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Former Ketchum exec hopes to cash in with mystery book

Tuesday, September 14, 1999

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

During three decades as a top public relations executive, Robert Aiello worked in the background to raise the profile of some of Pittsburgh's biggest corporate stars, including H.J. Heinz Co., Rockwell International and Mine Safety Appliances.

  Robert Aiello holds the cover of his new mystery book, which is set in Pittsburgh. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Now he's hitting the streets to promote his own work.

Aiello, 61, who took an early retirement from Ketchum Public Relations four years ago to dabble in writing and consulting work, is the author of a newly published mystery novel set in Pittsburgh.

His book, "The Deceivers," is the story of a retired mentalist -- a person who performs a form of magic based on mental tricks -- who tries to help the Pittsburgh police solve a murder that takes place near the fountain at Point State Park.

Aiello, who was fascinated by magic as a child, has studied mentalism for years and describes mentalists as quite distinct from psychics, who profess to have powers that allow them to predict events or find clues about the past.

"Just as a magician uses sleight of hand, a mentalist uses sleight of mind," said Aiello. "A mentalist is a magician who pretends; he does it for fun."

Aiello received about 60 rejection letters from East Coast book agents before he decided to pitch "The Deceivers" directly to small publishers. One of them, Creative Arts Book Co. of Berkeley, Calif., liked his 246-page manuscript and gave Aiello a one-book contract. The novel is scheduled for release later this month in soft cover for $14.95. If it sells, Aiello will try to pitch a series featuring the same main character, mentalist Grant Montgomery.

Two more books are already written.

While the Montgomery character, according to Aiello, "is struggling with being in a profession that's based on deception," the author wasn't at odds with his past career, even though PR professionals frequently take the heat as spin masters or flacks whose job is to burnish their clients' image in the public's mind whether the news is good or bad.

"The agency was good to me ... and I liked Ketchum and public relations," he said.

A Whitehall native and graduate of Duquesne University, Aiello joined Ketchum in 1969 after short stints at Goodwill Industries, the Wilkinsburg Gazette and a small public relations agency.

Beginning on the bottom rung of Ketchum's corporate ladder as an assistant account executive, Aiello worked his way up, eventually retiring as senior vice president and associate director of the company's Pittsburgh office.

His work ranged from writing news releases for Fortune 500 corporations to helping coordinate publicity for the grand opening of Heinz Hall.

In 1986, Aiello won the George Ketchum Medal, awarded to one employee nationwide for excellent client service. He was also honored with the first Cornelius McCarthy Award from Duquesne for outstanding achievement in journalism.

So why take an early retirement from a job he clearly liked and at which he excelled?

"It was time for somebody else to push the boulder up the hill," said Aiello, who always toyed with the idea of writing a novel but didn't plan his retirement around becoming a published author.

Because he saved diligently over the years and reaped profits from an employee stock ownership plan at Ketchum, "I don't have to depend on selling the book to pay the mortgage," Aiello said.

Also, he doesn't have to worry about providing for dependents.

Aiello's wife, Mary Beth, is senior vice president and director of public relations at another Downtown advertising and public relations firm, Hallmark/Tassone Inc., and the couple have no children.

After spending most of his career at one company, Aiello said, "I was ready to leave."

He's found writing in an office at his Whitehall home with few distractions to be "some of the hardest work I've ever done."

"You're alone facing that computer ... there's no one to brainstorm with ... and I did lose faith a couple of times when I got some of those rejection letters."

Now that "The Deceivers" is about to be released, Aiello is tapping his public relations expertise to help sell it.

His first book-signing event is scheduled for Sept. 24 at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Downtown, and 10 more signings are scheduled through November at local bookstores.

Even during the long, lonely creative process of writing "The Deceivers" and the two subsequent novels that may be published, Aiello claims he drew on his business experience: "The readers are my potential customers. So I wrote with the idea of treating the customers as king and making the character as interesting and exciting and possible."

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