|Michael Kempner works closely with the Democratic party. Here, his family meets with President Obama. From left, his son, Zachary; a daughter, Melissa; the president; Michael Kempner’s wife, Jacqueline; Mr. Kempner, and another daughter, Olivia. Beatrice Moritz|
Just about 14 months ago, Hurricane Sandy demolished large swaths of the East Coast. One of its most furiously besieged targets was the Jersey Shore.
As symbolic and over-the-top and almost mythic as the Jersey Shore is to the rest of the country – and even to the northern part of its own state – it also is a real place, home to real people, and the engine driving what had been a flourishing state and local economy. The storm shattered real glass, real boardwalks, and real dreams.
Over the last year, there has been a huge push to restore confidence in the shore so that visitors will feel comfortable coming back to it. That effort, called Stronger Than the Storm, was spearheaded by Michael Kempner of Cresskill, the founder, chairman, and president of the public relations firm MWW.
The results have come in. They’re good; the name of the program is accurate. Public perception has shifted so that tourists, their energy, and their money came back. The Jersey Shore, in fact, is stronger than the storm.
So how did Michael Kempner gain the expertise to lead such a program?
He earned it.
And the emotional connection to that particular work, the deep connection to New Jersey that underlies it?
He earned that too.
Mr. Kempner, who is 55, grew up in Morton Grove, Ill., spent his freshman year of high school there, and then moved to River Vale before his sophomore year. His father, a toy company executive (how many of us, when we were children, would have loved to be able to say that about our fathers?), had been transferred.
His family was political, liberal, and vocal – dinner table discussions were heated debates on current affairs – “I sort of knew from the time I was 5 or 6 years old ““ and really by the time I was 14 – that I wanted to be in politics,” he said. He went to American University in Washington, D.C., “to get into politics.” His major, of course, was political science. He spent about a decade working for politicians, and then “I decided it was time to make some money and not work all day,” he said. “I wanted a wife, and I wanted a life.
“I had a tremendous amount of strategic experience from politics, so I was able to turn it into public affairs.”
That’s how Mr. Kempner began his career in public relations.
Most of his work was for politicians. His first job in politics in Washington was working for then Governor Brendan Byrne’s Washington office, so when he began in public relations, “all of a sudden my career became very Jersey-centric,” he said. “I came back to New Jersey to help Robert Torricelli run his first campaign for Congress, as his finance director.”
“Torricelli was running against a popular Republican incumbent who had a good voting record on Israel,” Mr. Kempner continued. “It was in the 9th congressional district, and the Jewish vote was very important. We worked really hard to let them understand that Torricelli would be more than a vote for Israel. He’d be an activist for Israel.
“The first significant Jewish leaders to support him were Morton and Marian Steinberg, the founders of UJA in Bergen County. Their support brought a significant portion of the Jewish community to support him too.
“They also sent their daughter to volunteer in his office,” Mr. Kempner continued. That daughter, Jacqueline, and Michael Kempner met through the campaign. They have been married for 26 years.
Mr. Kempner founded MWW in Jersey City 27 years ago, and two years later he moved it north, first to Fort Lee, then River Edge, and now to Rutherford. The company is one of the largest public relations firms in the country and among the 30 largest in the world, with an impressive client list and a wall full of awards.
“The way I run my business – the thing I tell my children – is that the single most important thing you can do is have a deep empathy with others,” he said. “It’s a really important corporate philosophy.
“If it’s the right thing to do, do it. If it’s not, don’t.”
That philosophy keeps MWW from accepting any job “that is against my personal ethics,” he said. “I have to look myself in the mirror.
“I am offered huge amounts of money, but we don’t take any gun or gun-related business, or anything tobacco or tobacco-related. We would not take anything that preaches intolerance or hate, and we don’t take things that we are offered often from questionable foreign governments.”
Mr. Kempner is a member of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, and although he is not particularly observant, he feels deeply Jewish, he said. “I don’t think that you can be a Jew without having a worldview. Religion has a lot to do with my progressive politics. You can’t be a Jew of my generation without having your worldview colored by having been born 10 years after World War II and growing up during the time of Vietnam and Watergate.”
All of this – his political, New Jersey, and Jewish worldviews – combined to make his work on the Jersey Shore recovery a natural step. In fact, “if there is to be a legacy of mine in business and public relations, this campaign will be it.
“The impact of the storm was felt on the New Jersey shoreline, and the perception of would-be vacationers ahead of the all-important summer travel season showed a widely held belief that the New Jersey shore was closed,” he said. “The New Jersey Economic Development Authority applied for a federal grant and hired MWW to create an aggressive communications campaign. Our goal was to flood communications channels with images and stories of the Jersey Shore’s recovery.
“Our goal was to change the image from the roller coaster in the ocean to the open boardwalk and thriving communities. So we created the iconic ‘Stronger Than the Storm,’ which has become part of the vernacular. And we created a highly successful campaign around the phrase that captured a feeling.
“It is a metaphor for the people of New Jersey.”
At the end of the summer, there was some controversy over the campaign, Mr. Kempner acknowledged, but it is unfair, he claims. Opponents of Governor Chris Christie alleged that the campaign gave the governor free publicity as he rolled toward what was widely forecast – and turned out to be – a huge win in his second gubernatorial race. They also claim that MWW charged twice as much as other competitors for the Jersey Shore recovery campaign and won the job for political reasons.
“The idea that a Republican governor would give a contract to me for political reasons is just absurd,” Mr. Kempner, an outspoken liberal Democrat, said. “It’s absurd on its face.
“I never met these people before I won this business. It’s outrageously wrong.” Also, he added, his was the lowest, not the highest, bid.
His connection to the Jersey Shore is not political but emotional, he said. “In high school, I spent a lot of time at the shore, and then I did again this summer.
“I have eaten many of those incredibly good sausage and pepper sandwiches on the boardwalk. Unfortunately, at my age I can’t do that anymore, but there is no kind of food I long for more than those sausage and pepper sandwiches.”