Under Richard Levick's leadership, LEVICK has grown to one of the world’s leading firms in crisis, litigation, and public affairs, representing companies and countries in the highest-profile matters. Landmark matters include Guantanamo Bay, the Catholic Church, the Gulf oil spill, the Wall Street crisis, the Nigerian #BringBackOurGirls, multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases, and multiple numerous matters arising out of the Middle East, to name a few. LEVICK is the communications firm of choice for countries and companies with critical Western-facing needs. Mr. Levick has been honored multiple times on the prestigious list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom” by the NACD/Directorship Magazine. He has been named to several professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. Mr. Levick and his firm have received countless awards, including Crisis, Litigation, Investor Relations, and Food Crisis Communications Agency of the Year. He sits on a variety of boards, including the World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI) and, through a joint business relationship, he is an integral part of PricewaterhouseCoopers Anti-Corruption Center for Excellence.
Mr. Levick is a much sought-after keynote speaker, and a columnist for Forbes and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Crisis of the Week. He is the former Director of the American University’s Political Leadership Program; a former adjunct professor in crisis communications at the graduate school of communications at Georgetown University; and a guest lecturer at many of the nation’s top universities. Mr. Levick has authored and co-authored four books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis; Stop the Presses: The Crisis and Litigation PR Desk Reference; and 365 Marketing Meditations.
How did you get into the industry?
As I reflect on my career from its inception, the salient driver has always been an overriding love of politics and law. That passion predates, by many years, my actual career in the communications arena (and the founding of my firm in 1999). Yet the same instincts that involved me in environmental matters, as a campaign manager as well as activist in the late 1970s and early 1980s, still compel me today. LEVICK began life providing innovative tools to drive legal industry marketing but, as we anticipated that market commoditizing, we successfully pursued alternatives in litigation, crisis, and public affairs communications – all pursuits in which those instincts for political and legal advocacy could make themselves felt.
Importantly, though, I have never wanted to merely be a participant in, or observer of history as it unfolds. I have always wanted to be a protagonist. I have always wanted to shape the messages that, in turn, shape opinion and determine both corporate and public policy.
Momentous opportunities confront us all the time and we must have an instinctive feel for which ones to seize. In my case, at the very moment when we were being forced to move in a fundamentally different business direction, we received a fortuitous phone call from a client, asking if we could represent one of his clients in a crisis matter. The client’s client was an Order of the Catholic Church, mired at the center of the global scandal. We jumped on the work without hesitation and a new LEVICK brand was born, fired by the very public and legal issues that had long inspired me.
Any emerging industry trends?
When we focus our attention on a few of LEVICK’s core industry groupings – energy, food, financial – a fundamental disruption is clearly apparent. To one extent or another, this disruptive process affects most businesses that must answer to public stakeholders including customers, shareholders, employees, and regulators. The dynamic is this – that our marketplaces are no longer republican, but democratic (with a small r and small d).
By that I mean both public policy and brand equity are subject to 24/7, often random, often viral adjudication spawned in large part because of the Internet and social media. To safeguard reputations, or to influence public opinion on any matter, our clients must navigate a ubiquitous obstacle course and respond to different audiences demanding different messages. Strategies must be fluid; the risks that accompany every move must be weighed against the benefits inherent in either taking or not taking each move.
In terms of specific trends, it’s a brave new world in which many of the old warhorses are proving ineffective. Traditional lobbyists are suddenly of limited value in a world where a single tweet can launch a grassroots movement. Traditional advertising is likewise nearly obsolete in a world where impassioned consumers can torpedo the best-laid promotional strategies. In this world, our clients must be on the defense as necessary, but they must also be prepared to counter-attack via the most impactful venues. And, if your clients are global, as many of ours are, the brand becomes exponentially more exposed. Ask Volkswagen: their ordeal has vitiated, not just one corporate brand, but the very reputation, hitherto unassailable, of German manufacturing. They are a great company and they will come back, but the road is rocky and long.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Food will remain a hot area as recalls continue to plague the industry. (Chipotle’s recovery will take well over a year despite its strong commitment and leadership.) Energy companies are in an even bigger fight. Here, the debate over national policy is roiled by NGOs that grow ever more sophisticated with each new sortie. All business decisions by the energy industry therefore land us in public and internal minefields. You saw what adversaries did to Keystone and the fracking debate will intensify in the coming months and years. I also expect nuclear energy to become another focal point of controversy, as it has been in the past.
Even under Trump, the pressure from regulators will be intense simply because their personal political fortunes are served by aggressive oversight. Remember too, downward pressures on taxation will remain strong; the government has to get its revenue someplace and, as one source, errant global banks are as good a place as any. I also expect intensified pressure on the non-banks; on any financial institution that might not be directly subject to Dodd-Frank. The regulators won’t wait for Congress. Expect them to stretch existing law and to try to make new law.
