Howard J. Rubenstein, PR impresario, dies on the age of 88

Howard J. Rubenstein, who for more than 65 years softened the blows of life and polished the tarnished images of the rich, famous and flawed He died at his Manhattan home on Tuesday when he became New York’s pre-eminent public relations impresario. He was 88 years old.

A spokeswoman, Nancy Haberman, confirmed the death. No reason was given.

In a profession that is often viewed with skepticism, Mr. Rubenstein, the founding chairman and president of Rubenstein Associates, has sometimes been referred to as a spin doctor, a charlatan, or worse. But with a little help from his friends in the news media, he made the triumphs of many top achievers known, and when crises hit celebrities, politicians, corporations, or cultural institutions, he was a fixer of choice who was immediately called in to maintain control and damage reputation restore.

Its hundreds of clients included some of the city’s best-known names: Donald J. Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner 3rd, Columbia University, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Wall Street tycoons and constellations of entertainers, civic, and religious leaders whose signed pictures line the walls of Rubenstein Associates in a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan.

His business was lucrative. Corporate clients often paid withholdings of $ 10,000 per month, while the largest paid $ 750,000 or more per year, according to Mr. Rubenstein’s Senior Associates. He has not publicly discussed his company’s billing practices or earnings. Estimates were between $ 30 million and $ 75 million in annual sales. In any case, they made Mr. Rubenstein rich. He is said to have made $ 4 to 7 million a year.

With mild manners and a soft voice, Mr. Rubenstein was the opposite of the boastful press representative who was caricatured in films such as “The sweet smell of success” and denigrated in the newsrooms as “flack” or “mouthpiece”. He didn’t go to nightclubs for gossip. He lived on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, where he enjoyed jogging every day even in his 60s and 70s. He often dined with executives from business, culture and politics.

He employed hundreds of people, preached ethics in speeches and public relations articles, and impressed clients as diplomatic and trustworthy, though some rivals accused him of using underhand tactics. A friend of every New York mayor, governor, and senator of the United States since the 1970s, he made seamless, impartial transitions between Democrats and Republicans.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,” former Mayor Edward I. Koch once declared. “It could be Caligula.”

Indeed, with his extensive contacts in government, business, news media, and the arts, Mr. Rubenstein was often more of a power broker than a PR man, making connections between people and institutions for mutual benefit. He advised politicians, developed corporate strategies to shape public opinion, represented real estate interests and brought business, government and trade union leaders together to do business.

His power lay hidden in innumerable favors, large and small. But its most visible trading stock was trouble – a marriage battle, a star bursting a racist remark, a drunk toot. His tailored rehabilitation plans often included simple public recordings or apologies, then silence to contain the imbroglio. The job, he said, was not to cover up bad advertising. It controlled its flow, tone, and volume. He cautioned against lying, although his selective “truths” favored clients: people were never fired; They went to look for new opportunities.

“When you are in a crisis, the first thing you need to ask is what is the right thing to do and say,” he told the New York Times in 1995. “Not what kind of spin can we do, but what’s the right one.” . They don’t let the facts dribble out. Sometimes you do this by holding a press conference. In other cases, do so with a written statement depending on how the customer is feeling or how well they are able to deal with a difficult situation. ”

A difficult situation arose for the sports broadcaster Marv Albert in 1997 when his disagreements with a crossdresser and a prostitute dominatrix were subject to criminal charges due to his guilty pleading for biting a woman during a sexual encounter. After meeting with Mr. Rubenstein, he filed a press conference and a week-long tour of the talk shows – Larry King, David Letterman, Katie Couric and Barbara Walters – and explained his refusals. Then he refused to talk about it anymore. Almost nothing new emerged on the matter other than the perception that Mr. Albert had defended himself by force and after a period of retreat and rehabilitation his career continued practically intact.

In 1996, talk show host Kathy Lee Gifford caught a scandal after a human rights organization reported that in Honduras the work of children’s sweatshops was being exploited to produce a clothing line on her behalf. The Rubenstein recipe in her case was distraction and rehabilitation. Ms. Gifford went on national television to say she was not involved in factory management processes, then requested an investigation and campaigned for new laws against sweatshop terms. She even appeared at the White House with President Bill Clinton to support initiatives against child labor abuse.

