Good-bye to the Low Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation by Herb Schmertz with William Novak (Little, Brown: $16.95; 242 pp.) : Fighting Back by William P. Tavoulareas (Simon & Schuster: $15.95; 253 pp.)

May 18, 1986| David Shaw | Shaw writes about the media for The Times. His most recent book is "Press Watch" (Macmillan)

"Fighting Back" and "Good-bye to the Low Profile." The titles of these two books--both by executives of Mobil Oil--are virtually interchangeable.

The books themselves are not.

Although both are relentlessly (and not surprisingly) self-serving, Herb Schmertz's book also manages to be provocative, amusing and insightful. William P. Tavoulareas' book is a diatribe, an angry, one-sided account of his libel suit against the Washington Post.

Schmertz is a former campaigner for John, Robert and Edward Kennedy, but he is best-known as the aggressive vice president of public affairs for Mobil Oil--the man behind Mobil's sponsorship of "Masterpiece Theatre" and Mobil's "advertorials" on the op-ed pages of several major newspapers.

Schmertz believes that corporate America gets a raw deal from the media (especially television), and his basic message in this book is "Fight back--the best defense is a good offense." The book is a primer, a handbook on how to do just that--how to respond to press inquiries and rehearse for interviews and sponsor cultural events and challenge journalists and do anything else to seize the public relations initiative and enhance your corporate image.

"Good-bye . . ." blends Schmertz's inside accounts of Mobil's battles with President Carter, the television networks, the Wall Street Journal, Ralph Nader and Common Cause (among others) with specific, point-by-point tips on how business leaders can best do battle with the press. He urges businessmen to "Grab the good words--and the good concepts--for yourself," for example, and he illustrates the wisdom of that tactic by suggesting that in a struggle between "public-interest" groups and an industry with "windfall profits," there is little doubt which side the public will sympathize with.

In a section titled, "What to do when '60 Minutes' calls," Schmertz lays out a precise strategy for the uneasy executive--which questions to ask before deciding whether to cooperate; how to investigate the reporter; how to set the agenda (and prepare) for the interview; even--if you don't want to cooperate--how to "force them (the journalists) to say no by requesting conditions they can't possibly accept."

Schmertz also offers advice on dealing with government. A business executive summoned to appear in a public hearing, for instance, should "never go . . . alone. Always bring two or three people with you, even if they're not going to say anything. It helps if they look important and carry bulging briefcases."

Schmertz is often glib, occasionally disingenuous (can he really believe that campaign contributions "don't influence legislation"?) and--in my view--too eager to defend big business and too willing to believe the worst of the press in virtually any given situation. But Schmertz is certainly right that the press has sometimes treated business unfairly, and he's on even firmer ground when he castigates journalists for their reluctance "to criticize or examine themselves." He understands the media, and as unsettling as I find some of his judgments, I suspect that his advice on press relations could be very useful to its intended reader, the ambitious corporate executive. In some instances, it could benefit the press and the public as well.

It's difficult, though, to see whom Tavoulareas' book would benefit--except, of course, himself and his publisher. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just that Tavoulareas insists on seeing his story in larger terms, as "a peculiarly American struggle," and his attempts to wrap himself in the American Flag are as unsuccessful as they are unattractive.

In 1979, the Washington Post published a front-page story that accused Tavoulareas, then president of Mobil Oil Corp., of using his position to "set up his son . . . as a partner" in a business that subsequently did "millions of dollars in business operating Mobil-owned ships." The story suggested that Tavoulareas may have violated federal securities laws in failing to disclose those connections.

Tavoulareas sued the Post for libel. And won. Then the judge set aside the jury's verdict. Tavoulareas appealed. And won. Then the full district court of appeals vacated that judgment and said it would rehear the case. That hearing is still pending.

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