An old warhorse dishes on the PR industry

I worked eight years for Fleishman-Hillard, one of the world’s premier public relations agencies. During that time, I often thought we ran the world, and I’m being only slightly facetious. On any given day, those capable of digging behind the headlines often would find that F-H played a role. We drove a wide array of issues, from fighting increased beer taxes to saving manatees, from speaking out for riverboat gambling to urging America to “change your clock, change your batteries” (smoke detector batteries, that is). Fleishman-Hillard provided both the brains and the muscle to drive success for a wide variety of clients.

Joe Finnigan’s memoir, Feisty: Chronicles & Confessions of an Old PR Warhorse, talks about the rise of Fleishman-Hillard from an influential player in St. Louis to an international public relations power with 80 offices worldwide, 2,600 employees, and annual billings of more than a half billion dollars. The book, however, primarily tells about Joe’s successes and setbacks and the personal and professional lessons he learned during 35 years in the PR business.

Joe played a huge role in the growth of Fleishman-Hillard. As a major cultivator and curator of the Anheuser-Busch account, he helped Budweiser and the company’s other brands win the beer wars of the 1970s. Joe’s systematic, strategic takedowns of the company’s major competitors, Schlitz and Miller, showed that, if necessary, public relations can be a blood sport.

At the same time, Joe demonstrates how much working in public relations can be like walking a high wire without a net. Capricious clients can love you one day and eat you for breakfast the next. PR pros also can serve as convenient fall guys, as Joe learned after one, fairly innocuous misstep with Anheuser-Busch.

Joe is stunningly honest about his clients and brutally honest about himself. He discusses his struggles with alcohol, his marital difficulties, his long estrangement from his children (since resolved), and his quest for the World War II soldier-father he never knew.

Feisty is a must read for anyone who wants back stories about how headlines are made, issues are won, and quirky personalities can shape our world. Go here to buy the hard copy of Joe’s book or here for the Kindle edition.

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A review: Bitter Brew

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of BeerBitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

William Knoedelseder’s book captures the larger-than-life story of five generations of a family who piloted America’s premier brewing company through the Civil War, Prohibition, two world wars, and a developing global market that ultimately proved to be too great a match for them. It’s an excellent read.

Like the Kennedys, the Busches have had more than their share of success, failure and outright tragedy. As a St. Louisan who grew up two blocks from “the brewery,” I’ve always been fascinated by them. As a one-time employee of Fleishman-Hillard, the PR firm that represented Anheuser-Busch for decades, I had the opportunity to meet and occasionally work with several of the family members. The ones I knew seemed driven to excellence. Most of us would say they lived extravagantly, but then again, they could afford it, and they never squandered their wealth.

The Busches had several ugly divorces, and as the book chronicles, they were involved in some notorious slayings that would have resulted in lengthy prison sentences for those less well-connected than they were.

This family produced five generations of CEOs who led their company to the top of their industry and kept it there for more than 100 years. The last of them, August IV, presided over the fall of the company to InBev, the Belgian brewing conglomerate. You’ll learn from the book of his many shortcomings, but to pin the fall only on him would be a mistake. He faced a cauldron of internal and external forces that the company had failed to evaluate fully. As a result, it couldn’t respond quickly or strongly enough to the unrelenting globalization of the brewing industry. In the Darwinian global beer business, it became prey instead of predator.

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer is part business history and part prime-time soap opera. I, for one, couldn’t put it down.

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My book club’s selections for 2016

bookclubHere are the books my book club read in 2016. Check them out. You might find a few to be of interest. At the bottom of the article, you’ll find links to the books we read in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

January – Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. A study of the Comanches in Texas in the 1800s, with a detailed look at Quanah Parker, tribal leader whose mother was white. The tribe kept U.S. military forces at bay by being expert warriors on horseback. The odds evened only when U.S. soldiers also learned how to fight on horseback and started using repeating revolvers that matched the Comanches’ rapid fire bow and arrows.

February – Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell. If you saw the movie, you were exposed to only a tiny sliver of the book. This is an expansive look at the forces driving the Cold War, and it provides a much more detailed understanding of Khrushchev, Eisenhower and the U2 spying initiative.

March – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This Pulitzer Prize winner explores the lives of young people in Germany and France during World War II. It’s a beautifully written, well-constructed, insightful story about a young German orphan, a blind French girl and the forces that draw them together.

April – Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. The author makes a strong case that Genghis Khan introduced many of the foundations upon which modern societies are based. These include currency, international trade, freedom of religion and the idea that civil and military leaders should be chosen on merit.

May – Justine by Laurence Durrell. Justine is one of four interlocking novels that tell various aspects of a complex story of passion and deception from differing points of view. The quartet is set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 1930s and 1940s.

June – How the West Won by Rodney Stark. The author points out that modernity developed only in the West—in Europe and North America. Nowhere else did science and democracy arise; nowhere else was slavery outlawed. Only Westerners invented chimneys, musical scores, telescopes, eyeglasses, pianos, electric lights, aspirin, and soap. The question is, why? Stark provides a number of insightful answers.

July – The Confidence Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville. This was Melville’s final novel, published in 1857. The story takes place on a steamboat traveling the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans. It follows the exploits of a confidence man taking advantage of fellow passengers. The novel explores questions of trust, morality, materialism and cynicism. Be warned: Its convoluted writing style will test your concentration and, at times, your patience.

August – Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. It’s America at the turn of the twentieth century, where the rhythms of ragtime set the beat. Harry Houdini astonishes audiences with magical feats of escape, the mighty J. P. Morgan dominates the financial world and Henry Ford manufactures cars by making men into machines. Emma Goldman preaches free love and feminism, while ex-chorus girl Evelyn Nesbitt inspires a mad millionaire to murder the architect Stanford White. In Doctorow’s novel, such real-life characters intermingle with three remarkable families, one black, one Jewish and one prosperous WASP, to create a dazzling literary mosaic that brings to life an era of dire poverty, fabulous wealth, and incredible change – in short, the era of ragtime.

September – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. This is a wide-ranging novel, set in the 1940s, that revolves around Australian surgeon and military officer Dorrigo Evans, who early on has an affair with his uncle’s young wife. Soon thereafter, he ends up in a brutal Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, where his life becomes a daily struggle to save the men under his command. The novel explores the many forms of good and evil as Evans comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

October – The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille. The Gold Coast stretches on the North Shore of Long Island, which once held the greatest concentration of wealth and power in America. Here two men are destined for an explosive collision: John Sutter, a Wall Street lawyer, holding fast to a fading aristocratic legacy; and Frank Bellarosa, the Mafia don who seizes his piece of the staid and unprepared Gold Coast like a latter-day barbarian chief and draws Sutter and his regally beautiful wife, Susan, into his violent world. DeMille describes the book as The Great Gatsby meets The Godfather.

November – Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard. This is an account of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War in South Africa. His reputation for heroism in this war became a large part of the foundation that supported a lifelong career in politics and public service.

December – Red Metal by Peter Faur. In 2005, China’s voracious appetite for copper is flooding Red Metal Corporation with cash, and Red Metal CEO Jeff Fowler appears hell-bent on leaving most of it in the bank. After buying up a big chunk of Red Metal stock, hedge-fund Galileo gives Fowler an ultimatum: Make smart investments with the money, or return it to shareholders. If you don’t, you’ll go down as the CEO who let a 130-year-old company fade into oblivion. Will Fowler escape Brown, walk into Brown’s traps, or get spooked into making foolish moves that bring his world crashing down around him?

Book club selections in 2015

Book club selections in 2014

Book club selections in 2013

Book club selections in 2010

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