Schmertz: Mobil Oil's Public Relations `Tiger in the Tank'

By Donald M. Rothberg, Ap | THE JOURNAL RECORD, August 6, 1985 | Go to article overview

Schmertz: Mobil Oil's Public Relations `Tiger in the Tank'


Donald M. Rothberg, Ap, THE JOURNAL RECORD


NEW YORK - Herb Schmertz sucked deeply to light his cigar as he pondered the question of what he'd do if he were running CBS. ""The corporation or the network?'' he asked, ever precise when dealing with the media.

He flipped the spent match over his shoulder, a perfect blind shot into one of those trash barrels you see in every Mobil gasoline station.

It was a confident, practiced gesture by a corporate public relations man with a zest for confrontation, a Billy Martin of PR who never hesitates to fight back when he thinks the media is mistreating Mobil Oil - and that is often, in his view.

Take the time he got fed up with the coverage Mobil Oil was getting from the Wall Street Journal. Complain to the editor? Schmertz did more. He cut the paper off: no interviews with Mobil executives, no press releases, no advertising.

Or when he told a group of editors, ""The press has almost an absolute immunity to knowingly lie about public figures.'' Later, in the same speech, he declared, ""No one elected the media to represent the public.''

Vintage Schmertz, a direct challenge to how the news business sees itself, the kind of tough talk that has made this Mobil Oil vice president something of a celebrity as a media basher.

As readily as others might write a complaining letter to the editor, Schmertz will dip into his $30 million annual budget and buy a full-page ad to state his case against television or newspaper coverage of Mobil.

Every Thursday morning, Schmertz occupies the lower right-hand corner of the op-ed page of the New York Times for Mobil ""advertorials,'' brief essays on diverse topics. On a given day it might be on energy legislation before Congress, or the arts, or the virtues of the Mobil Travel Guides.

A favorite subject is the libel laws and his belief that court decisions during the past 20 years have made it increasingly difficult for anyone in public life or business to win a judgment even when they can prove the offending story was incorrect.

""A lie is a lie is a lie,'' was the headline on one such Mobil ad.

But the Public Broadcasting Service posters that line the walls of the corridor leading to his sixth-floor corner office attest to another side of Schmertz.

He is the man behind the words - ""This program is made possible by a grant from Mobil Oil Corporation'' - that follow some of the highest quality programming on public television, shows like, ""Upstairs Downstairs,'' ""The Jewel in the Crown'' and ""Sherlock Holmes.''

Even Mobil's support of the arts is marked by confrontation, clashes between the company and the commercial television networks.

And now Schmertz is working on a book with William Novak, the writer who collaborated on ""Iacocca,'' the best-selling autobiography of Chrysler president Lee Iacocca. Schmertz's book will not be autobiographical, but will lay out his view of public relations, including a chapter advising businesses ""What to Do When "60 Minutes' Calls.''

A tiger in Mobil's tank, yet Schmertz is a disarming charmer who maintains friendships with many people who strongly oppose his views.

Among them is Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Schmertz, who worked on the presidential campaigns of John and Robert Kennedy, volunteered to help Edward Kennedy when he challenged Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

Big oil in general and Mobil in particular were Kennedy whipping boys during that ill-fated campaign.

Mobil had recently acquired the retailer, Montgomery Ward, and Kennedy would ask audiences, ""Now how much oil do you think Mobil is going to find drilling in the aisles of Montgomery Ward?''

Reminded of that line, Schmertz said, ""Oh, he was just needling me.'' But he made it clear he would not enlist in another Kennedy campaign.

""No, I think that some of his fundamental positions today simply are not right for the country,'' he says. …

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