OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

This time of the year, Madison Avenue is typically in the throes of

the dog days of summer. Well, they may be lethargic for the traditional

advertising side of the business, but one non-traditional field, public

relations, is wagging its tail more energetically than the members of 'N

Sync on the "Celebrity" concert tour.



That's because two of the biggest stories to be making headlines during

the lazy, hazy, crazy summer of 2001 have public relations at their

core, along with, coincidentally, attractive young women. One is the

mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Washington, DC intern named

Chandra Levy, and the other is a fracas involving a New York publicity

operative named Lizzie Grubman.



The principal parties ensnared in the vanishing of Levy, who was last

seen on 30 April, are duelling in the court of public opinion through

competing public relations operatives. Levy's family and their lawyers

have hired a team of PR experts from Porter Novelli, the giant

communications agency owned by Omnicom, along with Judy Smith, a partner

at a PR shop called Qorvis Communications. Smith was the spokeswoman for

another headline-grabbing Washington intern: Monica Lewinsky.



Gary Condit, the California Democratic congressman who, police say,

admitted to an affair with Levy in his third interview with them, has a

spokeswoman of his own, Marina Ein. She's described by the trade

publication PR Week as "a little-known veteran of the DC PR scene" who

handled publicity for a chain steakhouse restaurant beset by an "E. coli

outbreak last year".



As to the similarities between a virulent strain of bacterium and a

congressman: no comment.



So far, the Levy family is considered to be winning the spin war by a

wide margin, as witnessed by a recent article in The Daily News, the New

York tabloid, in which PR pros decried Condit's "clumsy public

relations".



And a professor of public relations at a Florida university - yes, in

the USA, we teach PR in college - asserted that Condit "hasn't done one

thing right".



Speaking of which, there's the other fracas involving PR, concerning

Grubman, whom The Daily News dubs the "publicity princess", in that

wonderful tabloid affection for alliteration. (Oops, it's certainly

contagious.)



Last month, Grubman, the 30-year-old co-owner of a high-powered

Manhattan company, Lizzie Grubman/Peggy Siegal PR, backed a

Mercedes-Benz SUV owned by her high-profile attorney father, Allen, into

a crowd outside a popular nightclub in the Tony resort of Southampton,

Long Island, injuring 16.



L'Affaire Grubman has generated an intense debate over the powers and

propriety of PR, especially because even before the accident she had a

penchant for making the papers almost as often as the restaurants and

celebrities she is hired to hype.



Here, too, the winner of the spin war has been declared, and it is not

Grubman, despite her hiring of a top spinmaster of her own, Howard J

Rubenstein, whose clients include Rupert Murdoch and the Yankees boss,

George Steinbrenner.



Another tabloid, The New York Post, has been mocking her with a contest

giving away a SUV identical to Grubman's ("Win a Lizziemobile"). And

there's a computer "game" making the e-mail rounds called "Lizzie's

Hamptons 500".



For Grubman and Condit, poster children for those plagued with PR

worries, it may be summertime but the living is uneasy.



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