,’ he


’From the beginning, I had a policy of no nepotism. My son, Mark, came

to the agency only after I had given up the CEO’s title at age 65. There

are some very fine family agencies. But I always thought that operating

a family business could imply that people are being promoted on some

basis other than merit.’

Obviously, different PR execs approach this question differently, as the

many family PR firms attest. But Harold Burson says: ’There will always

be family businesses in PR.’


For the past dozen years, Ron Watt Jr. hung around Watt, Roop & Co., the

Cleveland agency run by his father, Ron Watt Sr., writing school book

reports, routing mail and especially eavesdropping on the account


Last April, Junior, 24 years old, became an account executive


With 40 employees and 80 clients, Watt Senior is busy, but concedes,

’I’m glad Ron Jr. is in the business although it may get difficult


From the start, I decided that he couldn’t report to me and that I

wouldn’t set his salary. You shouldn’t deny a son or daughter from

coming into the business if they want to.’

’Often, we don’t see each other for a week,’ he adds. ’So, to make up

for it, we have lunch together on Saturdays to catch up on things.’

So why did Watt Senior sell the family business to Fleishman-Hillard

last year (the office is now Watt/Fleishman-Hillard)? ’It was like

expanding to a larger family,’ he says. ’Now Ron Jr. is one of 2,000

people who could work in many offices.’

’I love the fast pace, the quick thinking and the creativity,’ says

Junior of working in the business. ’My college buddies from Fordham kept

kidding about Dad being my boss. But when they saw how hard I was

working, the kidding stopped.’

Says Senior, a note of pride creeping in, ’He’s working for a phalanx of

AE’s as one of their team players, but he’s already developed three

accounts on his own.’

Daniel Edelman, who takes much pride in the talents and work-ethic of

his three children in the business, recalls that when a bulletin of the

Harvard Graduate Business School reported on ’what happened to our

graduates of last June,’ 30 had become management consultants, 25 had

become investment bankers but only one had become a PR man. That lone

figure, Edelman says, was his son, Richard. (Daniel’s two other children

in the agency are John, who’s in charge of human resources, and Renee,

who is with new media unit PR21.)

Richard Edelman joined the agency in 1978 and built both its New York

and Internet practices.

’Dad wasn’t much hyped on the Internet,’ recalls Richard, now president

and CEO of Edelman PR Worldwide. ’But I figured that if I made my story

strong enough, he might agree that we needed an interactive


’You pioneered this agency on TV, interactive is the new act,’ I told

him. But when things went our way - we’ve got 40 people in interactive

now after starting with just 15 - Dad responded because he’s still an

entrepreneur who likes success.’

Dan Edelman, chairman of the agency, appears to enjoy the differences as

much as the similarities: ’Richard has more business savvy than I


Another difference: I write long memos, he’s cryptic. I write three

pages, but he writes just three lines and says it all.’

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in