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It was the last Monday in January 2022 when Jeff Zucker realized his world was about to come crashing down. The semi-secret romance he’d been having with his deputy, Allison Gollust, was going to become public. He was being forced to resign from his job as president of CNN. His $300 million legacy project, the CNN+ streaming service, would be orphaned. And Zucker’s former friends, the Cuomo brothers, were out for blood.
What to do? He huddled at his apartment with Gary Ginsberg, the media executive and former Rupert Murdoch adviser whom he’d known for years. Ginsberg told him he needed Risa Heller. A 43-year-old Brooklyn Heights mother of three, Heller has become the crisis-communications warrior of choice for the city’s most cancellable elites.
“I didn’t know her,” Zucker tells me. “The first time I ever met her was the day she walked into my apartment the day before my departure was announced. And she ended up sitting in my kitchen for like the better part of the next 72 hours.”
“The thing about Risa is she’s a bit of a character,” he says. “She comes in, sets her coffee down, takes over the room, and comes out with that accent that I can’t even figure out where it’s from — I’m not quite sure if it’s Bloomfield Hills or Long Island or Brooklyn or what.” And then she demands you tell her the entire truth about how things got to the point that you had to call her, before telling you what to expect and helping you navigate it.
How badly does Zucker think it would have gone for him without Heller? “That’s an impossible question to answer,” he says. “But I think she absolutely made one of the worst weeks of my life a tiny bit easier.”
Even if this is the first time you’re hearing of her, you’ve likely already been spun by Heller. “Is there anybody who has stepped in shit who does not call her to clean their shoes?” says Evan Smith, co-founder of the Texas Tribune, who has sought her advice, albeit not for any particular shit-stepping he’d done. Heller’s services don’t come cheap, but why risk not calling her?
Way back in 2011, she helped Anthony Weiner survive his first dick-pic scandal. She also worked for Kushner Companies when Jared was running it. She represented the Estée Lauder executive whose life was blown up after he posted a meme on Instagram that depicted Big Bird wearing a mask while standing next to Mr. Snuffleupagus and saying “My n–––a Snuffy done got the ’rona at a Chingy concert.” Speaking of Sesame Street, the voice of Elmo hired Heller when he faced allegations that he had sex with teens (the cases were dismissed). The chef Mario Batali hit up Heller after he was accused of groping women, as did Arcade Fire front man Win Butler, who, according to an exposé published in Pitchfork, sexually pressured several younger fans. A Goldman Sachs banker who was arrested on rape charges in the Hamptons brought her in (he was later found not guilty). New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin called her for advice when he was caught masturbating on a work Zoom. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the former publisher of the New York Times, hired Heller when “Page Six” was reporting that his soon-to-be ex was accusing him of not living up to their prenup. Remember that trendy L.A. restaurant Sqirl that caught flack after a picture of its moldy jam went viral? It too hired Heller. Right now, Heller is representing Sam Bankman-Fried’s law-professor parents, who have seen their reputations damaged by association with his.
These are just some of her clients; many, probably most, remain anonymous. Helping out a very powerful person who suddenly doesn’t know what to do requires discretion. “It’s really hard, even if you’re in the business of dealing with the press on a daily basis, to understand that when you’re the subject of the press, it’s probably better to get some help,” says Zucker.
One Friday morning in January, almost exactly one year after Zucker’s downfall, I meet Heller at her office in the Woolworth Building. There’s a commanding view of City Hall, the Brooklyn Bridge, and that windy stretch of downtown known a century ago as Newspaper Row. (Now it has a lineup of luxury condos.) The carpet is red, the walls and exposed ceilings white, and the sofa and chairs a bright blue; a foot-tall golden gnome raises a middle finger on a shiny white side table. There are print copies of City & State and Commercial Observer and The Real Deal and The Hollywood Reporter and The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and this magazine scattered around. A yellow metal New York Post box sits against one wall, very dinged up and displaying an old copy of the tabloid. The wood, Y GO TO WORK?, accompanied an unflattering picture of then–Mayor de Blasio caught at the gym in Park Slope.
