Tag Archives: Jr.

The Herb Schmertz Era: When Public Relations Had Some Balls

The recent passing of Rawleigh Warner, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of Mobil Oil Corp., brings to mind what many consider to be a golden age for Public Relations: the period from the mid-60s to mid-80s, when the PR profession had the mandate, the skills and the balls to stand up to criticism leveled against the organizations and people they represented.

The tip of Mobil’s public relations spear was guided by Herb Schmertz, who served as Vice President of Public Affairs under Warner (and whose credentials included a law degree from Columbia.) During Warner’s tenure, Mobil operated at ground zero of the 1970’s energy crisis, and was a primary target of the American public’s frustration over the availability and price of oil. For more than a decade, Mobil remained in the media’s crosshairs and often served as the corporate poster child for greed and unbridled capitalism.

Herb Schmertz countered public criticism against Mobil with hardball PR tactics, under the pretense that if companies don’t pro-actively participate in pertinent discussions, they deserve what they get, in terms of reputation. Under his regime of “creative confrontation,” Schmertz applied a number of innovative and controversial tactics including:

  • Introduction of modern-day advocacy advertising, or “advertorials,” which first appeared on the OpEd page of the New York Times in 1970. Mobil’s weekly commentaries, which Schmertz called “the honorable act of pamphleteering,” covered a broad range of energy related topics – the environment, oil reserves, taxation, regulation – and also took on detractors. The Mobil advertorials eventually were published weekly in several leading daily newspapers over the course of three decades, and serve as the template for what the PR profession now calls thought leadership.
  • Corporate underwriting of artistic endeavors unrelated to Mobil’s core issues, including sponsorship of the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theatre. Herb Schmertz called this “affinity-of-purpose marketing,” where audiences associate successful ventures with the companies that sponsor them.
  • Slash and burn public relations, where all communication is shut down with a media source considered to be biased or not acting in good faith. Notably, in 1984 Mobil boycotted the Wall Street Journal – refusing to provide the nation’s premier business publication with any information, to respond to its reporters, or to advertise – following what Schmertz considered to be history of inaccurate and biased reporting on Mobil. Although this over-the-top tactic was and is considered childish by many PR and media executives, it made a strong statement to the public and Wall Street Journal editors as well.

Herb Schmertz was no reckless PR cowboy. His communications philosophy was well-grounded in democratic principles, and his tactics well-reasoned and effective. In this 2-minute YouTube clip, Schmertz (who is now 84 years-old) eloquently describes how Mobil’s confrontational and sometimes abrasive public relations strategy reflected the company’s obligation, as a custodian of significant physical, human and economic resources, to maintain its role as one of the pillars of a free society.

In contrast to Schmertz-era brand management, most current PR practitioners are hamstrung by corporate legal counsel, who advocate non-confrontational PR strategies, advising CEOs to simply hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.  This enduring one-sided focus on the aversion of legal risk not only has precluded many organizations from opportunities to manage their brand reputation effectively, but has also emasculated the Public Relations profession in the process.

As the PR profession’s role is increasingly relegated to management of Tweets, Likes and unread press releases, as its practitioners continue to lose their seat at the senior management table, and as the long tail of online content extracts a heavy price for avoiding legitimate and timely confrontation, PR professionals will likely wonder why their role as architect and defender of the company’s reputation no longer belongs to them.


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Tennyson Delivers Skyfall’s British Bulldog Moment

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In her 7th and final role playing “M” in Skyfall – the latest in a series of 23 James Bond movies produced over the past 50 years – Dame Judi Dench appears before Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee to defend her record as head of MI6 – the government agency which supplies Her Majesty’s Government with foreign intelligence.

Under pressure to explain breaches in MI6’s internal security, the 007 matriarch waxes poetic, quoting a few lines from one of her late husband’s favorite poems:

“…We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Students of the late Professor Arthur R. Reil, Jr.’s English Lit course at Fairfield University – having memorized all 70 lines of that particular poem (as well as several odes and sonnets) – recognized Dench’s reading immediately as Ulysses, written by Lord Alfred Tennyson in 1833.

Some Cliff Notes for Biology majors: Ulysses is the ancient warrior hero of Homer’s Odyssey. British poet Tennyson envisions Ulysses speaking this narrative after having returned from the Trojan War to Ithaca, the kingdom he rules. Before he leaves Ithaca to embark on his final voyage, Ulysses describes his boredom with domestic life and fear of old age, longing for a return to his lifelong quest for adventure and knowledge.

Lord Tennyson was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom during much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of Great Britain’s most popular poets. But when Tennyson wrote Ulysses, he was living in cramped quarters with his mother and nine of his ten siblings, with little income and in failing health. The poem was written shortly after, and influenced by the death of his close friend, the poet Arthur Henry Hallam (1811–1833), who was engaged to Tennyson’s sister Emily. The parallels between the plight of Ulysses and Tennyson’s personal circumstances continue to be the focus of countless, thoroughly boring Ph.D. dissertations.

Although it has been the subject of sniping since the film’s release, the Skyfall screenwriters’ rationale to interrupt their action movie with a brief poetry reading was very clear, and in my view, displayed noteworthy cinematic craftsmanship by providing the “British Bulldog Moment” that’s an essential element in every James Bond installment.  (For movie-goers who miss the point of the poem, Skyfall’s screenwriters provide a Union-Jacketed, Royal Doulton ceramic bulldog that “M” bequeaths to 007.)

What’s far less clear – some 40 years after Professor Reil forced me to memorize Ulysses – is how I can still remember and recite verbatim at least the first 10 lines of that epic poem (and up to 15 lines, after downing 3 Guinness stouts)…but I can never remember a new name or phone number for more than 30 seconds unless I write it down.


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