Students of PR should pick up a copy of Bill Knoedelseder's "Bitter Brew," which chronicles the powerful role played by FleishmanHillard in the rise and fall of the Busch family of St. Louis and Anheuser-Busch.
Al Fleishman was deeply involved in every facet of the life of August Anheuser Busch, Jr. ("Gussie"), the man who led the brewer following the repeal of Prohibition through the WWII and its epic battles with then marketshare neck and neck Pabst and Schlitz.
He stage-managed Busch's third marriage and pitched him to buy the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Those two "acquisitions" defined the rest of Gussie's life, according to Knoedelseder.
Busch didn't give a hoot about either the Red Birds or baseball, but Fleishman convinced him that the $2.5M purchase would result in a PR windfall as the team was threatening to move to Milwaukee, home of Pabst and Schlitz.
Indeed, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported the sale on its front page with the headline "Busch Saves the Cards for St Louis." From a marketing standpoint, the deal was a grand slam. A-B turned Sportsman's Park into a giant outdoor tavern, where 30K fans could quaff down Budweisers for two to three hours a day under the sweltering St. Louis sun. The Cards were truly "America's Team" with a fan base that covered Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. Bud would reign supreme in that swath of the country.
In 1967, Gussie sat down with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to outline the ascension of his son to the helm. The resulting headline was "August Busch III Prepares for the Job of Keeping Anheuser-Bush on Top."
Knoedelseder wrote: "Al Fleishman had arranged the interview, with Gussie's approval. It couldn't have happened otherwise, because Fleishman tightly controlled all publicity for A-B, which didn't have its own PR department, just Fleishman's firm. Fleishman & Hillard, which devoted about 75 percent of its billing hours to telling the A-B story the way Gussie wanted it told to introduce his heir apparent to the public."
Other F-H highlights:
1) Al Fleishman handled media following the shooting death of a friend of Gussie's son, Peter, at the Busch family's Grant Farms estate. He told the press assembled at the gate that Peter carried a loaded gun around the house because all Busch children were taught to handle firearms and used them for hunting and target practice. When Fleishman was finished, a reporter said to him, "I guess you know nobody is going to believe this."
2) F-H set a "record for poundage" in mailing several thousand thick media packages to reporters in A-B's Federal Trade Commission false advertising complaint aimed at Miller's Lowenbrau. Miller had changed the Lowenbrau ingredients to violate Germany's so-called purity laws. Miller had played up the Bavarian heritage of the brew. F-H's campaign resulted in more than 200 pro-A-B stories, one from the Associated Press that quoted a Munich beer executive who said he was embarrassed at what Miller did. Lowenbrau market share collapsed over the next year. That downfall was good news for A-B's Michelob.
3) August III ordered F-H to cut off Forbes magazine after it illustrated a 1978 article about Miller Brewing's market share gains on A-B with an antique bottle of Budweiser covered with cobwebs. The ban lasted eight years. When a F-H staffer supplied a Forbes reporter with publicly available A-B data, August had him removed from the account.
4) In 1987, F-H handled A-B's push at younger drinkers, handling PR for "spokes-dog" Spuds MacKenzie. The skateboard riding, Hawaiian shirt wearing Spuds was positioned as the "original party animal." Spuds mania grew as Macy's launched 22 Spuds boutiques that sold posters, t-shirts, towels, stuffed animals and toys. More important, Spuds sparked a 21 percent rise in Bud Light sales during the first year of the campaign.
F-H also was there during the beginning of A-B's downfall, the elevation of the hard-living, women-chasing, party boy August IV, to the throne. The coronation took place in 2006.
His first move was to ink a deal to make A-B the exclusive U.S. distributor of Belgium's InBev's Beck's, Stella Artois and Bass Ale. That deal, which was made against his board member father's wishes, put the fox in the proverbial chicken coop.
After unsuccessfully wooing A-B, InBev launched a hostile takeover of America's No. 1 brewer in 2008. Two weeks following the November completion of the deal, InBev fired 1,000 of A-B's employees in St. Louis. It ultimately cut salaries 20 percent, froze benefits and unloaded Sea World and Busch Gardens theme parks.
August IV left the company the following March for "personal and health reasons." He's now a Howard Hughes-like recluse, a man "barely recognizable as the formerly trim and handsome head of Anheuser-Busch," wrote Knoedelseder in the 2012 book published by HarperCollins' Harper Business imprint.