PR pioneer Howard Rubenstein dead at 88
Rubenstein was synonymous with high-profile names including New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo and Fred and Donald Trump
Jan 04, 2021 04:26:00 AM | Article | Steve Barrett
PR legend Howard Rubenstein passed away Tuesday (December 29) after a career in public relations spanning more than 60 years.
His death was announced Tuesday night by his son Steven, president of Rubenstein, the PR firm founded in Brooklyn by his father in his mother’s kitchen in January 1954.
Rubenstein said: “It is with great sadness that I share the news that my father, Howard J. Rubenstein, passed away today after 88 years of what can only be described as a big, full life.”
He went on to say: “My dad saw himself as a kid from Bensonhurst, a Harvard Law School dropout who had been afforded enormous opportunity in and by New York City. But that narrative understates how hard he worked to become one of the most sought-after counselors and advisers to leaders, businesses, and civic institutions.
“He helped to invent contemporary public relations, and made it his life’s passion to elevate it into an ethical and honorable profession. He was also a cofounder of The Association for a Better New York [ABNY], which helped solve the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s.”
He was best known for his association with the New York Yankees and the Steinbrenner family, which was celebrated with an on-field ceremony at Yankee Stadium in 2014 to celebrate Rubenstein’s 60th anniversary in the PR industry. 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 was inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame in 2017 and explained in a profile how the ABNY connection led to his association with Steinbrenner and the Yankees.
"I was promoting ABNY and wanted to do a poster with Steinbrenner throwing out a ball," he recalled. "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."
A statement from the New York Yankees, the Steinbrenner family and team president Randy Levine said: “The Yankees organization mourns the passing of public relations legend Howard Rubenstein, who was a trusted friend and confidant to George Steinbrenner and the Steinbrenner family for more than four decades.
“Howard’s contributions to the Yankees took many forms over the years, and his positive effect on the course of our franchise cannot be understated. He was a self-effacing visionary and trailblazer who could often see what others missed. An expert communicator and master of his craft, he was an adept and thoughtful listener no matter how challenging the issue or tense the situation.
“Howard will be remembered by our organization not just for his incredible kindness, warmth and loyalty, but also for his deep understanding of what the Yankees mean to the Steinbrenner family, the City of New York and to the team’s fans around the world. We have lost one of the greats in his field with his passing, and he will be missed.”
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 the Whitney.
He also represented New York notables such as 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.
The leader of another PR family dynasty, Richard Edelman, CEO of the eponymous firm founded by his father Dan in 1952, paid tribute to Rubenstein: "Howard was a brilliant advocate for his clients. He stood alongside Rupert Murdoch and George Steinbrenner as they emerged as powerhouses in NYC."
Rubenstein cited Murdoch as another account that put his firm on the map, when the Australian media magnate, now owner of News Corp, acquired New York magazine and The Village Voice in 1977, but was not universally popular, prompting a story in Time with the cover line "Aussie press lord terrifies Gotham."
"People abandoned him," Rubenstein told PRWeek in 2017. "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 recalled 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 said. "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.’"
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," Rubenstein told PRWeek. "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.
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," Silverstein told PRWeek in 2017. "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."
Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies, told PRWeek in 2017: "Howard Rubenstein is the humble genius of the nation. He sees everything, understands all, and all will be OK."
He also attracted descriptions 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 were not universally complimentary. He was also 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."
The ability to represent two sides of seemingly uncrossable divides was certainly 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," said Rubenstein in 2017.
"I was always careful not to hurt, criticize, or demean clients if a conflict arose," he added. "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."
Rubenstein's sons Steven and Richard also went into PR. Steven worked at Howard’s side for decades and now oversees the day-to-day running of Rubenstein as its president. Richard launched his own agency in 1987, Rubenstein Public Relations.
"His media contacts were unmatched," said Richard Edelman. "He was the giant of our industry for four decades. He passed his firm along to a worthy successor in his son Stephen who upholds the family tradition of excellence and decency."
Rubenstein is survived by his wife Amy Forman and his children Steven, Richard and Roni.
(This article first appeared on PRWeek.com)