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OCCIDENTAL CALLS SPECIALIST AS LOVE CANAL 'SPIN DOCTOR'; PUBLICIST DURING TRIAL HAS BEEN AROUND

Nobody ever accused Alan J. Hilburg of ducking the tough public relations jobs.

Some of his past assignments:

Trying to create better public images for New York City hotel owner Leona Helmsley and for a cigarette company that was charged in a lung cancer lawsuit.

Helping former White House aide Oliver North fend off the media hounds during his Iran-contra arms trial.

Helping Johnson & Johnson calm the hysteria during the Tylenol poisoning scare of 1982.

His present assignment?

Putting Occidental Chemical Corp. in the best possible light during the $610 million Love Canal liability trial.

Some call the 42-year-old Dallas publicist "the spin doctor of Love Canal."

But Hilburg bristles at the nickname.

"I'm not a spin doctor. I'm not a hired gun," Hilburg said. "It all comes down to the issue that there are two sides to every story, and everyone deserves a chance to tell theirs. I work in what I would call special situations.

"I believe in Occidental. I believe in their right to tell their side of the story, and that's why I'm here."

Hilburg's role as a publicist has upset some attorneys in the Love Canal trial, which began Oct. 24 before U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin. New York State lawyers are trying to persuade Curtin to hit Occidental with punitive damages in the trial, which has received national coverage.

"I don't like it at all. I wish I had the funding to hire a spin doctor to follow reporters around and make sure they get our side of the story," said Assistant State Attorney General Eugene Martin-Leff, Occidental's chief opponent in the trial. "There is room for clowns and all kinds of oddities in our society, but there is no room for antics like this in our legal system."

Earl W. Brydges Jr., who represents the City of Niagara Falls in the trial, agrees.

"I fail to see the need for a public relations man at a trial," Brydges said. "That's what having a trial is all about -- keeping outside influences away from the courtroom."

Just what does Hilburg do for Occidental, and why does it infuriate some people?

He attends each day's testimony and, working from a rented downtown office, churns out press releases that respond to anything negative that witnesses say about Occidental. During recesses in the trial, Hilburg encourages reporters to interview Thomas H. Truitt, the colorful and quotable chief attorney for the chemical company. When reporters need copies of witness transcripts or any evidence documents, Hilburg is quick to provide them.

Whenever possible, Hilburg reminds reporters of Occidental's basic stance in the trial -- that Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corp. was unaware of the danger to public safety when it dumped thousands of tons of chemicals in Niagara Falls in the 1940s and 1950s.

The use of spin doctors is increasing, but usually in political campaigns, said Dr. Gerald Goldhaber, a political pollster, consultant and associate professor in the University at Buffalo's communications department. Goldhaber said he knows what spin doctors do because he is sometimes hired to be one.

Goldhaber said a good spin doctor operates this way:

"Right after a speech or some event your candidate is involved in, the spin doctor rushes right over to the nearest media representative and starts trying to put a positive spin on the media for his candidate. Sometimes we'll even give assignments to our people -- 'You take Channel 4, you take The Buffalo News.' You can't ignore the negatives, but you try to steer the reporter toward the positives about your candidate."

Hilburg also oversees daily updates of Occidental's information hot line. Callers can dial a toll-free number and hear Occidental's viewpoint on the latest developments in the trial, widely considered one of the most important environmental cases in U.S. history.

Some of the press releases and hot-line updates have enraged Martin-Leff and his staff.

The Hilburg releases often depict state lawyers as stumbling and bumbling their way through the court case. State witnesses are sometimes criticized as underqualified, and one 33-year-old witness was described as too young to know what he was testifying about.

"The state has presented another major contradiction in their case," one Occidental release crowed last week.

"They put things in the releases and on the hot line which are absolute fabrications. They've attributed things to me which I've never said," Martin-Leff fumed in an interview last week. "It's unconscionable."

Hilburg denies fabricating anything and offers no apologies. He said Occidental has gone on the public relations offensive during this trial because, in the past, the company hurt itself by being close-mouthed about Love Canal.

"The complete story needs to be told inside and outside the courtroom, and that's what we are doing," Hilburg said.

But when sealed court documents favorable to Occidental's case were leaked to The Wall Street Journal last month, Hilburg said he and his client had nothing to do with the leak.

"With what is at stake for Oxy in this trial, do you think we'd risk angering Judge Curtin by leaking sealed documents?" he said. "No way."

If the term "spin doctor" evokes images of an overbearing, fast-talking hot shot with a cigar in his mouth, Hilburg is different. He is a short, balding man who speaks softly and uses a low-key approach to sell his side of the story. Although he grew up in the Bronx, there is no trace of a New York City accent.

Although sometimes talking about his friendships with celebrities like actress Ann-Margret and former basketball star Bill Russell, Hilburg is more likely to strike up a conversation about life on his horse ranch with his wife and infant son.

