Herb Schmertz, ex-public affairs chief at Mobil, dies

Schmertz is often credited for inventing the advertorial and bringing about an era of corporate-sponsored public TV.

Herb Schmertz (Image credit: Museum of Public Relations)
Herb Schmertz (Image credit: Museum of Public Relations)

NEW YORK: Herb Schmertz, the former public affairs head at the Mobil Corporation, passed away last week, leaving behind a singular legacy, according to those who knew him.

"[His legacy is about] doing something nobody else has done, to be groundbreaking," said Shelley Spector, president of Spector & Associates and founder of the Museum of Public Relations. "Don’t play by the same old rules. Make up something new."

Schmertz developed an "aggressive" reputation at the height of the oil crisis during his tenure, which lasted from 1969 to 1988, according to The New York Times. Throughout the 1970s, Mobil was a frequent target by politicians and media. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter called Mobil the "most irresponsible oil company in America."

In 1970, he eventually bought ad space in The New York Times’ Opinion section to write op-eds that voiced Mobil’s positions on public issues, ranging from labor to the energy crisis.

Thus was born the first advertorial, a fitting accomplishment for a man known for being opinionated.

"Today, you’d call it sponsored content, which we think is brand new," Spector said. "It’s not, he invented the idea."

In a 2012 interview with the Museum of PR, Schmertz said, "If we didn’t participate, we deserved what we got."

Schmertz also spearheaded Mobil’s sponsorship of PBS show Masterpiece Theater, "usher[ing] in a new age of corporate philanthropy in public television programming," according to The New York Times.

This patronage was built on his philosophy of "affinity of purpose," the paper said, which meant courting favor from policy makers and the public by associating one’s company with high culture.

Harold Burson, founding chairman of Burson-Marsteller, said in an emailed statement Schmertz’s impact on the PR industry extends far beyond the headlines he garnered over the course of his Mobil tenure.

Highlighting Schmertz’s role as a board member, Burson said "he moved PR to the executive suite as a full-fledged member of the management team."

"His role in the creation of the CSR concept was timely and critical," Burson said. "I have, over the past half century, regarded him as a PR ‘man for all seasons.’"

In a 1979 interview with The Washington Post, Schmertz said, "The nature of a successful PR now requires that you know as much about the business end of what you’re involved in as the line managers do. Otherwise, you’re just a door opener or a flack."

Schmertz developed a reputation for voicing unpopular opinions and driving hard bargains. He famously cut off The Wall Street Journal in 1984, pulling Mobil’s advertising and access.

In a 2013 post in a blog called Marketing Craftsmanship by Gordon Andrew of Highlander Marketing Consulting ruefully referred to the Schmertz era as "when PR had some balls."

As Spector highlighted, Schmertz didn’t have a background in PR or journalism, but he made it work.

"To hell with other people’s points of view if it didn’t represent what Mobil wanted to get across," she said.

Spector said she reached out to Schmertz in 2012 when he resided in an assisted living center in Westchester County, New York. He answered on the first ring, and he was "exactly what you thought he’d be," she said. "Terrific, strong, sharp, funny. A force to be reckoned with."

Schmertz’s family and ExxonMobil, the company formed as a result of a merger between Exxon and Mobil, weren’t immediately available for comment.

Schmertz had a longtime association with the Kennedy’s dating back to 1960 when he served as an organizer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential run. He also took leaves of absence to support Robert Kennedy’s campaign in 1968 and Teddy Kennedy’s in 1979.

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