I’d also add the tech industry to the list of exposed interests. Prior to Brexit, the EU was flexing its competition law muscle; Google and Apple are still feeling that pain. Post Brexit, the EC will only be asserting its prerogatives more forcefully. Silicon Valley now answers to a higher power – Brussels!
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
The great English poet Alexander Pope famously wrote, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried/Nor the last to lay the old aside.” I might quibble somewhat with that wisdom, but one insight is very useful here. In our successive business transformations, we have always tackled new skill sets; in a sense, we mastered new languages as we moved from task to task or industry to industry. But we never got too far ahead of the market; we never sat waiting for the world to catch up to us. You always have to be a step ahead.
That said, my goal for the business is to instill a sense of embracing the future, rather than denying it. My own vision is a sky’s-the-limit vision in terms of the industries we may be serving and the challenges we may face on their behalf. As long as we are protagonists – as long as our work is a change agent – we’ll be ready.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
I’d say full integration of digital branding skills into public affairs, crisis, and litigation, in which ideas are molded – not just by information that changes minds, but by emotional queues that change hearts. How do we use Big Data to read what’s next, sometimes years ahead of time? How do we anticipate movements and the messages and commitments that will enable compromise between industry and nascent social movements so that an issues does not become a cause celebre? How do we train our professionals so they are always embracing change and adding new skills to their client approaches? How do we become lifelong counselors to our clients, not just hired guns to make one problem go away? How do we create the level of trust with our clients whereby we can be planning campaigns years out, not by quarter? These are the great challenges for us and other leading communications firms.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
Culture. Profits follow culture, not the other way around. Over the years we have sometimes found that one of the best business development personalities are not the best fit for culture. And kindness alone will not grow a business. As we have matured as a business, now nearly twenty years old, we understand what drives profit in client service, in account management, in back-office support, in marketing, and referrals. It is never- ending, particularly at a time in history when best practices are constantly changing and “communications” as an industry is ultimately undefinable.
Our three goals for 2017 include:
1. Living our culture
2. Industry leadership in service and vision
3. Acquisitions and key hires
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (And what did you learn?)
There have been three extremely difficult challenges. First, we suffered major embezzlement when we were still a young company. The top-line impact was not insignificant.
Second, as mentioned, our law firm market dried up. I’ve already suggested the lessons here in terms of seizing on opportunity, of retaining your existing skills but also expanding your scope as to both type of work and client industry targets. Lesson: All markets mature. Always be ready to grow.
Third, and most important, we had the wrong senior leadership in place for too extended a period of time. The lesson here is that no revenue performance, however robust, can overcome the pernicious impact when inappropriate direction gets set at the top or business opportunities are squandered. As with the embezzlement early in our history, the critical lesson here is all about administration. Not just your products or services, not just the quality of your deliverables; your internal administration is also part of the brand. You need to watch it as closely as you watch key client relationships.
How do you motivate others?
Compensation is just the table stakes. Again, culture is the key because, if your culture does not provide the quality-of-life rewards that superior professionals expect, it’s just a matter of time before your highest-paid employees leave.
What do I mean by culture? On the one hand, I mean what most people generally mean: collegiality, a sense you’re learning something, the assurance your good efforts will be recognized, a collaborative ease with those to whom you report and those who may report to you.
But I also mean something else, something more specific, when I talk about culture. I mean credibility. People don’t care what you say, they’ve heard it all before anyway. Culture starts at the top when business leaders deliver on what they say with actions that prove their words. It’s all about the respect for other people that makes them want to work the long hours and weekends and willingly accept personal sacrifices because they know you’ve done your best.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Think like the client. Don’t just build a great website. Build a web site that will sell your client’s widgets. Don’t just write a nice press release. Build a campaign that changes minds. Great execution beats great strategy every day. Stop talking and start doing.
You can be great at one thing: pitching stories to the media, managing social media campaigns, event planning, whatever. Such expertise ensures that you’ll probably always have a job. But for real career success, to really make a contribution, you need a holistic mindset. You need to see your client company as that company’s CEO sees it: as concerned about compliance programs as you are about their website, as knowledgeable about how and why pending legislation will affect their business as you are about the features of their products and services.
To achieve this holistic mindset, my advice is to listen, listen, listen. It’s not about memorizing facts that your colleagues might happen to know. It’s about picking up their instincts, sharing their sense of things. Sophistication is gained through osmosis. The more time you spend with people who have been there before, the more it will seem as if you have too.