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Remembering Gershon Kekst

When business leaders call to complain about negative portrayals in Fortune and other publications I have worked with, I frequently say, “Your friends will still be your friends. Your enemies will still be your enemies. And 99% of the people you hear from will tell you how much they liked your picture.”

While I wish I could claim credit for this useful bromide, I learned it from Gershon Kekst, the dean of financial public relations professionals, who died March 17 at age 82 after a lengthy illness.

For 38 years, from 1970, when he left public relations firm Ruder & Finn to launch Kekst & Co., until he sold the firm in 2008 to Publicis Group SA, Kekst presided over America’s most important PR firm devoted primarily to mergers and acquisitions. Among his most important clients were Stephen J. Ross, who merged his Warner Communications with Time Inc. to form what would become the world’s largest communications company, Time Warner Inc.; Sanford I. Weill, who built Citigroup through a series of acquisitions; and Henry Kravis, co-founder of private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

Working closely with corporate lawyers including Martin Lipton of Wachtell Lipton, Ira Millstein of Weil, Gotshal, and the late Joe Flom of Skadden Arps, Kekst usually defended entrenched management from assorted raiders and takeover artists. Yet behind the scenes, Kekst was an advocate for transparency and strong corporate governance.

I first met Kekst in the early 1970s. His firm was just getting started and Milan Panic, then CEO of ICN Pharmaceuticals (and later the Prime Minister of Yugoslavia), was one of his biggest, most important clients. Kekst arranged for me to interview Panic while I was a reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s Los Angeles bureau, and during the interview Panic gave me a series of rosy financial projections that I duly published. When, several weeks later, the company released earnings that bore no resemblance to Panic’s projections, I called Kekst to complain about being misled – only to learn that he had already resigned the account.

Years later, Kekst agreed to arrange an interview with another of his important CEO clients whose company was struggling. When I called the CEO, however, I was told that Kekst had advised him not to speak to me. When I asked Kekst about the discrepancy, he replied, “I said he shouldn’t speak to you unless he was comfortable telling the truth.” That was all I needed to know – about Gershon Kekst and about his client.

(Norman is Vice Chairman of Time Inc., having previously served as the company’s Chief Content Officer and Editor in Chief and, before that, as The Wall Street Journal’s managing editor.)