Journalists, tired of low wages and underappreciation, cross over to the PR world all the time. A PR pro moving into the prideful world of print journalism is harder to find. A career PR man being hired to run the day-to-day operations of one of Manhattan's most prestigious papers - there's only one man who can claim that.
Bob Sommer, who parlayed a career as a political staffer into a role as an EVP of MWW Group, was hired earlier this year as president of the Observer Media Group (OMG), home to the closely read New York Observer, as well as New Jersey's most insider-ish political tracker, Web site politicsnj.com.
Jared Kushner, the 26-year-old scion to a prominent real-estate fortune, bought the Observer for $10 million last year in a widely covered and much gawked-at move. That means that the paper - considered the house organ of Manhattan's elite and a reliable pipeline of journalists to outlets like The New York Times - is now in the hands of a young heir with no formal media experience, and a former public affairs specialist with no formal media experience.
Not the traditional route, but Sommer may just be cerebral enough to pull it off. Kushner Cos., which Jared and his father run, was an MWW client. The younger Kushner asked Sommer to take charge of business operations at OMG - which, like most media companies in America, is unsure of what the future will bring. (Asked if the Observer is profitable, Sommer pauses for a moment and allows a brief smile before rotely reciting the paper's recent promising initiatives.)
"For every PR pro who's never been in the media, I'd absolutely, positively recommend they come and do an internship on this side of the aisle," he adds. "Most PR people are convinced they understand the media business. They understand elements of it. But an overall media company, and how newsmakers interact with news writers, is different on the inside than how it appears on the outside."
Sommer says that in mere months in his new role, he's learned that reporters are more honest, more thorough, and even "less conniving" than PR people give them credit for. "Unfortunately," he laments, "there aren't a lot of people who are in my position."
That's very true. The only comparable figure is Brian Tierney, the longtime Philadelphia PR and ad man who led a coalition that purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer and who is now rather unpopular in many journalism circles.
The Observer recently relaunched its Web site and switched to a tabloid format, both moves that Sommer says contribute to his mandate to "get subscriptions and advertising up." He also says that OMG will be expanding into new editorial products (and promises a series of announcements in the coming months). But mostly, he talks about "the Observer brand."
That brand - esteemed in rarefied circles, but not necessarily a moneymaker - is the area in which Sommer's PR experience could most obviously pay off.
MWW founder Michael Kempner (whose brother Brian was the previous Observer president) says that Sommer "can do a great deal to help raise the visibility and cachet of the Observer."
"The Observer is a great product," he adds. "But... it's been substantially underbranded."
And who is the core reader that Sommer hopes to impress with that branding? He doesn't hesitate in replying, "The absolute power of New York City."
Observer Media Group, president
MWW Group, partner/EVP
House of Rep. Energy & Commerce subcommittee on commerce and transport, professional staff member