The Conference Board once called him “the master of disaster.” The New York Times called him “a public relations man who brought cunning, bare-knuckled tenacity and the nimbleness of a leprachaum to promoting the interests of high profile clients.” Journalists including ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and US News & World Report columnist called him friend. And clients including Jesse Jackson, and Bob Kerrey called him when crises needed managing.
John Scanlon, who made a name for himself defending the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes against libel charges brought by Vietnam war veteran General William Westmoreland, and whose last assignment was helping former Senator Bob Kerrey deal with allegations stemming from his involvement in that same conflict, died Friday at his apartment in Manhattan. He was 66 and had had several heart attacks. The initial speculation was that he had suffered another.
A garrulous Irishman, Scanlon was one of the industry’s most colorful characters and one of its few intellectuals. But he was also a polarizing force. His admirers hailed his nimble mind and quick wit, and his willingness to battle hard for his clients. His detractors suggested that he traded on his friendship with reporters, that his desire to win caused him to cross ethical lines, and that he squandered his talent on inconsequential issues and undeserving celebrities.
There is no denying the contributions Scanlon made to the field of public relations. His work on behalf of CBS helped to define a new specialty practice—litigation PR—and during his tenure at Edelman Public Relations he helped pioneer the practice of crisis management on the Internet, developing products designed to help clients under attack respond via the Web, and advocating the idea that public relations people should take advantage of the medium to become “content providers.”
As a media relations professional, he had few equals. His focus was on building relationships rather than on pitching stories, and he was known to call reporters with story suggestions completely unrelated to his clients. But he was also capable of analyzing information and finding those nuggets that would intrigue individual reporters, helping them see stories from his clients’ perspective.
According to Mike Wallace, who saw Scanlon work up close during the Westmoreland suit, “Scanlon was superb in getting us a level playing field. Westmoreland's attorney was threatening to bring down a major news network. Our press people were unable to blunt these thrusts at the integrity of CBS. Scanlon picked all of this up, talked reasonably to reporters, and got CBS to talk candidly about the whole issue. You could see a palpable change in the media because of what Scanlon did.”
He was as famous as a host and raconteur as he was as a PR practitioner. Lavish parties at his Sag Harbor mansion would include guests such media luminaries as Jennings and Wallace, Pete Hamill, Mort Zuckerman, Tom Brokaw, and Ken Auletta. He would entertain them with his musical rendition of a Yeats poem, The Golden Applies of the Sun, or by reciting long passages from Shakespeare, or with stories of his younger days. “In 1952, as a seminary student, I had to remain silent for a year,” he said. “I’ve been making up for it ever since.”
“He consumed 16,000 calories of life a day,” Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, told The New York Times.
But Scanlon also had plenty of detractors, including some who believed that his hardball tactics often crossed the line from public relations into “spin” and beyond. His work on behalf of the Brown & Williamson tobacco company in particular, immortalized in the film The Insider (Scanlon was played by Rip Torn), tarnished his reputation. Retained by the beleagured tobacco giant, Scanlon worked with a private security firm to assemble damaging information about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, and shopped the resulting dossier to The Wall Street Journal, which subsequently found many of the allegations to be false or unsubstantiated.
According to Peter Jennings, “All of his close friends totally disapproved of his tactics.” But it was a testament to the force of his personality that they remained his friends.
Despite the controversy, he was still one of a handful of crisis management specialists high-profile people sought out when they were dragged into the glare of the publicity spotlight. This year, at his new firm, Westhill Partners, Scanlon had worked with Jesse Jackson, who revealed he had fathered a child by an unmarried associate; with Kerrey, accused of involvement in a Vietnam war atrocity; and with Alfred Taubman, former chairman of Sotheby’s auction house, indicted last week on federal price-fixing charges.
John Patrick Scanlon was born in Manhattan in February of 1935 and was raised in a humble Bronx walkup. His father worked for the Transit Authority, while his mother cleaned houses. After graduating from Catholic University in Washington, he joined a French order of monks and spent six years teaching the poor, but “I couldn’t take the chaste thing,” he once told New York magazine. Later, he taught high school on Long Island and edited children’s books, and became a full-time activist against the Vietnam War.
His first public relations experience came when he worked on the 1968 presidential campaign of Democrat Eugene McCarthy. He worked for New York Mayor John Lindsay, as a spokesman for the drug treatment program at Phoenix House, and then for Felix Rohatyn when he was running the Municipal Assistance Corp.
His first major crisis management project came when the Reverend Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, was embroiled in a sex scandal, and it became apparent that his list of clients had expanded beyond those chosen for idealistic reasons when he helped Eastern Airlines, Tavern on the Green, and then the Tribune Company battle organized labor.
Over the years, Scanlon’s other high profile clients included Ivana Trump, during her divorce from real estate mogul Donald Trump; Drexel Burnham Lambert during its insider trading woes; Credit Suisse, the Swiss bank accused of keeping hundreds of millions of dollars deposited by Jewish victims of the Holocaust; and—on a pro bono basis—former Philippine president Corazon Aquino, during her campaign to overturn the Marcos regime.
Although Scanlon worked mostly for clients who retained him personally, he held several senior positions with public relations and other communications companies. He had two stints at Edelman Public Relations, spearheading litigation PR and crisis communications groups; he was a consultant with Sawyer Miller Group; he was a partner at Abernathy MacGregor (then Abernathy MacGregor Scanlon); he headed the crisis management practice for security consulting firm DSFX; and most recently he was head of Westhill Media Strategies, part of the Westhill Partners organization headed by his longtime friend and colleague Ed Reilly
Scanlon is survived by his wife, Julienne; his daughters, Caitlin Scanlon of Los Angeles, Elizabeth Scanlon Hyman of San Francisco, and Rebecca Scanlon of Manhattan; his brother, Michael of Brooklyn; his sister, Mary Pat McDermott of Manhattan; and one granddaughter.
A memorial service will be held on Tuesday at 10:00am at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. A wake will be held on Monday, 2:00 to 4:00pm and 7:00 to 9:00pm at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, 1076 Madison Avenue, also in Manhattan. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Concern Worldwide, www.concernusa.org.