Dressed all in black, Heller picks up that day’s Times from her desk. “When I read something that’s really in the news and I don’t get to be involved with it, I’m like, Why aren’t I in this? I feel a little upset,” she says, tapping on the front page with her red fingernails. “If a story is knotty, I always want to work on it.” Leaning against the wall atop a bookshelf behind her desk is a framed picture of a person dressed as Wonder Woman taking out the trash in an apartment complex. “It speaks to me,” says Heller.
Nothing about the office, one suspects, is off-message. I notice a miniature model newsstand encased in a Lucite box. Inside, teensy tabloids scream teensy headlines: SUBWAY PERV SCOURGE, reads the itty-bitty Daily News. I ask her if she uses it to practice some form of media voodoo. She just smiles.
Heller tells me she thinks of her job as simply “adding context” to a story. When the reporter and the editor — and maybe the internet itself — seem ready to render a summary verdict, she will provide them with facts and contingencies that might generate reasonable doubt. She dangles spicy, distracting information; she argues; she appeals to better angels; she invites you to please get off your high horse because, really, is anybody involved in this story unsullied? She invites you into the gray zone.
I got my first dose of Heller a year ago, when I (and half the media) was looking to write about Zucker and we met for coffee in Tribeca. She looked at me and narrowed her eyes and said something along the lines of: Here’s what’s going to happen: You’re going to tell me all your questions. I’ll write them down and we’ll talk again. I expected she’d be combative or at least unnerved, but instead there was something ever so slightly condescending in the way she seemed to half-smile to herself as she jotted down what I thought were my hard-hitting queries. She also seemed to be having fun.
Her personality, and her tactics, have proved a good match for these times. As the culture of who is held accountable for what has changed in the past few years, powerful people have become more frightened than ever. “It used to be that when a CEO made a mistake or got in trouble or was being investigated or whatever it was,” says Heller, “the chattering classes would look at them and say, ‘What a jerk,’ or ‘That woman’s the worst,’ or ‘That guy’s an asshole.’” Now, she says, “with cancel culture or whatever, people get thrown out with the trash, and I just don’t agree with that. I’m a big believer in second chances.”
What Heller is, or aspires to be, is not new, exactly. The city has always had its fixers and powerful press agents. Howard Rubenstein was a legend; he whispered in the ears of politicians, media barons, and developers. For a while, early on, he worked out of the Woolworth Building too. Rubenstein arguably created the playbook that Heller follows.
“She’s much more bubbly than Howard,” says Senator Chuck Schumer, her former boss, who also knew Rubenstein, “but she has the same understanding of both politics and substance and is able to weave the two together in a great tapestry.”
Like Rubenstein’s company, which is now run by his son Steven, as well as other city comms firms such as BerlinRosen, she has a lot of developers for clients. “Real estate is the closest thing to politics in New York,” she notes. Competitors say firms like hers typically get paid on retainer — say, around $10,000 a month — which keeps the lights on and her growing staff paid. Short-term crisis duty presumably can run much more. But Heller wouldn’t discuss, much less confirm, anything about what she charges who and for what.
But it is her crisis work that has made her well known. “When you’ve got these high-profile clients with really high-profile problems, you’ve got leverage, and she knows how to use leverage,” says Ginsberg. “You don’t want to cross her. If you renege on a promise, she can be really fierce. She knows who your editor is, and she won’t give you that next story.”
Journalism is about finding out the truth, but it’s often played like a game, one in which the most interesting story with the juiciest and most convincing details wins. Heller understands what a reporter needs. As Evan Smith put it to me: “It’s like what they say about the Devil — the greatest trick Risa ever pulled was convincing us that she’s one of us.”
Despite her aura of hard-boiled, Sweet Smell of Success New York–iness, Heller is a transplant. She was raised in West Bloomfield, Michigan, outside Detroit. Her father is a lawyer, and her mother was a special-education teacher. In high school, says Heller, “I was obviously the class gossip.”
