During the well-publicized oil crisis of the I970’s, populists looking for an easy answer to the problem of excruciatingly long lines at gas stations reflexively blamed the big oil companies. These barons of black gold were accused of bilking the public. So widespread was this sentiment that President Carter himself joined the chorus of blame. To many Americans it was simply self-evident that the oil companies were greedy. Almost every television report and newspaper story reinforced this story.
Standing against this tornado of public opinion was one man, a corporate Don Quixote who demonstrated tenacity, imagination, and flair: Herb Schmertz, Mobil Oil’s vice president for public affairs. Schmertz has written Good-Bye to the Low-Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation as a primer for other business executives who are likewise obliged to respond to media accusations, hi answer to the question “What do you do when Sixty Minutes calls?” Schmertz recommends a direct and complete response, while recognizing that much of what a business executive says may end up on the cutting room floor. Sixty Minutes always has the advantage in this confrontation, but there are steps that can be taken to limit the damage. Mr. Schmertz has superb instinct for response.
But this book goes well beyond advice on what to say to a television interviewer. Schmertz examines the ways corporations can enter the debate on public policy in which they are often cast as the villains. One of the extraordinary developments nurtured by Schmertz was the Mobil op-ed pieces that first appeared in the New York Times and now regularly appear in the other major newspapers and weekly magazines. It is his contention that this was (and remains) an effective way for Mobil to address its critics and, perhaps more importantly, affect the character of public issues.
In a way, it is odd that this public affairs effort must be launched at all. After all, business should not be perceived as guilty of crimes against America without a chance to defend itself But in the era of Naderism, business is wrong until proven otherwise. One would think from the media’s standpoint that this isn’t, or perhaps shouldn’t be, a capitalist society. It is no accident that the heavy in most prime-time television programs is a business executive. Invariably he is amoral, if not immoral. Schmertz detects a double standard among media people, who are “perfectly happy to discuss morality with me—so long as it’s my morality. Their morality, it seems, is off-limits.”
Such is the state of the media that what is, and only what is, sensational represents what is newsworthy. Young reporters are obsessed with the scoop, that story that will launch careers into the upper echelons of the news industry. Journalists eager for a dramatic story often assume the worst about the people or the companies they are asked to cover. Herb Schmertz has the fix on these people and scores points repeatedly with his analysis of their modus operandi.
As important as this book is, it is not without its flaws and questionable judgments. In discussing the effect of liberal bias on reporting, Mr. Schmertz agrees “that in most cases the journalist does not intend to exercise such a bias. In all probability, he has no idea that this bias even enters into his reporting.” Yet illustration after illustration in the book point to a reporter who has an ax to grind. Where is the evidence that reporters can maintain their objectivity? Neither the professionalism encouraged in university schools of journalism or the standards among working newsmen have proved adequate.
In discussing public television, Mr. Schmertz makes the sensible proposal—I believe—that the government should not be in the business of supporting the arts and culture. But if that is true, it does not follow that “a far better way to proceed is by having the government issue the cultural equivalent of food stamps.” Won’t the government still be involved in spending huge sums of money for the arts?
Notwithstanding my trifling concerns, this book deserves attention from businessmen who are fed up with the moral posturing of media commentators and self-appointed defenders of the public “right-to-know.” Because freedom of the press has grown into a form of clerical privilege, journalists now consider any limitation on their freedom as censorship. Beleaguered businessmen will be glad that one of the most creative people in the corporate community has now provided some strategies for dealing with media inquisitors.
[Good-Bye to the Low-Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation, by Herb Schmertz (Boston: Little, Brown) $16.95]