Herbert Schmertz, Innovative Public-Relations Man, Dies at 87

Herbert Schmertz at a presidential campaign event for Robert F. Kennedy, speaking at rear, in 1968.
Herbert Schmertz, an aggressive and innovative public relations man who, as a Mobil Oil executive, pioneered the use of company-written “advertorials” during the energy shortages of the 1970s, died on Wednesday in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 87.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his daughter Nicole Schmertz said.

In addition to urging Mobil to go on the offensive at a time when Big Oil was being demonized, Mr. Schmertz had the company engage in image enhancement by association. He arranged for the company to sponsor the PBS series “Masterpiece Theater” when it began in 1971 as well as “Mystery!” and other public television programs later.

“ ‘Masterpiece’ might very well have faltered or failed in the beginning without him,” Rebecca Eaton, the show’s executive producer since 1985, said in a telephone interview. “Not only did Mobil fully fund ‘Masterpiece,’ he also jump-started the series by pouring a lot of additional money into its promotion.”

When oil companies came in for criticism over long gas lines and rising prices at the pump, Mr. Schmertz’s counterattacks made him perhaps the most visible public-relations executive in the United States in the 1970s and ’80s. Ms. Eaton, though, said his support for quality PBS programming in the early days of public television — PBS began in 1969 — was also an important legacy.

“He was kind of an old-fashioned patron of the arts,” she said. “It was Mobil’s money, not his own, but he was like a modern-day Medici.”

Herbert Schmertz was born on March 22, 1930, in Yonkers. His father, Max, was a jeweler, and his mother, the former Hetty Frank, was a homemaker.

Mr. Schmertz grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and received a bachelor of arts degree from Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1952 and a bachelor of laws from Columbia University in 1955. (He added a doctor of laws degree from Union in 1977.)

He did intelligence work in the Army in Washington from 1955 to 1957, then worked for the American Arbitration Association before becoming an organizer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960.

That work led to a lifelong association with the Kennedy family and, once Robert F. Kennedy became his brother’s attorney general, a job as general counsel to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Mr. Schmertz joined Mobil in 1966 as a labor lawyer, but took a leave two years later to work on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign; he would take another to work on Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1979.

He took charge of Mobil’s public affairs department in 1969 and filled that role almost continuously until leaving Mobil in 1988 to form his own company. For most of that stretch he had the title of vice president and played a significant role in shaping the company’s policies.

Critical of the news media, Mr. Schmertz advocated what he called creative confrontation — a markedly different approach from that of most companies, which tried to do their influencing behind the scenes.

“For a long time, business and business leaders didn’t feel it was part of their responsibility” to make their voices and opinions heard, he told United Press International in 1986. They believed, he continued, “that if they ignored unfair criticism it would go away.”

He added, “I believe you should meet it head on and deal with it.”

To do just that, in October 1970, Mr. Schmertz began buying space on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times to express the company’s views in essay form. Sometimes the essays responded to the news of the moment; other times they addressed broader issues, like mass transit. They advertorials appeared in other newspapers as well, and Mr. Schmertz made scores of television appearances.

His methods and visibility brought him all sorts of labels — “Mobil’s superflack,”“the Billy Martin of corporate P.R.” and, as the headline on a New York magazine profile of him put it, “Oil Slick.”

Politically, Mr. Schmertz was hard to pin down; in addition to working on the Kennedys’ campaigns, he helped Bob Dole, the Republican senator from Kansas, in his 1988 presidential run. Mr. Schmertz often said that his public-relations philosophy was nothing more than applying the sharp-elbowed lessons of politics to the business world.

He once pulled Mobil advertising from The Wall Street Journal in a dispute over coverage. In 1986 he laid down his ideas and war stories in a book, “Goodbye to the Low Profile: The Art of Creative Confrontation,” written with William Novak.

Yet many in the public-relations business thought his blustery approach did as much harm as good.

“To go out and argue with people in public, it’s like seeing two people fighting in the street,” Richard Cheney, another public relations executive, told The Washington Post in 1988. “You’re not going to take sides, you just want them to stop.”

The less flashy pillar of Mr. Schmertz’s philosophy was what he called “affinity of purpose” — getting policymakers and the public to have a presumptive good opinion of your company by associating it with high-minded things like “Masterpiece Theater” (now known simply as “Masterpiece”). Countless viewers heard the phrase “made possible by a grant from Mobil” as they tuned in “The First Churchills,” “I, Claudius” and other British productions presented by “Masterpiece,” an anthology series produced by WGBH in Boston.

Because of its support from Mobil and other oil companies, PBS was sometimes called the Petroleum Broadcasting Service in those early years.

“Cultural excellence generally suggests corporate excellence,” Mr. Schmertz told New York magazine, explaining the millions of dollars Mobil put into arts ventures.

Among his clients after he formed his own company was the World Bank, which hired him in 1994 to try to improve its image.

Mr. Schmertz and his first wife, the former Ida Schaap, were divorced in 1976. His second marriage, to the former Susan Burley, ended in divorce in 1993. In addition to his daughter Nicole, Mr. Schmertz, who lived in West Palm Beach, is survived by another daughter, Lexy Schmertz; his sons, Anthony, Thomas and Conor; and six grandchildren. His brother, Eric, a noted labor mediator, died in 2010.

Although few public-relations specialists today would take as abrasive a tack as Mr. Schmertz sometimes did, the modern media landscape is full of advertiser-influenced or controlled content that calls to mind his early forays into advertorials. On his retirement from Mobil in 1988, he was asked to name his greatest achievement.

“I think,” he told The Times, “that Mobil has made it respectable for companies to have views, opinions and philosophies and to express them.”

By Neil Genzlinger

A version of this article appears in print on January 22, 2018, on Page B6 of the New York edition with the headline: Herbert Schmertz, 87, an Image-Maker Who Helped Pour Money Into PBS, Dies. 

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