She double majored in psychology and Hebrew and Jewish cultural studies at the University of Michigan, but when she graduated in 2001, she couldn’t land any jobs. Then her former roommate happened to be seated on a plane next to the head of the Anti-Defamation League’s D.C. office, and she mentioned Heller’s lack of career prospects. Heller landed an internship at the ADL.
Before long, she began to work for the then–California Democratic representative Jane Harman, which led to a job as Chuck Schumer’s New York City–based press secretary. “I would be nobody, nothing, nowhere without Chuck,” says Heller. “There’s this notion that he always hires the smartest people. That’s not true. He hires people that he thinks he can teach.”
Flacks tend to take on the characteristics of whomever they flack for. Cuomo’s were belittling toward reporters, and de Blasio’s whiny. Bloomberg’s spoke the language of wonkery and didn’t seem to care so much about what anybody wrote. But the Schumer flack got into the nitty-gritty of not only what the story was, but how it was written and where it ran. “The Schumer species are a sixth-sensed species that have been all over the jungle,” says Angelo Roefaro, the Senate majority leader’s current chief spokesperson. “They do not just stay in the sunny treetops. They know what’s happening on the jungle floor. Chuck finds these people and they start their journey in the jungle. Risa is probably the one who understands that ecosystem better than anyone.”
Shortly after Heller began working for Schumer, a story appeared that mentioned his family — “A scummy, bullshit thing to do,” says Heller — so she called the reporter and picked a fight. “I remember being in the office at seven in the morning and I was like, ‘Look at this thing. I called him, I screamed at him. Don’t worry.’ Chuck looked at me and goes, ‘Okay, now call him back and apologize.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that. He fucked us.’ He’s like, ‘You better call him. Call him right now. You need him more than he needs you.’” She did as instructed.
Ben Smith, the former Times media columnist turned Semafor co-founder, recalls running into Schumer at the NY1 studios circa 2005. Smith says he “sandbagged him with the then-controversial issue of gay marriage, which he had been avoiding taking a position on.” As they were leaving, a young Heller “stopped and reamed me out for ambushing him, and when she finished yelling at me, she looked around and said, ‘Where the fuck is the car?’ I said, ‘Oh, I think he left.’ She pulls out her phone, and in the same tone she had just taken with me, she began yelling, ‘Where the hell did you go, just leaving me here on the sidewalk? Who do you think you are?’ I said to her, ‘I can’t believe you would talk to the driver that way,’ and she said, ‘What are you talking about? That was Chuck.’” (He doubled back to fetch her.)
“Yeah, she spoke her mind,” says Schumer when I recounted this anecdote. “That’s why she’s so good. She’ll go right at you.” Heller says one of “the great things about working for Chuck” is that “you could yell at him and tell him the truth. If you have that job when you’re very young — it’s never occurred to me that I shouldn’t tell a powerful person that they’re wrong.”
When she was 27, Heller left Schumer’s office to take a job at the corporate-communications firm Global Strategy Group, which advised Eliot Spitzer. Six months later, Spitzer was caught with a prostitute, and suddenly his lieutenant governor, David Paterson, was thrust into a job that he never seemed to even want. Heller became his communications director. “There were a lot of fireworks,” says Heller — the onset of the Great Recession, the naming of a replacement for the Senate seat Hillary Clinton had left, and even the fact that Paterson’s chief aide, whom he was uncommonly dependent on, had to resign after it was revealed he owed nearly $300,000 in back taxes. “We had a very robust and competitive press corps” at the time, she recalls. “It was different from how it is now. Every outlet in the state basically had at least one reporter in the Capitol covering the governor. You’d wake up every morning and see the cover of the Post and gasp.”
She lasted a year, then took some time off. She checked out some corporate jobs, but “they all seemed boring to me.” She was about to turn 30, and wanted to learn how to cook a chicken, she says. She married Ryan Toohey, whom she’d met when he worked for Spitzer and she worked for Schumer but got to know as a co-worker at Global Strategy Group. In 2010, she started Risa Heller Communications.
The next year, she had her first crisis project at the new firm — Anthony Weiner. He was still a congressman then, caught sending a dick pic. “There were people who told me that this was going to ruin my career,” says Heller, “but he was an old friend of mine and there was no chance I was going to leave him in the lurch.”
