Howard Rubenstein: From starting a business in his mother's kitchen to rubbing shoulders with giants

Whether it's the mayor of New York City, the owner of the Yankees, the president of the United States, or even Pope Francis, this PR legend has been representing and mingling with the world's biggest names for more than 60 years.

The assembled dignitaries looked on askance when Pope Francis left the school and the first person he greeted was New York PR legend Howard Rubenstein. Having waited in line all day, they were surprised the pontiff’s attention fell on one of the only Jewish people in the crowd.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York had set up an advisory board on community relations, and over the years Rubenstein helped build a truly cross-denominational group.

"I became very friendly with the archdiocese and they invite me to more Catholic things than the Jewish things I go to," Rubenstein jokes to PRWeek. "[Back in the day] I was invited to Rome with Cardinal Egan and I met the pope."

On this occasion, Rubenstein was promoting something at the same school in East Harlem the pope was visiting.

"I was seated outside in the first row and Pope Francis comes out, walks past me, and goes to get into his car, but somebody from the archdiocese ran after him, walked him back to me, and introduced him," remembers Rubenstein. "He blessed some of my rosaries and left. He didn’t say hello to all these other people sitting around me."

‘How did this happen?’

Some of those people were among the archdiocese’s biggest donors, lined up in two or three rows at the door of the school. "The guy sitting next to me says, ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ I said yes, and the guy just muttered, ‘How did this happen?’"

The episode epitomizes the influence of someone who has practiced PR in New York City for 64 years across all creeds, colors, political persuasions, business, and celebrity sectors. The archdiocese was part of the civic life of the city, so it was a natural extension of Rubenstein’s other work in New York.

He also has great relationships with the African-American community, including people such as David Dinkins, with whom he has been friends for more than 30 years.

"Dinkins, Percy Sutton, Charles Rangel, and Basil Paterson were inseparable, and for some reason I became buddies with the four of them," says Rubenstein. "In the ’70s, they’d take me into Harlem to Sylvia’s, and at the time I was the only white person in there. My family said, ‘You’re going to get killed,’ but Dinkins said, ‘No one will touch you while you’re with us,’ and I was never confronted."

Rubenstein’s grandparents came to the U.S. from Russia with the same aspirations as millions of other immigrants from around the world. He did a lot of work with the UJA and 100 Black Men organizations, trying to make connections between the Jewish and black communities in NYC.

"Diversity is our strength [in New York], but you’ve got to harness that diversity so they respect one another and work toward common goals," he says in his still broad Brooklyn accent. "You’re not going to change people’s attitudes overnight, but maybe you’ll carve out a little portion of what New York stands for and work toward that."

Check out archive profiles of Rubenstein in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and New York magazine, and you’ll read how he dropped out of Harvard Law School and started a PR firm from his mother’s kitchen table in Brooklyn in January 1954.

"The students at Harvard took on British accents," Rubenstein says. "I was a good student but I was uncomfortable with that, so I took a leave of absence. My parents were somewhat dismayed, because no one from Bensonhurst even applied to Harvard."

The son of Sam Rubenstein, a crime reporter on the New York Herald Tribune, he started in PR with the Menorah Home and Hospital for Aged and Infirm as his first client, but progressed to real estate titans including Fred Trump, Harry Helmsley, Lew Rudin, and Alan Tishman, and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim, Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and Whitney.

He also represented New York scions such as George Steinbrenner, Larry Silverstein, Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, Leonard Lauder, Leona Helmsley, and Mike Tyson, city mayors from Abe Beame to Ed Koch to Rudy Giuliani, governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, senator Chuck Schumer, and, most notably in the present-day context, President Donald Trump.

Two years ago, he was effusive in describing Trump to BuzzFeed: "I find him to be one of the most loyal persons I’ve dealt with in my 62 years in business," adding, "if you’re loyal in terms of integrity and honesty, he will show you integrity."

When questioned now about the Twitter-happy president, Rubenstein is more cautious and just says: "While I haven’t worked with him for more than 20 years, it was clear even back then he was a highly astute communicator."

Bleeding New York City

Rubenstein’s relationship with high-profile New York politicians started with Abe Beame, when Rubenstein’s family lived in the beach community of Belle Harbor in the Rockaways.

"I walked to the beach and saw Abe Beame, who was then city comptroller," says Rubenstein. "I introduced myself and he started talking about becoming mayor. He reached into his bathing suit and pulled out about 10 tiny slips of paper with his program on them in microscopic writing. I said, ‘What happens if you go in the water?’ and he said, ‘I don’t go in the water.’"

That started a long-term connection and Beame, who became mayor in 1974 at a time of tremendous fiscal and political tumult, became one of Rubenstein’s closest friends and associates.

Rubenstein bleeds New York City and has been a tireless advocate for as long as he can remember. In New York magazine, Rudin called him a "first-class citizen of the city." It was Rudin who introduced Rubenstein to the Association for a Better New York (ABNY), which helped rebuild the city in the ’70s and ’80s.

Rubenstein’s storied association with the Steinbrenner-owned Yankees also goes back to this time. "I was promoting ABNY and wanted to do a poster with Steinbrenner throwing out a ball," recalls Rubenstein. "I went to an empty Yankee Stadium with a photographer, gave him a ball, and asked him to throw it."

