Herb Schmertz: The man who invented “Modern PR”

Herb Schmertz is lauded as the man who invented “Modern PR. He has been a towering personality in the world of PR and led public relations at Mobil Corporation in the 1970’s and 80’s. He was extremely skilled at handling good and bad publicity and is much looked up to for the astute way he had handled diverse issues relating to Mobil.

His early life & career

Schmertz grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and secured a BA Degree from Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1952 and a Bachelor of Laws from Columbia University in 1955. Later, in 1977 he added on a Doctor of Laws degree.

His career included doing intelligence work in the Army in Washington from 1955 to 1957. He also was employed with the American Arbitration Association and then became the organizer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960.

In 1986, he wrote a book with William Novak titled “Goodbye to the Low Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation.”

Schmertz’s association with Mobil

Schmertz started working for Mobil in the mid-1960s as a labor lawyer.  However, in a decade he was overseeing its public affairs department and later was elevated to Mobil’s board.

One of his great successes was inventing the concept of advertorials. It was not mindless peddling or pushing of the company’s ideas. Rather, it was well-researched work that addressed the questions arising in the consumer mind.

In 1970, he started the trend of advertorials by buying space on the op-ed page of the New York Times to showcase Mobil’s outlook of the oil industry and world. Advertorials grew in popularity and spread to other newspapers and Schmertz was instantly a much sough-after speaker on TV news programs.

There was a time when the US had a huge energy crisis and fuel prices surged for a great part of the 1970s.  Oil companies were at the end of sharp criticism hitting them from politicians and citizens. It was then that Mobil effectively created advertorials paying $3,500 ($20,000 today) for the weekly slot to share their side of the story. Mobil was quite bold in defending the profits generated by oil companies, lash out against national energy policies, pointed out the jobs the oil industry created, and jogged people’s minds about the development that oil created.

When Schmertz went offensive

Schmertz was not the type to take everything lying down. He became renowned for going on the offensive and what he called “creative confrontation.” This came as quite a shock to many but nevertheless it made a big impact. To put it in his own words, “Companies have to participate in public policy to appeal to various elements of the electorate to build a constituency. Our goal was not to be loved; it was to be respected.”

Tempering the harshness with softness

Schmertz’s strategy was not always the same. For instance, he softened Mobil’s abrasive image by sponsoring the PBS series “Masterpiece Theater.” High-end programs like “I, Claudius” and “The First Churchills” were “through a grant from Mobil.

He died at 87 leaving behind a rich legacy of wisdom and experience for others to follow.

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