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Howard Joseph Rubenstein was born on February 3, 1932 in Brooklyn to Samuel and Ada (Sall) Rubenstein. His father was a police reporter with the Standard News Association, which served New York newspapers, and later with The New York Herald Tribune. Howard and his sister June grew up in the Bensonhurst Section. He graduated from Midwood High School and in 1953 the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied economics.

At his mother’s insistence, he applied to all law schools in the Ivy League and was accepted into Harvard. But he broke off after two months and went home unsure of what to do. He rejected his father’s idea of ​​a copycat job, but was more receptive to another. Like some reporters at the time, his father did a little public relations on the side, and he taught Howard how to write to reporters and give reporters ideas for stories. He also helped find his first client, the Menorah Home and Hospital for the elderly and the sick.

Howard opened a kitchen counter shop in 1954. After his mother refused to answer the house phone by saying “Rubenstein Associates”, he rented an office. His next client was Vito Battista, an anti-tax Republican whose constant pursuit of office eventually earned him a seat on the New York congregation. Mr Rubenstein rented a camel to plug up Mr Battista’s mayoral candidacy and draped it with a sign saying his back would be broken by another city tax.

Still drawn to the idea of ​​becoming a lawyer, he took night classes at St. John’s University and graduated with a law degree in 1959. Through Representative Emanuel Celler, a Democrat from Brooklyn who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Rubenstein was made Assistant Counsel, but resigned after six months to continue his public relations career.

In 1959 he married Amy Forman. She survived him with three children, Roni, Richard and Steven Rubenstein, and seven grandchildren. David, another child, died in 1971 at the age of 9.

Mr Rubenstein has continued to be involved in his business over the past several years, but his son Steven oversaw the day-to-day operations of Rubenstein as the company is now known as President. Richard Rubenstein founded his own agency Rubenstein Public Relations in 1987.

Mr. Rubenstein, nominally a Democrat, has acquired a number of politicians as clients, many of whom – such as Abraham D. Beame, Hugh Carey, and Stanley Earthenware – have entered careers leading to seats in power at City Hall, the Governor’s House, and the Governor’s mansion would lead to state legislation. Through real estate contacts, he recruited developers like Fred Trump (Donald’s father) as well as Lewis and Jack Rudin.

In the 1970s he represented hundreds of the city’s best-known personalities and organizations. He also served international celebrities including Sarah Ferguson, the divorced Duchess of York. He’s had to drop clients on occasion – notably four government agencies after Mr Carey was elected governor in 1974 and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999 after his friend Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani condemned an exhibit there. In both cases he was involved in a conflict and believed his friendship and loyalty to the officials to be the greater concern.

When Donald and Ivana Trump split in 1990, there was a clash of PR competitors, each with the bottom line in mind. John Scanlon, known as an aggressive crisis manager, portrayed Mrs. Trump as an integral part of the Trump business empire. Mr. Trump, trained by Mr. Rubenstein, downplayed her responsibility. Who won? Their settlement exceeded $ 20 million. However, Mr. Trump’s net worth at the time was estimated at $ 1.7 billion to $ 4 billion.

Mr. Steinbrenner, whose harsh dealing with Yankee players and managers was a nightmare for publicists, often let Mr. Rubenstein fall back on “no comment”. The publicist started a decade before Mr. Steinbrenner’s death in 2010, organizing a tactical retreat for “the boss”. Reporters said he was protecting an aging man from the public eye, but Mr. Rubenstein offered a more benevolent interpretation, saying that Mr. Steinbrenner’s lower profile “only comes with maturity – he just doesn’t enjoy advertising the way he used to.”

Another difficult client was Leona Helmsley, the hotel and property magnate convicted of tax evasion in 1989. She became a symbol of arrogance when a former maid quoted her in the testimony as saying, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Mr. Rubenstein visited Ms. Helmsley in prison and after she died in 2007 and her dog Trouble, a Maltese, Having left $ 12 million, leading to lawsuits and death threats against the pet, he also became a spokesperson for Trouble when interest peaked in his life of luxury.

“The dog is being well looked after in an unknown location,” he said tactfully.

After Mr. Trump became president, Mr. Rubenstein distanced himself from him. “Although I haven’t worked with him in over 20 years,” he told in 2017, “it was clear even then that he was an extremely smart communicator.”

Alex Traub contributed to the coverage.