Every crisis opens a door Damage-control expert sees Baltimore as land of opportunity


January 04, 1998|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Levi Rabinowitz loves trouble. In fact, the bigger the trouble, the better.

Like the time the construction crane took a spill in New York, crushing a pedestrian. Nobody was killed, but things looked bad, very bad, for the construction contractor. It was headline news. A media frenzy.

Rabinowitz stepped in to help put out the firestorm.

You might call him a spin doctor, but he grimaces at the term. Too harsh, he says.

"I do not try to veil the truth," says Rabinowitz. "To me, the most important thing about handling a crisis is laying out all the facts and taking responsibility for a mistake."

After all, he says, Americans love repentance.

Which, as we all know, is not always easy.

"Sometimes the hardest part of my job is convincing a client to come forward with all of the facts, to part with the idea of pointing the blame elsewhere," Rabinowitz says.

The 47-year-old father of seven specializes in what he calls "crisis management," a fancy term for damage control.

After 20 years of plying the trade with public relations firms in New York and Washington, Rabinowitz is trying to plumb the market in the Baltimore region, a big city area that he thinks is under-served by damage-control experts.

His business stationery makes light of his expertise: It features a picture of a World War I soldier in a trench defiantly holding up his hand to stop a tank about to roll on top of him.

The way the Tennessee native sees it, there's plenty of corporate trouble in the Baltimore-Washington region to keep a one-man firm busy.

There's no dearth of public relations outfits in Baltimore, so there's plenty of competition. Baltimore-based W. B. Doner & Co. and Richardson Myers & Donofrio to name two rivals. Also, many of the publicly held companies in the region have contracts with the major New York PR agencies to handle their public relations.

But Rabinowitz hopes to persuade competitors to call on him when there's work for his specialty, Big Trouble.

According to the Public Relations Society of America, interest in crisis planning and crisis management has surged in recent years, although no firm figures exist for how many PR professionals specialize in the niche.

Blane Withers, information products manager for the 17,000-member society, said requests for training information on the skills exceed those for virtually all other specialties.

Withers believes that the surge in interest in crisis planning and management correlates with the trend toward family and financial planning. "Corporations, like people, are realizing that it's better to be intentional, rather than accidental, when a crisis unfolds," said Withers.

Since launching his one-man firm in June, Rabinowitz said, he's landed six accounts.

To further build his Baltimore connections, Rabinowitz has set up an affiliation with Marsha Jews, chief operating officer of Baltimore-based Career Communications Group, an events and promotions firm.

He also has set up an affiliation with Rubenstein & Assoc. Inc. in New York. The firm counts as its clients many of the city's major real estate moguls and developers. Rabinowitz plans to call on Rubenstein in the event local clients' crises become a matter of national interest.

Rabinowitz doesn't like to share his clients' identities with the public. He fears that he'll be seen as a shameless self-promoter.

Clients he will talk about include Thompson Medical Co., maker of SlimFast, and the Romanian government.

Rabinowitz said he helped Thompson salvage SlimFast and its "image equity" after questions were raised in the late 1980s about the safety of SlimFast ingredients.

During 1996, while a senior consultant with Jefferson Waterman International, a Washington-based public relations firm specializing in government relations, Rabinowitz said, he helped Romanian officials overcome the country's "image pollution" problem. As a result, Romania gained most-favored-nation status, which opened U.S. trade and investment.

"Levi has some pretty creative approaches to crisis management," said Charles Waterman, chief executive officer at Jefferson Waterman.

"He knows how to offer good words in the right places."

Most recently, Rabinowitz advised the Baltimore law firm Shapiro & Olander through a messy situation after a banking takeover deal it was brokering fell apart. The firm mistakenly filed a notice of the transaction too early with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Reporters picked up on the filing and played up First Mariner Bank's takeover of Glen Burnie Bancorp. Trouble was, the deal wasn't finalized.

Annoyed, the shareholder selling her stake in Glen Burnie Bancorp. pulled out of the deal. First Mariner fired Shapiro & Olander.

Rabinowitz's advice to the lawyers: Determine exactly how the snafu occurred and spell it out to the press. Above all, own up to any mistake and make it clear the goof wasn't the result of shoddy lawyering, but "technology gone amok," as Rabinowitz puts it.

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