She began developing what has become her specialty. Ginsberg compares her to “a combination of a Jewish mother and Whitey Bulger.”
“She does not lose her cool,” says Zucker. “She’s confident but not cocky, strong but not an asshole.” She’ll tell a big shot under fire whether he ought to confess, apologize, lie low, or fight back. Some hire her before a potential problem ever becomes public, just in case.
“I spend a lot of time explaining how the media works,” she says. “‘Here’s the process, here’s how someone might have gotten that information, here’s why they won’t tell me who told them what. Fake news isn’t a thing.’ They don’t actually understand the notion that a reporter is coming to this theoretically with an empty notebook and they’re trying to figure out how to fill it.”
She also has to set expectations with her clients. For instance, don’t expect her to get a story killed. “Very hard to do,” says Heller. “I spend a lot of time saying to people, ‘You cannot kill a story.’ You can if it’s untrue, perhaps, if it is based on something that is fundamentally incorrect, perhaps, but it’s very hard to get a story killed. It’s like a unicorn. You almost never see it.” But some of her clients boasted to me about how she’s gotten unsavory (or, in their eyes, “unfair”) details excised.
“It’s all about trying to figure out the arguments” that resonate with a particular reporter, she says. She points at a cup in her office. “If you come to me and say, ‘This cup is blue,’ and I’m like, ‘No, Shawn, it’s clear,’ we’ll have to have a debate about what is blue and what is clear. I’m always game to have the debate. Sometimes it’s a fight. Sometimes it’s nice.” The cup is clear.
Last October, Heller hosted a book party for Times star reporter Maggie Haberman at her apartment in a former industrial building with views of the East River. (Zillow estimates its resale value to be a bit under $5 million.) Haberman’s colleagues, including Jodi Kantor, Michael Barbaro, Jeremy Peters, Carolyn Ryan, Elisabeth Bumiller, and Rebecca Blumenstein (now the NBC News boss) mingled alongside Zucker, Ginsberg, and ex-colleague Ben Smith. Haberman’s editor was hunched over his laptop in a hallway beside the bathroom editing her next report, which would go live while the party was underway.
Haberman and Heller first met while Haberman was covering local politics for the New York Post, then became friendly, and then friends. “A lot has changed in the last 18 years, but many things haven’t,” Heller said in a speech at the party. “Every time we’ve ever had a meal together, her computer is on the table with the food. I don’t think she’s ever once had her car washed. And I’ve never won a single argument about even just, like, the tiniest little point in a story with her.” Heller called her the greatest of all time and added, “Apologies to every reporter in this room.”
Heller has made a sport of befriending journalists. “She will go toe to toe with a reporter, kick their ass, yell at their editor, and then be invited to be the godmother of their child, and I’m only exaggerating a little bit,” says Heller’s friend Jonathan Rosen, co-founder of rival communications firm BerlinRosen. “I’ve often wondered how she does this.” One Times reporter tells me later that she’s so tight with Heller that she didn’t feel comfortable putting down a deposit on a wedding dress without consulting her first. Others say they call Heller for career advice, for story ideas, to do yoga with, and sometimes to find out what’s happening inside their own newsroom. “There will be a minor personnel move at the Times and I’ll call her to gossip about it and she’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course I knew that,’” says one. But few will go on the record complimenting a flack. It could be viewed as compromising for the people charged with holding power to account to be praising the person powerful people hire to avoid accountability. (Haberman declined to comment about Heller.)
This is where the pragmatism of her relationship building runs up against journalistic conflicts of interest. Last fall, New Yorker writer Clare Malone began working on a profile of editor Jon Kelly (who was also at the book party) and his publication, Puck. Kelly called up Heller to run interference. I asked Kelly how Heller can spin for his frequent reporting targets like Zucker and Sam Bankman-Fried’s family while also spinning for him. “We are friends, and we are also professionals who respect each other,” Kelly tells me. “She has a client that she represents, and I have a business to run, and we make sure that things are always kosher. And that respect is part of the friendship. It happens.” (In a piece about SBF that was published January 18, Puck quoted Heller’s defense of SBF’s parents, who are her clients, and, in the same paragraph, acknowledged that “Heller has represented Puck.”)
