I was Jack O'Dwyer's lunch buddy.
In fact, going to lunch with Jack was among my most important responsibilities as editor of O'Dwyer's print and online newsletters, especially if fireworks were expected.
It was the best part of my job.
Once Jack realized that I "got" PR, after I spent a couple of years of reporting and editing for O'Dwyer Co., he deputized me as lunch partner, available for escort duty when a meeting was set to either hash out differences with a top PR executive or to drive some sense into someone.
Since hard-nosed Jack rubbed some tender PR souls, who objected to our coverage, the wrong way, those lunches were plentiful.
Enlisting me as ally made perfect sense to Jack. He saw it a matter of fairness.
He no longer wanted to be outnumbered, saying his lunch adversaries usually invited their trusty PR aides for both cheerleading duty and to gang up on him.
My presence was supposed to even up the score. It usually did.
But what an adventure! Prior to entering a restaurant or PR firm headquarters—which Jack referred to as the "belly of the beast"-- I thought of only one thing: expect the unexpected.
Boy, was I right. We had some doozies.
'Why does everybody hate you'?
Our 1994 session with then Hill & Knowlton CEO Howard Paster immediately went south, when President Bill Clinton's former lobbyist asked Jack right off the bat, "Why does everybody hate you."
Say what? Talk about cutting to the chase.
To be fair to Howard, he took over H&K during a turbulent time. The shop was reeling in the aftermath of its representation of the phony front group, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, that helped snooker the Bush White House into invading Iraq.
H&K followed up that fiasco with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for anti-abortion work, an assignment that led to employee unrest and protests at H&K's New York headquarters. It's never good PR when your own PR people have turned against you.
Responding to Paster's question, Jack didn't miss a beat, basically telling him to "shove it."
He explained that the O'Dwyer name may not be held in high regard among H&K's management, but the PR industry and the firm's staff were better served with our straight-up coverage of H&K's work for the Citizens and bishops, rather than ignoring or sugar-coating the assignment.
There were PR outlets during that time that ignored H&K's work for "controversial" clients.
Jack always deplored what he called "media suck-ups."
After some back and forth, Jack and Howard hammered things out.
Following the meeting, Paster and the O'Dwyer Co. enjoyed a very cordial relationship, which extended well into his corporate posting at WPP in charge of its PR units.
Leaving in a snit
Things didn't turn out as well with a CEO of another Top 10 global firm, who stormed out of the restaurant in a snit, minutes after we placed our lunch order.
The meeting was designed as a peace summit. We thought the plan was for the CEO (who is nameless because he's still viewed as a leader in PR) to make a pitch for more favorable coverage for a trade group (it wasn't PRSA) that he was involved with at that time.
Boy, were we wrong.
After an exchange of terse pleasantries, he railed against Jack as an out-of-touch scribbler who either gets all of his facts wrong or pulls them out of thin air.
That got O'Dwyer's Irish up.
He rose in defense of his coverage and then both now red-faced men rose from their seats, leaned over the table until practically eye-to-eye.
I was placing odds on who would be the first to keel over from a heart attack.
Action was needed. The trade group's PR director calmed down the CEO, and I did the same with Jack.
I thought sanity was restored at last… but no, no, no.
With a grand theatrical flourish, the CEO announced that he was finished dealing with Jack and bolted, leaving the PR director sitting awkwardly across the table from us.
What could any one of us say? As the British say, we were all gobsmacked. [Forgive me, Jack. Irishman O'Dwyer wasn't a big fan of the Brits in PR but that's for another article.]
Did the crafty CEO set us up? Possibly. But the PR director claimed to have had no advance knowledge of the storm-out.
The only thing left for the three of us to do: wait for the food and then eat. Best of all: Jack and I shared the entree ordered by our missing lunch partner.
A ton of damage control followed the meeting, resulting in my assuming all contact with the CEO.
Jack cut him off because he had better things to do than to deal with a blowhard.
Burson rolled out the red carpet
Of course, not all of our lunches were rough and tumble affairs.
O'Dwyer had many friends in PR who respected his body of work and rolled out the red carpet for his visit to their offices.
Harold Burson and Dan/Richard Edelman topped the list.
I joined Jack on his lunch dates with Burson at B-M headquarters.
Harold would turn out the entire B-M management team. They would update both of us on global developments at B-M.
The B-M people, in turn, wanted to hear Jack's assessment of the state of PR, recognizing they could benefit from tapping into his knowledge of what was and wasn't working in PR.
The Edelmans socialized with the O'Dwyer family and were available via phone to Jack 24/7. They also were his powerful industry allies.
I remember Jack telling me days after I joined his firm to "give Dan Edelman a call" on some story that we were working on.
An even bigger surprise: Dan apologized for not being immediately available when I placed the call.
That was a sign of respect for Jack and the people that he hired.
Get your butt out of the office
O'Dwyer treasured his image as a hard-nosed, old-school, shoe-leather reporter.
Journalism, to Jack, ranked among life's highest callings.
I always marveled when Jack, then in his late 70s or early 80s, would simply identify himself on the phone as a "reporter from New York."
This was from a guy who did as much as anybody to professionalize the PR business and earn it the proper respect that it deserved.
Tough-guy O'Dwyer though was a social butterfly.
He encouraged staffers to get out of the office and meet people, either at lunch or after work.
When I joined O'Dwyer Co. in the early 1990s, Jack would reminisce about the good old days, when he and members of the media were showered with gifts and outings from PR people, or as he put it, "Broadway tickets, ballets and nights on the town."
Golf and tennis abounded, offering opportunities for Jack to schmooze with PR bigwigs.
But those days of "wine and roses" were pretty much over when I signed on.
The irony that escaped Jack: he played a part in the killing of those "good old days."
The introduction of the O'Dwyer rankings put a focus on the financial management aspect of PR. Firms could no longer fritter away money for entertaining reporters.
The conglomerates used the rankings to figure out which firms they would acquire.
During a meeting that I had with Miles Nadal, who then headed MDC Partners, he took out a copy of the O'Dwyer rankings to discuss takeover targets.
He wanted my suggestions. I demurred, telling him that any firm smart enough to list itself with O'Dwyer's, would be a fine addition to MDC's PR lineup.
As tennis/golf outings, baseball tickets, Broadway shows, ballets and nights on the town disappeared, lunch became Jack's way of keeping his finger on the pulse of the PR world.
He made the most of out of every beat.
I'm forever grateful that he let me in on the action.