Interview with Thought Leader Michael Levine
By Mark Miller
Michael Levine has been called by U.S.A Today, "One of Hollywood's brightest and most respected executives." Levine founded LCO (Levine Communications Office) in 1983 and held the position of President for 29 years. Regarded by the national media as one of the country's most prominent media expert, Levine has appeared on virtually every major national TV and radio show as a contributing media expert. Frequent appearances on TV include The Today Show, Nightline, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, MSNBC, PBS, etc. Additionally, Levine appears regularly on radio both nationally and locally. His quotes frequent many major print media ranging from Time Magazine to The Los Angeles Times from Newsweek to The New York Times from U.S.A Today to People Magazine, etc.
Levine is the creator of the LBN E-Lert (Levine Breaking News), one of the world's premier online newsletters, feeding the latest insider breaking news to approximately 474,000 "influencers" in all 50 of the United States and 26 foreign countries including China, India, Japan, Australia, Russia, England, Israel, Germany, South Africa, Mexico, Canada and Korea. Michael Levine is the author of 19 books, with his most recent titled, "Broken Windows, Broken Business" (Warner Books) www.BrokenWindows.com. His previous book "Guerrilla P.R." (Harper Collins) is the most widely used introduction to P.R. book in the world, and his books have been translated into six languages.
What's been the most challenging crisis you've had to deal with as a publicist, and how did you handle it?
Likely, Michael Jackson, during his first accusation of child molestation. I was getting 300-400 media calls a day, 7 days a week from all over the world. And at the time, texting and email were not prevalent. I made a decision early on that I had to call every person back every day. I had 32 people working for me and hundreds of other major celebrities as clients, so I had to do all of this while I was servicing the others and running the company. So, it was very taxing, very difficult.
There's a court of law and a court of public opinion and there were so many outrageously inaccurate things being said at the time. My first responsibility was getting off defense and on offense. Making sure that the outrageously inaccurate stuff being said was responded to quickly, and if necessary discrediting the people making the accusations. And that proved effective. The best defense is an offense and the only offense is relentless. You don't win on defense.
How has publicity changed over the years?
I started my public relations firm in June of 1983. The world was a very different place. There were no computers; we were working on typewriters. No USA Today, MTV, FedEx, text--all that stuff. The metabolism rate of the world changed unalterably. A fun way to see the difference - rent the DVD, "All The President's Men." You will see things that typified the era but are long gone now.
I wrote in a book 10 years ago that technology is the enemy of reverence. As we've become an increasingly more technologically sophisticated society, we will by definition become less sacred, less reverent. That has proven largely true. The internet, which is of course a most marvelous, exciting and dynamic tool, has many, many upsides. None of us would want a world without it. On the other hand, it's given birth to many, many horribly ugly aspects. The coarsening of the spirit and the meanness and the anonymity, and the hiding behind anonymity. The internet has proved many things, not the least of which is that there's a lot of sad, lonely, angry people in the world. When I read the comments I'll get for this interview, they'll remind me of being in a Boston bar at 2 a.m., when everyone's mean and drunk and ugly. But no one will remember a thing they said the next morning. I've spoken to many prominent columnists and they all agree that reading their readers' comments is terribly dispiriting. The world has, in part, been transformed into a Boston bar at 2 a.m.
Considering the competitive nature of the public relations business, how do you go about attracting, signing, and maintaining high-profile clients?
Representing very high profile clients is an extremely demanding business and you'd better be prepared to do little else in your life. It requires a total burning, maniacal rage, an obsession, in terms of representing people properly. - doing it is not a hobby. Now, doing anything at a world-class level requires that level of obsession. If you want to be a world-champion ice skater, you're going to do little else but eat, sleep, drink and ice skate. You're not going to happy hour, you're not going to a lot of Halloween parties. You're going to have to focus; that's what world-class people do.
In the Becoming Steve Jobs book, someone was talking to him at the end of his career, something about golf, and Steve said, "Who in God's name has time for golf?" So - total devotion. So, when a high-level celebrity asks you to do something, "I don't know" is not a good answer. "No" is not a good answer. "Yes" is a really good answer.
How do you keep other publicists from luring away your clients?
It's a very, very competitive business. But the truth is there's only a very small group of people who have entered the circle of representing a large number of high-level celebrities. Many are called; few are chosen.
Considering the total devotion and maniacal rage it takes to do your job properly, how do you maintain a semblance of your own personal life?
You don't. You have to sacrifice most of everything. That's not necessarily a good thing. Certain people are called to certain things. Greatness is not the purview of balance. If you're sitting reading this article and thinking, "I wonder if Oprah works 40 hours a week or 50 hours a week. She always seems so balanced and happy and spiritually inclined." Oprah doesn't work 40 or 50 hours a week, or 60 or 70 or 80. You don't get to where Oprah got on a 60 hour work week.
How does something like that affect your personal and romantic relationships?
It comes at great cost. I'm divorced twice. I have no kids. 20 years ago, I made a decision to marry my work. One might argue it was a bad choice and I'll regret it on my death bed. That may be true, but it was a choice that was right for me. Certain people feel called by the siren of destiny.
People who attain a certain level, whether it's a senator or governor or someone on the cover of a fashion magazine - that's not a normal person. So, if you're going to date a person like that, you've got to get with the program.