The journalists I spoke to about Heller, both on and off the record, felt she never outright lied to them. This sets Heller apart from some other practitioners of her craft. “She’s got one rule,” says Zucker. “She wants you to tell her everything, no matter how bad it is, and she’s not going to lie to the press.” But that means she’s only as good as her clients’ word. Occasionally, one can spot Heller struggling to find the ground she needs to stand on. At one point when she represented Weiner, she added a disclaimer that hadn’t been there before: “According to Congressman Weiner …” As in not according to Heller.
I ask Heller which journalist she most fears. She thinks for a while and says, “There used to be this reporter who worked at the Daily News. He now works for The City. Greg Smith is his name. He would call me every Friday at 3 p.m. about something, and I’d be like, Oh, fuck. This ain’t going to be good. And then there are certain reporters, who I will not name, who I find difficult to make a point to. Those are the ones I don’t like getting calls from.”
Some reporters confess they actually enjoy being spun by Heller. She makes strategic use of you-can’t-quote-her-on-this candor along the lines of Listen, I know he’s a pompous asshole, but here’s what’s happening, or Okay, she’s acting nuts, but she’s going through some serious shit right now. “You know it’s a thing she’s pulling on you,” says a reporter who wrote about one of Heller’s clients recently, “but you still can’t help but like it anyway because you know you’re both playing the game.”
Amy Chozick, a Times journalist turned television showrunner, once found herself the subject of a Twitter pile-on and called Heller to commiserate. “I just wanted to crawl into a hole,” says Chozick, “and then she drops off at my house a novelty beard and mustache and goes, ‘Put on your big-boy pants. What do you think your male colleagues would do if a Twitter mob was coming after them? They’d use it to sell fucking books.’”
A few months after Haberman’s book party, I watch Heller literally feed treats to the media. She has an annual office cookie-baking contest at Christmastime at which her employees (she’s got 18) each bake something different. A panel of guest judges hand picked by Heller samples the cookies and picks a winner. This past December, the panel included Ben Smith and Jon Kelly along with the mayor’s then–chief of staff, Frank Carone, and the former city comptroller Scott Stringer.
Crisis comms can be amoral work. I ask Heller how she decides whether to take on clients. “I believe generally people deserve to have their story told,” she says. Everyone has a right to an attorney, but should everyone have the right to the ministrations of a spin doctor? “People come to me at their lowest moments and say, ‘I need your help.’ I listen to them, I see if there’s a way for us to help them, and if there is, if I think there’s a story to tell, I’ll do it. If I don’t think there’s a story to tell, I don’t do it. I use my gut.”
In 2015, Harvey Weinstein hired Heller to defend him against accusations made by the Italian model Ambra Battilana. “We are pleased this episode is behind us,” Heller told the Times on her then-client’s behalf.
Does she regret working for him? “It was three weeks in 2015,” she says. “It was a totally different time. We had three people that worked at this company. But certainly if I knew then what I know now, would I have worked for him? No.” I ask whether that made her question her gut. She tries to add context. “I use my gut. Has it been wrong? It has, it has been wrong, but is it mostly right? Yes.” What was it like to work for him? “I only met him once. Can I go off the record or no?” No. “I only met him once.” Has she ever smeared a woman to help a man? “No.”
Then I bring up her working for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. “I told her I didn’t approve of that,” recalls Schumer. It was before the 2016 presidential race had really begun in earnest that Heller took on Kushner Companies. As Kushner and Trump decided to go into the administration, Heller was supposed to handle press around his divestiture from the family business. But it all got politicized pretty quick.
Vanity Fair’s Emily Jane Fox recalls meeting Heller for the first time in December 2016 after publishing a story that examined Kushner’s stewardship of the New York Observer. Heller asked to meet with Fox at the Vanity Fair office in One World Trade Center on a Friday night. “She didn’t yell,” recalled Fox, “but she had this strategy of being very quiet and asking direct questions in a monotone way that was so much worse than someone yelling. I was young and writing aggressively about her clients, so she was sizing me up. And there’s nothing more intimidating than the air of ‘Who do you think you are?’ when you’re a baby reporter. All the best flacks are psychologically profiling reporters all the time.”
