Herb Schmertz has carved out a unique place in the world of corporate public relations. Or maybe we should say, punched out.
As Mobil Oil Co.'s vice president for public affairs and a leading spokesman for Big Oil for more than a decade, Schmertz has created a new corporate style for dealing with critical media coverage. Call it a "shoot first, then answer the questions" approach.
Schmertz recently has put his views in a book called "Good-bye to the Low Profile, The Art of Creative Confrontation," written with William Novak (coauthor of "Iacocca"). The book is both a self-defense course for business executives whose companies are under fire, and a diatribe against television and newspaper reporting.
Some commentators have called Schmertz the Billy Martin of corporate PR and the Mike Wallace of big business. He is at his best as a defensive coach, urging business executives to grill reporters beforehand on any angles the journalists may be after; telling them to demand to see any company documents the reporters may have obtained, and insisting that the executives tape-record or video-tape interviews to give them their own record.
That's fair enough. In the end, a strong defense should result in better, fairer, stronger journalism.
But when Schmertz gets talking about the press as an institution, he sounds like a rerun of Spiro Agnew. Schmertz has built the book around his collection of journalistic horror stories -- like the well-travelled, but baseless, rumor during the 1973 gasoline shortage that oil companies were hoarding fuel aboard tankers, awaiting higher prices.
The heat of the energy crises of the 1970s did produce some misguided, emotional and off-base reporting, and Schmertz is justified in sounding off about it. But those complaints touch off a broadside against journalism that comes nowhere near the mark.
"Let's imagine for a moment an America where 95 percent of the population are white, 60 percent are male, 93 percent are college graduates, 78 percent earn more than $30,000 a year, and 50 percent profess no religion at all," Schmertz writes. "While that certainly doesn't sound like the America I know, it does describe one segment of our population -- our leading journalists and broadcasters."
The profile he cites is based on a study of 240 of "the media elite" seven years ago by university researchers who "found this group of 'opinion leaders' to be so strikingly different from mainstream America that they might as well have come from a different country."
"Now this whole matter of how reporters differ from the rest of us would not matter so much if members of the press did not insist upon viewing themselves as surrogates for the American public," Schmertz says. Who appointed them? he demands to know. If reporters aren't fit to speak for "the rest of us," guess who is? "I am, in effect, the manager of an ongoing political campaign," he says.
The readers who follow Mobil's editorial-advertisements on newspaper op-ed pages, and the rest of Mobil's public affairs activities are Schmertz's targets. He is a believer in "affinity-of-purpose marketing . . . which consists of identifying your company with a worthy cause that a high proportion of your audience happens to believe in. As a result of that identification, consumers reward you by buying your product or otherwise helping your business."
It is a particularly effective approach for products, such as gasoline, that seem to be identical to the competition's, he says.
When Mobil channels some of the billions of dollars handed over at the gasoline pumps to public television to support Masterpiece Theatre or Sesame Street, it is trying to create the image of Mobil as "the thinking man's gasoline," as a polling consultant says in the book. And it hopes to use that public image as leverage to promote its political agenda, on issues of energy or taxes or Middle East politics.
Schmertz doesn't like having to have his message filtered through the media. In his ideal world, companies would have direct, unfiltered access to the public over television, and the same right that newspapers have to claim tax deductions on the cost of their public-issue advertising.
"The Art of Creative Confrontation" means using all of a corporation's muscle and wit to get its message across, he says. All in all, he gives an impressive account of one PR man's ability to get a story across, a PR man who is a good deal less accountable to the public than is the press he criticizes.
Near the end of the book, he offers some concluding advice for top corporate executives, warning them not to be swept away by flattery, lest they start to believe their own clippings.
"Because it's very difficult to keep yourself honest, it's important that you hire people who have the courage -- and the freedom -- to help you out in that process," said Schmertz. A daily newspaper is an even better bargain.