"Anybody can hang out a shingle that says, 'Flashy PR company -- we do ducks and elephants,' " Hilburg said. "I view myself as a public relations professional, a counselor in matters of strategic communications issues."

Hilburg said his Dallas-based company, Alan Hilburg & Associates, advertises only through word of mouth. The company is only listed in the regular white pages of the Dallas telephone book.

"Word of what we can do for a client is passed from one corporate executive to another. People come to us for help," he said.

Despite the low-key approach to getting business, the firm's list of recent clients is star-studded. Besides North, Ms. Helmsley, the Liggett Group Inc. cigarette company and Johnson & Johnson, Hilburg has represented Westinghouse Electric Corp., Kodak, AT&T and many other corporate clients.

According to a press release put out by Hilburg's office in Dallas, the public relations firm specializes in product liability litigation, environmental issue management and litigation, banking, disaster planning and disaster management. The firm employs only four full-time publicists but hires other free-lancers as needed.

The release describes the Hilburg firm as "perhaps the most experienced firm in America in terms of actual courtroom experience in both civil and criminal litigation."

How lucrative is it? Hilburg wouldn't discuss his fees. But his clients are often anxious, well-to-do, or both.

When Ralph Engelstad, a Las Vegas, Nev., casino owner, came under fire for sponsoring a "Hitler birthday party" to promote his collection of Nazi memorabilia, he hired Hilburg to represent his views to the Las Vegas press. Hilburg told reporters the party was meant to spotlight the collection of memorabilia, and not to glorify Hitler.

During a massive 1984 trade infringement trial in Houston, Pennzoil Corp. hired Hilburg to handle public relations. Pennzoil won its case and was awarded $11 billion, one of the largest awards ever given in a court case.

Hilburg said he also worked for the prime minister of Jamaica during a "disruptive period" in the mid-1970s. He also works overseas for the government of Sweden's electric power authority, which has been promoting nuclear power.

Sometimes Hilburg gets to have fun with a client -- as when he worked in Wendy's restaurant "Where's the beef?" advertising campaign.

And sometimes he rejects a potential client. He said he recently turned down offers to represent Manuel Noriega, the former Panama dictator now jailed on drug charges; Exxon, during the Alaska oil spill; and Donald Trump, the financially troubled developer. Hilburg said he turned down Trump because of Trump's public feud with Ms. Helmsley.

Why would a man who represents Hitler buffs turn down anyone else?

"When I go to see a potential client, we have to click, or I won't take the job," Hilburg said. "One thing I insist on is total access to the chief executive officer. If the client is not willing to confront his problems openly and honestly, I won't get involved. I think one reason for our success is we don't tell clients what they want to hear."

Hilburg is reluctant to discuss his involvement with past clients.

"I don't want people in Western New York to make any link between Occidental and the problems of clients I've had in the past," Hilburg said.

He was willing to speak briefly about North and Ms. Helmsley, the New York City socialite whose tax difficulties made national headlines. Hilburg said he spent "hours, weeks and months" with Ms. Helmsley, trying to help put her best foot forward in the arena of public opinion.

"We do crisis and litigation counseling. Leona had a crisis and was involved in litigation," Hilburg said. "There are two sides to her. One side of her is meticulous and could even be called overbearing. On the other side, in good ways, she is the stereotypical Jewish grandma. There's a very warm, very philanthropic side to her."

Of North, he said: "Oliver North firmly believed what he was doing was right. The issue was bigger than Oliver North. He was a player, but if people think the buck stopped with him, they are wrong."

Speaking of the cigarette manufacturer he represented, Hilburg said: "I felt very strongly that they are entitled to have someone represent their interests. People should take responsibility for their own actions. For smokers to say nobody warned them about the dangers of smoking is ridiculous. There are warnings printed on every pack, and it's been a subject of controversy for decades."

Spin doctors are valuable because studies show most Americans pay more attention to the media coverage of a public event than they pay to the event itself, Goldhaber said.

"Very few people actually watch the political speech or the debate. Obviously very few attend a trial, but a lot of people read the paper or follow the coverage on radio or television," Goldhaber said.

The practice is only deceptive when the spin doctor lies or doesn't tell the whole truth about whom he is representing, according to Goldhaber.

"The reporters know who he (Hilburg) is. They know he works for Occidental, and they know what his job is," Goldhaber said. "It's just public relations."

Hilburg said his job is fun but not easy. His biggest complaint is that the job forces him to spend too much time on the road, far away from his wife, Gail, and his 5-month-old son, Jayson.

And some of the clients, at time of stress, can be difficult, he added.

"I tell people that 30 percent of my hair loss is hereditary," he said. "The other 70 percent is client-related."

NOTE: resume of Hilburg

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