Once Kushner and Trump got to Washington, the couple beefed up with a larger PR apparatus. Heller didn’t follow them into the White House, but she wasn’t fully out of the picture. In one instance, she was literally in the picture: Heller was snapped by the paparazzi at Ivanka Trump’s house during the interview with Gayle King in which the First Daughter was asked about being “complicit.” Heller’s liberal friends back in New York started to wonder about her complicity. What had become of that Schumer Democrat they thought they knew? Was she a mercenary all along?
In her office, Heller squirms when I ask her about the Kushners. “My politics were never those,” she says. “They were always very clearly not those, and it was certainly a challenge. I don’t really want to get into the details of my clients on the record. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
Still, the couple were one hell of a story, and working for Kushner Companies meant Heller got to do what she loves best: play. She played on big front-page stories and triple-bylined investigations into Chinese influence over the firm. I suggest that it was too much fun for her to resist. “I think you are asking a fair question of whether the white-hot fun is too exciting for me,” she says with a shrug.
“She’s not weighed down by big metaphysical questions,” says Alex Levy, a friend and fellow former Schumerite who now has his own comms shop. “She’s an athlete playing a sport.”
One of Heller’s friends told me about the time she wrote a book, had to do press to promote it, and called Heller for advice. “She told me to bring my baby in a stroller to the interview to get a more sympathetic result,” said the friend.
The story comes to mind when Heller invites me over for a family dinner. She is cooking chicken while her youngest, 4, talks about Disney on Ice; her middle child, 8, plays with Legos, and her eldest, 11, asks about Prince Harry. “Come give me a hug!” Heller shouts at one point.
Her husband, Toohey, 47, is now a partner at Dentons Global Advisors. He pours me a glass of pét-nat while I pull out my notepad. “How much wine have you had, Ry?” interjects Heller. “Do you think you can answer these questions?”
I ask him if his wife ever tries to spin him. “No,” they both answer at the same time. But two flacks under one roof — it’s got to be like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. “No, there’s no spin at all,” spins Heller. “We fought about how to make a tuna melt,” says Toohey. Who won that one? Heller points at herself. What does Toohey make of his wife’s love for the canceled? “I think she comes from a hugely empathetic place, just in life in general,” he answers a bit nervously but on message.
Climbing to the top of the media heap while raising three children hasn’t been easy. She took on Weiner when she was 39 weeks pregnant. She says that after the congressman drafted his resignation letter to then–House Speaker John Boehner, “I sent it out to all the reporters, then went up to the hospital and had a baby.” (Her pregnancy was covered in “Page Six.”) One reporter recalled being shocked to run into Heller days after she had given birth to her second child at a rally targeting one of her clients, Airbnb, outside City Hall. “She was just standing there in her wrap coat,” said the reporter, “and she was like, ‘What? I got bored.’”
“You can’t say to your client, ‘I’m having a baby; I’ll see you in three months.’ It’s just not permissible,” says Heller. “If it means that I’m going to be on the phone for an hour, I’ll be on the phone for an hour or whatever it is. I just do it. It’s very much a part of my life. It’s not a thing that you can turn off.” She tells me she wants to take on more clients in L.A. and would like to open an office there.
But her days also clearly center on her family. Heller is rarely out on the town at night; she’s up early taking her kids to school. “My life is total chaos,” she says. “I love going to work and love coming home from work. My kids bring me an amount of joy and delight that never seemed possible, and my oldest daughter even reads the tabs!”
After she took on the Zucker job, her mother began dying unexpectedly of complications from multiple sclerosis. “I ended up talking to her as she was stepping out of her mom’s room at the hospital,” says Zucker. “It was a really unfortunate time for her personally, and yet I can say I don’t think there was ever a moment where she wasn’t always available to me.”
For Heller, this is just her being professional. “I really don’t like leaving people in the lurch,” she says.