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Bob Berg didn’t always get what he wanted for his clients in the media. But the public relations guru and former spokesman to then-Republican Gov. Bill Milliken and Democratic Mayor Coleman A. Young didn’t go to war with journalists who didn’t welcome his bevy of clients with open arms.

A former journalist himself, Berg, who died last week at 76 after battling cancer, understood the significance of an independent press. He knew the media had a job to do in as much as he, too, had a responsibility of pitching clients from both the corporate and political world to a skeptical media.

I remember his efforts during the difficult days of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Berg, who at one point represented the mayor as his political troubles were unraveling, had a difficult time convincing some of us to give Kilpatrick the benefit of the doubt. 

In fact, Kilpatrick was so incensed that he walked up to me during an event at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History with this plea: “Can a brother get a good word from you?” My response: “Give me something good to write about.”

I later told Kilpatrick after our encounter at the Wright Museum, that I believed then — and now — that no elected official should get a free pass in the media.

During those days Berg never once called angrily or wrote a staunch letter to berate my position regarding Kilpatrick and others. He didn’t show up to persecute the journalists he thought were giving his clients a hard time. I would always get a polite response explaining how he disagreed with my position.

Despite that, Berg was also readily available to provide context as a political historian to the socioeconomic challenges Detroit was facing leading up to the 2013 historic municipal bankruptcy. 

In 2012, as the debate was heating up about a possible bankruptcy, appointment of an emergency manager or a consent agreement between the city and the state because of a $300 million increasing deficit, I reached out to Berg about what Mayor Young would have done.

Young had faced a similar challenge in 1981 when the city had an out-of-control budget deficit. As Berg explained, Young created a group led by former Ford Motor Co. executive Fred Secrest and Felix Rohatyn, who was largely credited for saving New York in the 1970s when it was on the brink of financial collapse to devise a plan that eventually worked for Detroit.

Young followed that with another group of civic and corporate leadership headed by then-General Motors CEO Tom Murphy and UAW President Doug Fraser, who went to Lansing and successfully testified on behalf of a tax increase to help solve the city’s financial crisis.

“If you look at the crisis he confronted back then, what stands out is the vision, leadership and political courage he showed in developing an overall solution to the problem and then forming a coalition with the community, civic, labor and corporate leadership that made the solution a reality,” Berg said about his former boss. 

But Berg always reminded us that Young had a strong ally in Milliken, who was a fervent supporter of Detroit, which enabled the city to successfully deal with the issues of municipal governance.

The current fight to reform the state’s no-fault insurance laws could use some of Young’s past strategies that Berg offered. Instead of the Legislature rushing to back bills that ultimately won’t do much in the long run to help ease the rate burden on Detroit drivers, lawmakers should work with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to find an amicable resolution to the issue.

Bob Berg would have had something to say about the current Legislature as a historian. But he never forgot that the press was a constructive space to debate issues relevant to the times, and he didn't attempt to minimize or denigrate that space.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

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