The Newspaper and the P.R. Guru
Okay, I've made the phone calls and done the research. Yes, I've reported the Miami Herald's hiring of public relations guru Bruce Rubin, who helped the newspaper form its "media strategy" after the Jim DeFede firing. So brace yourself; you're getting 100-proof, straight-to-the-gut, first-rate-newspaper grade information here.
First off, it's clear that the Herald didn't want the public to know that it had hired Rubin. The newspaper not only didn't publicly acknowledge it at the time, but apparently stonewalled one of its own reporters on the issue. Check out this item by Joan Fleischman, the Herald's Talk of the Town columnist. It appeared on August 3, just a week after Art Teele's suicide and Jim DeFede's firing:
CRISIS AND MANAGEMENT
Spotted at The Herald last Friday: Bruce Rubin, a public relations exec who specializes in corporate crisis management. It was a tough couple days at 1 Herald Plaza. Commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr., 59, committed suicide Wednesday in The Herald's lobby, and Metro columnist Jim DeFede, 42, got fired that same night after admitting he tape recorded a phone conversation he had with Teele -- without Teele's permission, and possibly in violation of Florida law -- less than an hour before Teele shot himself in the head.
Rubin, 58, senior counselor to the Coral Gables-based rbb PR firm, declined to discuss his Herald presence. ''I really don't like to talk about my work.''
One of the newspaper's own veteran reporters couldn't get an answer as to whether the Herald hired Rubin or not. And the man who gave Fleischman a "no comment" is the same Rubin who wrote a comment on this blog Tuesday about how he was "disappointed" that I didn't call him about his Herald work so that he could tell me "precisely what [his] role, if any, might have been." Because Fleischman was rebuffed, the item was reduced to sheer speculation -- and most people, including myself, didn't notice. Nothing else about Rubin's behind-the-scene role was published in any of the many stories in the Herald or in the national press about the DeFede firing.
It's easy to understand why the Herald wouldn't want that bit of information going public. Editor Tom Fiedler had made a highly unpopular decision to fire a popular columnist. Now the newspaper was having such a hard time explaining the action that it needed professional help. Unseemly and embarrassing are two words that come to mind. The fact is that newspapers, whose fundamental job in society is to get at the truth so often obscured by P.R. people, rarely hire -- or rarely admit hiring -- outside P.R. help on newsroom matters. Did the New York Times hire a P.R. firm to help it with the Jayson Blair or Judith Miller scandals? Times spokesman Toby Usnik wouldn't answer that question directly, but downplayed the possibility. "By and large we handle everything internally," Usnik told me. "There are some exceptions."
Usnik mentioned the huge New York Times Travel Show as being one of those exceptions, but wouldn't say whether outside firms had been used for newsroom controversies. The only instance I could confirm where a newspaper openly hired a P.R. firm in such an instance is occurring right now: The New York Post has public relations man Howard Rubenstein handling the Page Six scandal.
But that's the New York Post. The Herald didn't disclose the relationship with Rubin -- who has been quoted more than 100 times in the newspaper while representing major clients like Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and developer Armando Codina -- until it slipped through a Business Monday column by reporter Douglas Hanks III. Hanks informed me that he didn't consider it breaking news because of the previous Fleischman column, and, by all indications, neither did his editors. It was an unintentional admission.
I wrote about the buried revelation on Tuesday and had some fun with the idea that Fiedler might have taken Rubin's advice when he wrote a column about the hiring on July 31. Then things began to get interesting. Romenesko posted my item on the Poynter site, which is read by the national press. Fiedler then wrote an e-mail to me, which was also quickly posted on Romenesko. Fiedler wrote that he never talked to Rubin about the DeFede matter and complained that I should have called him before writing my item.
So I started making phone calls, beginning with Rubin.
"If you had called before, I would have told you what I did and what I didn't do," he said. "Well, sort of, I mean, I wouldn't have bared my soul to you."
Then he kept saying he wanted to "schmooze" with me. I asked him if schmoozing meant it was off the record. He said it was between him and me. We basically schmoozed the whole time because he didn't want to go on the record about much of anything. He did tell me for publication that he never talked to Fiedler about the DeFede firing and confirmed that he gave his advice to Publisher Jesus Diaz Jr.
Okay. Here was my pop hypothesis: Rubin counsels Diaz, Diaz counsels Fiedler. Why would Fiedler have to talk with Rubin if Diaz was already doing so? P.R. help is had while the newsroom is protected. Win-win.
I phoned Fiedler, who hadn't returned my calls in the past. He ringed me from the airport, where he was about to leave for a vacation to see his grandkids in the Washington D.C. area. It was the first time I had spoken with him and what I had heard was true; he sounded like a nice guy. He tried to explain the Rubin hiring.
"The Herald no longer has its own internal public relations person," Fiedler said. "We have a marketing division, but we haven't had anybody who would be our public relations counsel ... Given the fact that we don't have someone internally to send out press releases and hold press conferences, I'm not at all surprised that we would turn to someone that would do that kind of thing during the Jim DeFede situation or any other situation that would come up."
But Rubin wasn't sending out press releases -- he was formulating media strategy. And he was doing it secretly. Fiedler said he had no memory of the Fleischman column, but was adamant that he never spoke with Rubin about DeFede and that no outside P.R. people had any contact with the newsroom, something he wouldn't condone. I asked him how often he spoke to Diaz during the time of the DeFede firing. "[Diaz] and I talked constantly during that time, up to the decision [to fire DeFede], and in the aftermath of the decision and in mitigating the decision," Fiedler said. "I think that's perfectly normal."
Of course it is, though "mitigating the decision" isn't a phrase you'd normally expect to hear from a veteran newspaperman like Fiedler. I told him my theory that Diaz may have played middleman and given him advice from Rubin's mouth.
"I don't know that but it wouldn't surprise me if that happened," Fiedler said. "If he spoke with a P.R. professional and thought something he said was a good idea and then later on in a discussion with me he said he thought the same thing was a good idea, that wouldn't surprise me at all. And I'm not going to reject good advice."
So, after all the e-mails and stonewalling, the truth comes out: Rubin likely did have some influence on the editor through the publisher. In corporate terms, this would be routine business. But newspapers aren't routine businesses -- they work in the truth market, where P.R. firms are looked upon with a jaundiced eye. There's a reason the Herald wasn't forthcoming at the time about hiring Rubin. And the newspaper clearly should have disclosed in every article quoting Rubin on unrelated issues that he had a financial relationship with the newspaper. That didn't happen, either.