"He looked at me and said, ‘Whaddya do for a living kid?’ and I said ‘I’m a press agent.’ He says, ‘You’re hired.’ I didn’t even know him. He said: ‘How much?’ and I gave him a fee that was so small I kicked myself for years after."

As Steinbrenner’s first press agent, he "talked to him every day and learned a lot." "As much as he wasn’t liked by a lot of people, including a lot of media, he and I bonded, and I respected him," says Rubenstein. "He invited me everywhere and we became very good friends."

In 2014, Rubenstein’s 60th anniversary in the PR business was honored on the field when he was presented with a gold ring, engraved with the team’s logo, by Yankees legend Derek Jeter, then manager Joe Girardi, and Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal.

Rubenstein cites Rupert Murdoch as another account that put his firm on the map. Murdoch, now owner of News Corp and Fox, acquired New York magazine and The Village Voice in 1977, but was certainly not universally popular, prompting a story in Time with the cover line "Aussie press lord terrifies Gotham."

"People abandoned him," notes Rubenstein. "Someone introduced me to him and he asked whether I would represent him. I said, ‘Of course.’ Through all the criticisms and turmoil I stuck with him, and he never forgot my loyalty to him."

Rubenstein recalls counseling Murdoch to adopt a much lower profile than he had been doing.

"If you do a lot of interviews, you’re going to look for new things to say," he says. "If you do very few, you’re apt to get good play and stick to the truth. If you do too many, the interviewer will go, ‘You said that two days ago, give me something new.’"

"In some situations you’ve got to go for it, but as a general rule of thumb, don’t portray yourself as an egomaniac. That’s so destructive," Rubenstein adds.

Fellow Brooklynite Larry Silverstein, chairman of Silverstein Properties and owner of the World Trade Center during 9/11, also considered Rubenstein a friend and trusted adviser for most of his life in real estate.

"His keen intellect and boundless wisdom are matched only by his commitment to the highest standards of professional integrity," says Silverstein via email. "His quick thinking, creativity, and sensitivity to others made him an invaluable counselor to me in all my endeavors, including the rebuilding of the World Trade Center."

Another longstanding fan is Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies, who tells PRWeek via email: "Howard Rubenstein is the humble genius of the nation. He sees everything, understands all, and all will be OK."

He also attracted sobriquets such as the "dean of damage control," courtesy of Giuliani, "a natural reconciler," "a very likable guy," and "an extraordinarily skilled publicist."

However, the profiles are not universally complimentary. He has also been variously described as "an evil, duplicitous samurai," "wily" but "devoid of principles," "a cheap hack flack," "the fixer," "the consummate survivor," and someone who has "more conflicts than downtown Beirut."

Sharing his secrets

Indeed, the ability to represent two sides of seemingly uncrossable divides has been a hallmark of Rubenstein’s career, which often saw him play honest broker between deadly political rivals or super-competitive businesspeople and remain friendly with both parties.

"I made a really good entry into real estate, and the Real Estate Board of New York and individual owners started to hire me to promote their buildings," says Rubenstein. "I was a very good press agent."

His secrets? First, get permission to work for other people in the same sector. Second, never share a secret. Third, tell the client if you have a conflict and lay off for a period of time.

"I was always careful not to hurt, criticize, or demean clients if a conflict arose," he says. "I tried to figure it out real early and, in some instances, I resigned for a month or two. I was always cautious and I’ve never been sued as a result."

Looking west out of Rubenstein’s Manhattan office window toward Hell’s Kitchen, you see the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum at Pier 86 on West 46th Street. And, true to form, Rubenstein was key in getting the World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid permanent access to the piers when it faced being scrapped following decommissioning.

His client Zach Fisher of the Fisher real estate family was dedicated to the military and in the ’80s saved the Intrepid from the scrap heap. Rubenstein worked on every aspect of bringing the ship to town, considering it one of his principal accomplishments in New York.

"I worked almost full time to see it was anchored here and protected," he says. "People weren’t happy with that [at the time]."

Rubenstein’s persistence and use of his contacts throughout the city of New York to ensure the Intrepid gained a permanent berth in history defines his career in microcosm, sometimes in unpopular contexts.

"Whatever I did in my business or personal life, I would think as a professional," he explains. "I wouldn’t be a wise guy. I wouldn’t make up fake answers. I wouldn’t put myself first and my client second. I defined professional early on in my career and stuck with it — even though at times it was painful."

Rubenstein: the next generation

Howard’s sons Steven and Richard also went into PR. Steven has worked at Howard’s side for the past 26 years and now oversees the day-to-day running of Rubenstein as its president.

The strategic comms firm works for a new breed of clients, including Uber (following its leadership change), Shonda Rhimes, Refinery29’s The 67% campaign, the ACLU, and David Letterman’s new Netflix show.

"The world has never been more loud, flat, and crowded," says Steven. "Everyone is screaming. It’s harder than ever to be heard and even harder to keep a good reputation. In that environment, the principles on which my dad founded the business are more relevant than ever."

Richard launched his own agency in 1987, Rubenstein Public Relations.

"From the time he started in PR, Richard’s goal was to create his own strong independent business," says Howard. "I’m very proud of his success."

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