Herb Schmertz Invented Modern PR

Herb Schmertz, who passed away last week, did amazing work that made him my idol when I started in the business. Little did I know that he was inventing the future of PR, too.

At least three of Schmertz’s innovations are now mainstays of business communications today:

He pioneered native content. Schmertz led Mobil Oil’s public affairs department though the 70s and most of the 80s. When OPEC declared its first oil embargo in 1973, resulting in long lines at gas stations and questions about America’s dependence on a fickle foreign fuel, the news coverage was not terribly favorable for his employer.

Schmertz had the insight that Mobil should bypass journalists and speak directly to its stakeholders, and could do it by buying space for its articles in media…running ads that looked and read like editorials. The idea of such “advertorials” wasn’t wholly new, but Schmertz more than anyone defined and exploited their use.

The innovation generated a lot of pushback, in part because people thought it possible that the content could be mistaken for actual journalism. This novel use of ad buys has since become the norm, both for corporations that produce an absurd amount of blather that doesn’t deserve to see the light of day, and publications that are all too happy to get paid for giving it brief exposure as “native content.”

The key was that Schmertz’s advertorials were amazingly well-written, and my understanding was that he wrote them, at least in part. This was the key reason why he was my role model.

He recast media as a conversation. The advertorials weren’t just declarations of positions, but reasoned arguments that all but asked for responses. In this way, Schmertz used them to make media “social” before there was any real social component to publishing platforms (other than letters to the editor).

The idea of a company being a direct, participatory voice in public discourse was revolutionary; previously, companies had to rely exclusively on journalists (and equity analysts) to distill and present their cases, which meant that they were beholden to those interpretations. Mobil’s advertorials announced that it was no longer chained to those practices.

It meant Mobil also took a far more active, and some would say combative role in how it interacted with those gatekeepers. In one famous instance, it boycotted the Wall Street Journal in 1984 because it felt the paper’s reporting had been biased. Like running advertorials, such actions were bold, to say the least, but they redefined the nature of companies from faceless/passionless entities, to players with personalities.

Schmertz was the de factor inventor of such thought leadership.

He blurred correlation with causation. When Mobil started sponsoring Masterpiece Theatre on PBS in 1971, Schmertz had invented the practice of “affinity-of-purpose” marketing. The concept was to attach Mobil’s brand to something that was distinctly non-commercial and otherwise disconnected from its business or issues, and with which it had no involvement other than funding, and thereby gain favor for appearing, literally, near it (“This program is brought to you by…”).

I can’t find proof of the comment, but I remember someone explaining to me that it didn’t matter if anybody even watched the PBS shows; the point was that Mobil would be seen as doing something selflessly for the public good.

The idea was that a company would give money to support activities that it simply chose to support, based on its personality and the role in wanted to play in public discourse. Schmertz’s innovation was to see this as something distinct from marketing campaigns, which tend to link back to whatever it is a company sells (and therefore come across as far less authentic). It was another extension of the conversation he hoped to develop with his stakeholders.

The practice has been copied endlessly ever since.

I interviewed for a job working for Herb Schmertz shortly after he left Mobil to start up his own firm in the late 1980s; in fact, when we met, he was the only person at the office (he answered the door, etc.). I remember little of the conversation, probably because I was in such star-struck awe. What could a twentysomething like me possibly offer this PR innovator?

Nothing, it turns out, as I didn’t get a job offer.

But I remember him with great respect, as we all should, as the inventor of modern PR.