As She “Retires” PR Maven Nancy Haberman’s Motto: Never Lie to a Journalist

Nancy Haberman, who just “retired” from her illustrious 45-year career in public relations was feted at the Chelsea Hotel on March 12 by her one-time protégé and now boss, Steven Rubenstein. Media is all in the family. She was married to veteran NYT columnist Clyde Haberman, and they have two children, bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times reporter Maggie Haberman and journalist/photographer-turned-PR-man Zach Haberman.

| 03 Apr 2024 | 11:04

How has the public relations business changed over the years?

Well the internet. It certainly changed everything. It didn’t really change my role so much. Except for the fact that I read stories online as opposed to 45 years ago when there was a lot more print and no web... My own focus hasn’t changed at all. I’m still doing today exactly what I was doing 45 years ago, which is reaching out to people.

Has the rise of social media and influencers made the job of a PR person easier or more difficult?

That’s a good question. You know, it depends on the day. I think that it’s more difficult because there are fewer print outlets and easier if you know how to maneuver the social media landscape. I think that for people my age, it’s probably a little harder because we’re not as comfortable. For someone younger, it probably is easier because working with online outlets and social media is a lot more familiar.

Steven Rubenstein, who took over Rubenstein Communications when his father [PR legend Howard Rubenstein] passed, said that he regarded you as his mentor. He said that one of the lessons that he learned from you was: never lie to a journalist. Always protect your client, but never lie to a journalist. Could you expand on that?

Your job is to protect the client if you are a publicist. That is your job. And part of protecting them is getting them press. So it’s a fine line. I personally will never lie to a journalist. Not ever... You have to protect the clients interest by being truthful with the media. The client might not always see it that way, but it is protecting their interest going forward because someone could be angry. Mainly, my function has been to deal with the media and I am very comfortable there. I’m really comfortable talking to the media. And with clients, it’s hard to go to clients and say ‘this isn’t a story’ or ‘this is no longer a story’ but you kind of have to make them understand and sometimes you have to say no to that and they don’t like that.

You had a special relationship with John F. Kennedy Jr. when he was launching George magazine in the mid-1990s. Had he lived, do you think that he would have followed the family business and run for Senate? Or was he truly trying to carve a different path?

I’m honestly not sure. It’s a hard question that people ask all the time. Life takes lots of twists and turns. So do I think that every day he woke up planning his course to get to the White House? No. I don’t think that. But do I think that maybe had he lived would he have considered politics? You know, maybe. I can’t say definitely ‘no’ but I also can’t say definitely ‘yes.’

Was John F. Kennedy Jr. your favorite client of all time?

No actually. He was my friend. He and my other friend, Michael Berman, when they were figuring out George magazine, they asked me to represent them because they were my friends. People always think they were my client and that’s how I knew them. Not true. They were my clients, but that was the second part of it.

Looking back, what do you consider the most important work or client in your long career?

The most impactful thing that I have done in my 45 years was let the world know that there was this awful disease that was killing gay men. It was the 80’s, I hadn’t even been working that long. It wasn’t called AIDS, it was a skin cancer called Kaposi Sarcoma. This is really important to me. To work on something where you know you’ve made a significant difference, that’s not a bad way to end your full time career. And knowing that you did it... Raising the awareness, which raised money, which brought it to the attention of the government, totally totally changed that. It wasn’t just me. There were many of us. To have been a part of that, looking back at my career, that’s the one that jumps ahead of everything else. And my favorite things to work on were.

A lot of publicists love the red carpet as much as their clients. What is your take on that?

I have no interests in red carpets, non-profit clients are what I built my career on. It’s very good to look back and think that you probably made a difference. For me, that says a lot. That is important to me to be able to look back.

The public relations business is sometimes maligned by journalists–although you seem to have earned the respect of most over the years. Do you have any advice that you would like to share for young people starting out in the public relations business today?

You’re gonna need to know the whole internet world. I think that the landscape is different, but the principles are still the same. Be honest. Be honest with your employer, be honest with your client, be honest with the media that you talk to. You think of every phone call or email that you’re having as one exchange–you’re not, you’re having two. Particularly when you start out and it’s not with someone you know. It’s about the one you’re having and the one that you want to have next time. If you make a bad impression initially, it will affect how that person feels about you. Just don’t exaggerate. Don’t ever exaggerate to your client or to the media. Our role is to make something interesting. But that doesn’t mean that it requires you to lie to make it interesting. Learn how to make something interesting without misrepresenting it.

Steven Rubenstein, when he was toasting your farewell at your retirement party at the Chelsea Hotel, welcomed everyone to Nancy Haberman’s “first annual retirement party.” While you may be “retired,” as an executive VP at Rubenstein, can you really retire? Or will you be back in some way, shape or form.

Steven gave me a retirement-ish party because I am continuing consulting. It’s an official arrangement and I’m happy to have it and I think that he is too. Neither of us was quite ready to say goodbye after all those years. When he came into the business, his father asked me to make him love the business. He and I have a particularly close relationship. So for me, I’m going to consult. I’m going to use this time to make better use of my museum memberships and go to more theater, and travel more.

Anything else you plan to do in your “retirement?”

I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 20 years ago... Which is really a bad one. But somebody has to be that small percent that lives and is cured and is fine. And I was in that small percent. There is a group at Mt. Sinai that is women who were diagnosed already working with women who are recently diagnosed. This is a program that I’ve known about for a long time. I’m going to work with them as someone who has been through what they are going through and perhaps I can help them. I feel good about that. This resonates with me so I’m happy to be doing that. And of course, there’s endless CNN, that’s probably what I’m going to be doing the most.