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A Young Turk of PR Turns to Old Guard

Image: Publicity maven Elizabeth Grubman was in a crisis. So she hired Howard J. Rubenstein.

July 15, 2001|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — She's been called the Queen of New York Nightlife, a stylish, tough-talking publicist who made her fame in the world of hip downtown celebrity parties.

Elizabeth Grubman epitomized the hot new look of public relations, with an A list of clients including Britney Spears, Quincy Jones and 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake. Some believed that she and other Young Turks would soon eclipse the city's older, more traditional and respected publicists such as Howard J. Rubenstein.

But when Grubman backed her Mercedes-Benz sport-utility vehicle into a crowd outside a trendy Hamptons club last weekend, injuring 16 people, the 30-year-old publicity maven faced a dilemma: Witnesses accused her of doing it on purpose and fleeing the scene. Who would she call to solve her public relations crisis?

She turned to the old guard, hiring Rubenstein.

"It was a tragic accident that she truly regrets," said a somber Rubenstein in the first news reports about the carnage at Southampton's Conscience Point Inn. "But it truly was an accident."

In the days to come, an ashen Grubman appeared sans makeup before TV cameras to voice her regrets. Meanwhile, friends who initially talked to reporters clammed up. The media made much of Grubman's allegedly obscene comments to a club bouncer, who asked her to move her vehicle just before the 2 a.m. incident. But Rubenstein said that would have been "out of character."

"Howard did a good job of advising her on all these things," a rival publicist said. "She's still taking a beating in the press, but as long as Lizzie sticks to the script he gives her, she can hold her own."

For more than 45 years, New York celebrities who find themselves in hot water have sought comfort--and reassuring spin--from this quiet, uncharismatic man whom some insiders consider a public relations genius. His firm handles top corporate accounts, but Rubenstein, 69, is best known for his management of clients such as Donald Trump, George Steinbrenner, Rupert Murdoch, Denise Rich, Michael Jackson and others hoping to burnish or redeem reputations.

He can't always rehabilitate a damaged image. But for many, the simple act of hiring Rubenstein is a bid for respectability in New York's overheated media world, a first step on the road back from negative news coverage.

"Howard knows everybody, and his clients are savvy enough to realize they get a measure of credibility by retaining him," said Kevin McCauley, editor of O'Dwyers PR Daily, a news source for the public relations industry. "He knows how the press works, and he plays the game well."

Sometimes Rubenstein uses a genial approach with reporters, trying to soften the harsh edges of clients such as hotel queen Leona Helmsley. But he also can use bare-knuckle tactics, as he did in his representation of financier Ronald O. Perelman during a messy divorce from Patricia Duff.

In Grubman's case, Rubenstein has his work cut out for him. The SUV incident is the talk of the Hamptons, and the PR world is abuzz concerning his efforts to guide her through the media jungle. The irony of their pairing is delicious, McCauley said, because they come from such different worlds.

"I'm sure Rubenstein will do his job--we'll hear more statements of contrition," said Sheldon Rampton, editor of PR Watch, a magazine that monitors the public relations industry. "But that strategy can backfire because people were injured, and at some point it's hard to admit something and defend yourself in court."

New York coverage of the Hamptons incident has been very critical of the young publicist, and victims of the accident have begun showering Grubman with lawsuits. Some stories have portrayed her as a spoiled kid whose rich father--entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman--will bail her out of this fix.

Police officials still are investigating the July 7 incident, sifting through conflicting accounts. Grubman, through Rubenstein and her attorneys, has said she mistakenly shifted her SUV into reverse when leaving the club, largely because she was unfamiliar with the vehicle.

Other witnesses, however, said she got into a shouting match with a bouncer, calling him "[expletive] white trash," and then rammed the vehicle into a crowd. Police arrested Grubman several hours later, charging her with seven counts of assault, leaving the scene of an accident and reckless endangerment. She pleaded not guilty and was released after posting $25,000 bail. If convicted, Grubman could face as much as 25 years in prison.

"Money Talks" shouted a New York Post headline above a story recounting how Grubman hired Rubenstein and a battery of powerhouse attorneys hours after the incident. She was not given a Breathalyzer test because police said they did not have probable cause to ask for such a test right away; critics suggested that Grubman's clout got her special treatment.

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