City & State recognizes the 50 most powerful New Yorkers in PR.
It’s hard to succeed in politics without good press. Whether it’s running for elected office, building support for a policy change or communicating the aims of an agency or organization, it’s not always easy to craft a coherent message – let alone deliver it in a way that garners attention. The good news? There are plenty of communications professionals who want to help.
While other PR lists feature firms representing well-known brands, multinational corporations and cultural attractions, typically with a national or even global scope, City & State’s first Political PR Power 50 offers something new: a ranking of the best strategic communications pros in New York politics and policy.
Our list includes seasoned veterans of political campaigns, heads of mid-sized outfits with specialties in areas like tech or nonprofits, and scrappy one- or two-person shops that punch above their weight. Our list does include some heavyweights – like Edelman and BCW – but highlights only those executives who play a role in New York politics. In addition to assessing a firm’s activity and influence in Albany and New York City Hall, this ranking is based on an array of factors, including noteworthy accomplishments, especially in the past 12 months, the number of employees at a firm, and the size and portfolio of clients.
1. Jennifer Cunningham & Josh Isay
SKDKnickerbocker, which is owned by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and longtime Clinton ally Mark Penn, is a major player in Washington, D.C., and led by executives who handled communications for the Obama campaign and administration – but don’t overlook the “Knickerbocker” part of its name, which reflects a presence in New York that is hard to overstate. Partner Jennifer Cunningham, a former political director at 1199SEIU, is one of New York’s savviest communications strategists, helping Gov. Andrew Cuomo legalize same-sex marriage in 2011 and assisting some of the state’s most prominent Democratic candidates. Another partner, Josh Isay, was the campaign manager on Charles Schumer’s upset of then-U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato in 1998 and served as his first chief of staff. Isay was among the leadership at Knickerbocker Consulting, which merged with Washington-based Squier Knapp Dunn in 2010.
Over the years, the firm has represented former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, 1199SEIU and the Greater New York Hospital Association. In Albany, where Paterson administration alumnus Morgan Hook opened an office in 2011, the firm celebrated a number of policy victories for its clients last year, including sweeping climate change legislation, the Child Victims Act, congestion pricing, criminal justice reforms, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and the reversal of more than $1 billion in proposed health care cuts.
2. Valerie Berlin & Jonathan Rosen
BerlinRosen is known for its long-standing ties to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, but its reach extends far beyond Gracie Mansion. Its real estate clients are reshaping the city skyline, from Larry Silverstein’s 3 World Trade Center to SL Green’s One Vanderbilt to Two Trees Management’s River Street Project at Domino Park. Its growing tech practice includes Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and Cornell Tech. In the nonprofit space, it spotlights foster care issues for the Fair Futures Campaign, helped Coalition for the Homeless prod the city to set aside more affordable housing units for the homeless, and is assisting the launch of the $3 billion Mother Cabrini Health Foundation. The Democratic takeover in the state Senate – where Valerie Berlin and Jonathan Rosen both worked before launching their firm in 2005 – has ushered in a new era in Albany that aligns with the duo’s progressive politics. The firm also reps MGM Resorts, which hopes to convert Yonkers’ Empire City Casino to a full-fledged casino, and Drug Policy Alliance in its push to legalize recreational marijuana. It also handles political candidates, including stepping in to assist Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán in a hotly contested recount. BerlinRosen, which now has 182 staffers, also has offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
3. Jon Silvan
Global Strategy Group has come a long way since its launch as a polling firm, capitalizing on its expertise in crunching numbers to expand into public affairs and strategic communications. Jon Silvan, who co-founded the firm a quarter century ago, has positioned it as a national player representing candidates, companies and causes at the intersection of business and politics. In New York, Global Strategy Group has advised many of the state’s leading Democrats, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a dozen members of the House of Representatives, and other local and state elected officials. Silvan assisted Silverstein Properties as it rebuilt the World Trade Center site and has also worked with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Global Strategy Group, which has a half-dozen offices across the country and works with dozens of major companies, also has represented big New York players like Airbnb, 1199SEIU and 32BJ SEIU, and a handful of city and state agencies.
4. Steven Rubenstein
A generation ago, Rubenstein was the leading publicity and media relations firm in New York. Today, while the strategic communications and reputation management company remains one of the biggest and best in the business, it faces growing competition. Founded in 1954 by Howard Rubenstein, who remains its chairman, the firm boasts some 400 clients, including such New York City institutions as the New York Yankees, the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Also in its portfolio are real estate firms – Tishman Speyer, Vornado Realty Trust and Douglas Elliman – as well as Con Edison, Loews Corp., NewYork-Presbyterian and News Corp.
Steven Rubenstein, Howard’s son and the firm’s president, handles the company’s day-to-day operations and has driven expansion into new industries – including tech, with giants like Netflix and Uber on board. The well-connected executive sits on the boards of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, Friends of the High Line and the Partnership for New York City, and chairs the Association for a Better New York.
5. Neal Kwatra & Austin Shafran
Since founding Metropolitan Public Strategies in 2013, Neal Kwatra has led some of the most hotly contested political and advocacy campaigns in New York, from waging battles in the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council’s war against Airbnb to driving the New York Immigration Coalition’s groundbreaking campaign to legalize driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
In between helping elect prominent New York Democrats, Kwatra has helped secure major legislative achievements, including the state’s $15 minimum wage. Last year, the firm’s clients pushed lawmakers to strengthen the state’s tenant protections, reform its bail laws and other criminal justice policies, and pass sweeping climate change legislation. The firm was also behind the campaign that successfully championed a law allowing stop-arm cameras to be installed on school buses and is working with Ørsted, the developer behind the first offshore wind project near Long Island’s coast.
Along with the firm’s No. 2, Austin Shafran, who has had stints with the Working Families Party and the state Senate Democratic conference, the firm is gearing up for major election fights looming in New York primaries in 2020 and 2021.