By the way, I go on TV a great deal. When a celebrity gets in trouble, I go on Good Morning America and The Today Show and talk about what they should and shouldn't do. I've been doing that twice a month for 7 years. If you and I are going to have dinner on Tuesday night at 7:30, and around 5:45, my friends at Good Morning America say "Michael, we need you." Do you think you and I will likely have dinner at 7:30? Likely not. So, you, as a friend of mine, have to understand, if you want to remain friends with me, that there are certain things that are out of one's control. Many women I've dated have understood; some haven't.
You often refer to and have written about the "Broken Windows" business concept about the smallest remedies reaping the biggest rewards. Could you explain that and also discuss whether (and how) that applies to life outside of the business world as well?
First of all, the Broken Windows Theory is a theory of criminology dating from 1982, by the late, great criminologist James P. Wilson. It said that if you went into a neighborhood and saw graffiti or broken windows that were not repaired quickly, that sent a psychic signal to the neighbors, tourists, residents, and store owners that the bad guys were in charge--and much worse would quickly ensue. This theory was mainly known in law enforcement circles, but became better known in 1990, when a mayor used it to completely restore a decrepit American city. And that mayor was Rudi Giuliani and that city's name was New York.
All I did was I took the theory from criminology and society and applied it to business. (Broken Windows, Broken Business: How the Smallest Remedies Reap the Biggest Rewards). So, for example, if you go on an airplane and the tray in front of you has coffee stains, it sends a psychic signal to your brain that maybe the maintenance of the engine isn't being done well. So, these little things are sending us terribly powerful messages all the time that are in many ways crippling businesses. But they can be prepared with a lot of hard work and understanding.
The same theory can be applied to people and here's why. The way we do anything is the way we do everything. I can promise you that if you have a friend who has a particularly messy car virtually all the time, I can tell you with 100% certainty that this guy has a messy life. He's a disaster. Which is not to say that we can't have a messy car on occasional days; of course we can. But when it becomes a pattern, it can kill you.
I like to do a little experiment. Think of any two people you like who are good, decent, even smart people, but for whatever reason, they're chronically underachievers; they just can't seem to get it together for whatever reason. Let me tell you four things about these two people.
1. They have a fucked up relationship with reality. They see the world not as it is, but as they yearn for it to be.
2. They have a fucked up relationship with responsibility. Nothing's ever their fault. Parents are often blamed.
3. They have a fucked up relationship with communications. You call them, they don't call you back. They make excuses about their phone, the ringer, reception, etc.
4. They have a fucked up relationship with time. They're always late and it's never their fault.
How did you happen to choose Noah's Ark around which to center seven life lessons, and what are those lessons?
At one point, I got angry at some of my staff members. I told them "No prizes for predicting rain; only prizes for building arks." That memo gave birth to using Noah's Ark as a metaphor for life. We're all going to have a (metaphorical) flood in our lives. Some disastrous crisis. You better get used to the fact that when the flood comes, nobody's coming to save you--not your wife, not your kids, not Obama, not Oprah, not me. Of course there's assistance, but in the end, your survival will depend on yourself. In the end, you've got to save yourself. And if you don't, nobody's going to be sorrier than you.
Did you have other jobs before publicity? How did you happen to choose it as a calling?
I feel overwhelmingly that it called me. I was always interested as a young person in politics and the entertainment industry. I didn't go to college. I came from a bad home. I had dyslexia. Nobody would hire me at 19. I was scared and skinny and dyslexic and uneducated. No money, no job, no parenting. I concluded that Washington is just Hollywood for ugly folks. And I came out here.
From where else do you derive happiness in your life?
I get joy out of writing my books. Your life wouldn't be right for me; mine wouldn't be right for you. What I basically did was I made a deal with myself and "the Chief Commander," as Bob Dylan once put it.
I understand you have a homework assignment for us all
Indeed I do. And it's voluntary. You can do it in 10 minutes or less, or in the next 24 hours. You can do it for free. Just by doing this one homework assignment, it will change your life radically, instantly and permanently - that's my guarantee. You've got to go home in the next 24 hours and make a commitment to fire your flaky friends. The reality of life is that nothing will interfere with your capacity to reach your full and greatest potential like the second-hand fumes of flakiness. What everyone needs to stop doing before they begin achieving: being a dumb fuck.
Anything you would have done differently? Any regrets?
I have some regrets. Be careful who you partner with. Personally, professionally. "Maybe" is no. In the end, character is destiny. And unfortunately, character is not in abundance in America today. We're a shortcut civilization. And that's tragic. What used to matter, the values of man's word, character, is just not - today, doing the expedience thing, the easy thing, is the order of the day. It's bloody hard to find people with good character. And by the way, it's bloody hard to be a person with good character, too.
Future goals? Things you still want to accomplish?
Write another couple of books. "Celebrities and Self-Destruction." I want to start a community of people who are interested in these kinds of ideas about super success. People want to try to do epic things before they die. Not interesting things. Not amusing things. Epic. They really want to do something extraordinary. 99% of all human beings have no interest in doing something extraordinary and in paying the price for doing something extraordinary. I am also deeply troubled about our nation. But I am a long-term optimist for America.