Jan 27, 2021

The Death of a Reputation Consultant is Tough to Spin

Reflections on the passing of a man who gave us Rudy and Donald 1.0

By Ed Goldman

Had he been able to call the shots a few weeks ago, I suspect that Howard J. Rubenstein would have sent out a news release that said he was going on “an extended, indefinite sabbatical” instead of admitting he died. Yet he did that very thing, at the age of 88.

Rubenstein was one of the acknowledged fathers of reputational public relations, the niche of the image industry that, rather than touting a new product or star (largely the same thing), devotes its resources to repairing the downed persona palisades of often ubiquitous celebrities from show business and politics (again, largely the same thing).   

Edgy Cartoon

A dime is a terrible thing to waste

And while his clients included people who still had sleazy reputations even after he’d performed his alleged alchemy, if Rubenstein hadn’t been on the scene, who knows how much more dastardly people like hotelier Leona Helmsley (the “queen of mean”) News Corporation media mogul Rupert Murdoch or the pre-political Donald Trump might have been perceived by the public? 

Well, reputation management isn’t always easy. Examples:

  • No less a public-hero-turned-worldwide-embarrassment than Rudolph Giuliani once said Rubenstein was “the dean of damage control.” This was obviously several years before Rudy’s on-air flatulence and ashen appearance made me start referring to him as Gaseous Clay.
  • While Mr. Rubenstein’s clients included Columbia University, he was unable to keep Manhattan’s DA from launching a criminal investigation into how the institution managed the case of a former gynecologist affiliated with it who was accused of sexual assault by lots of patients. 
  • Rubenstein (the name of his company, now run by one of his sons) had to watch from the sidelines as the New York Philharmonic, a client, was forced by an arbitrator to reinstate two players it had fired over allegations of unspecified sexual misconduct.
  • Maestro James Levine sued the Metropolitan Opera, another Rubenstein client, for more than $5.8 million in damages for breach of contract and defamation three days after the company fired him for sexual harassment and related charges.
  • And though it’s uncharitable to pin this on Mr. Rubenstein, he couldn’t prevent the New York Yankees from ending its 2020 season in second place.

A reputation rep is sort of the Pied Piper of optics—except that in his or her world, the rats that invaded Hamelin wouldn’t have been consigned to diving into the Weser River, where they all drowned, but instead would have survived and made the rounds of talk shows to demonstrate their rehabilitation as town-and-country mice: 

RAT: I’m a different rodent now than I was then, Jimmy—for which I thank my God, my lovely wife, my supportive kids and my fans.

JIMMY FALLON: My God.

RAT: Yes, that’s what I said.

JIMMY FALLON: No, no, I was just reacting. — Uh, you’ve done a book, my producers tell me, which is probably why it’s sitting in my hands right now and I’m holding it up to the camera.

RAT: I have. It’s a memoir and a cautionary tale. The title’s based on an old Four Seasons song. 

JIMMY FALLON: And it’s called… (Looks at cover)… Yes! “Vermin My Way Back to You.” Hey, I smell a movie deal!

RAT (laughing shyly): Aw, that’s just me, I can’t seem to get that sewage stink off me.

JIMMY FALLON: Aw, it’s not that bad. More like the uneaten portions of last week’s Caesar salad.

RAT: You’re very kind.

JIMMY FALLON: Say, we have to take a break. Will you stick around for another segment? We could play a game, which is what I’m famous for.

RAT: As long as it’s not Mouse Trap, Jimmy.

JIMMY FALLON (Breaking up, pounding his head on his desk): They told me you were hysterical! Hoo-boy! Wow! (He clutches his chest as though overpowered by the sheer merriment)

—As you may recall, especially if you’re kind of old, J.D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) the head of Standard Oil, was, in his time, the world’s richest and often, most detested man. Then a reputation rep suggested he give away a brand new dime to everyone he met, even millionaires, as well as become a philanthropist. He did both of the above and people pretty much forgot they’d detested him. Plus, they got a dime in the process, which could be worth as much as $195 in today’s currency, according to reliable bookies.

Then there was Andrew Carnegie, (1835-1919), another captain of industry/philanthropist of that approximate era:

“Andrew Carnegie treated his workers terribly,” according to one of many pseudo-historical (but damned entertaining) websites. “His employees worked in sweatshops, which are businesses where the workers work long hours with low pay in horrible working conditions. Carnegie did not pay his workers enough and when some of his workers decided to go on strike, he had them shot.”

Had Rubenstein been around to advise Carnegie, he’d doubtless have clarified that “shot” meant inoculated with life-saving vaccines and told him to give everyone a shiny new dime. Just imagine what he could have done for Gaseous Clay.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).

Yes, Virginia

A Weekly Blog by Virginia Varela

President and CEO, Golden Pacific Bank

photo by Phoebe Verkouw

When the federal government surprises you—positively—that’s newsworthy. So I was delighted that the Sacramento Business Journal ran in its print edition last week a guest essay I’d written about the newest iteration of the Paycheck Protection Program.

Right when we least expected it, the new rollout went relatively smoothly, as opposed to the first effort last year, which seemed to raise more questions than bottom lines for businesses and individuals. Unlike before, PPP funds are being released to banks with a new degree of clarity.

As I wrote in the Business Journal, “Part of the success of the current distribution is that it’s being done with far less drama and hype. The government’s seemed to learn that the retail/management mantra isn’t ‘Over-promise and under-deliver,’ but rather its complete opposite. Part of the success of the current distribution is that it’s being done with far less drama and hype. Even the forms are relatively easy to fill out this time. And when’s the last time you heard someone compliment the federal government on its forms?”

Golden Pacific Bank is starting to process PPP loans, with our top priority being our longtime customers. If you’re not one of those, you can change that easily by contacting us and opening a business account. With our services and individual attention, we’d like to surprise you, too!

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