Richard Levick: President and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications

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Who would have guessed that a man with an undergraduate degree in urban studies, minors in politics, political science, and English, a master's degree in environmental advocacy, and a J.D. would go on to work in the PR industry?

"It was accidental; I think so much of life is," said Richard Levick, President and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications. "Things come together; they only perfectly make sense when we are on our death beds, looking back."

Growing up, Levick had a penchant for politics and the law. Growing up during the tumultuous late '60s/early '70s, Levick was greatly influenced by events such as the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy assassinations, the shootings at Jackson and Kent State Universities, and the Vietnam War.

Levick attended University of Maryland, where he graduated with his bachelor of arts in urban studies in 1979. Despite having taken more units in political science classes than in urban studies, he did not earn a bachelor's degree in political science, lacking only one statistics class. He went on to study environmental advocacy at University of Michigan, a degree which he completed in 1988 when he finished his dissertation. In 1987, he received his J.D. from American University Washington College of Law.

It was during his time at law school that he realized he didn't want to be a practicing attorney. He realized he was no longer passionate about politics; in fact, he had grown tired of it.

"You have to ask yourself: what do I love? Love controls everything; it determines what we buy [...]; it determines what we're best at," Levick said. "I always love citing the Harvard study of a number of years ago when they asked a group of people, and they said, 'What do you want to be in 20 years?' One group said, 'We want to be millionaires.' And then they interviewed the other group, and they asked, 'What do you want?' and they said, 'We want to do what we love.' They went back 20 years later and they examined the group that said 'we want to be millionaires,' and sure enough, about three percent of them were millionaires. They looked at the group who said 'we want to do what we love,' and something like 46% of them were millionaires. So you follow your heart and it will take you where you want to be."

Levick followed his heart, which led him to public relations. In 1998, he opened Levick Strategic Communications, a high-stakes communications firm that was named Crisis Agency of the Year in 2005. Based out of Washington, D.C., the firm has helped quell some of the major scandals and scares faced by its clients, including the spinach and pet food recalls and the Catholic Church controversy, and it was the first to handle the situation in Guantanamo Bay. According to Levick, the firm's goal is to make the story shorter, better, or disappear for their clients.

"Countries, companies, and high net-worth individuals come to us for assistance. We're the company that you call when you are in trouble or when you anticipate that you might be in trouble. We're really the Navy SEALs [of communications]," Levick said.

Q. What do you do for fun?
A. Besides work? I love hanging out with my family and doing as little as possible. When I have down time, I want to read; I want to exercise, get fresh air. I love, early in the morning, to put the headphones on NPR or the BBC and go for a power walk. I really enjoy walking my sixth-grade daughter to the bus stop. Last night she and I watched a movie together—it wasn't a very good movie, I might add, but just to watch a chick flick with my daughter and have that conversation...
Q. What CD is in your CD player right now?
A. That's an unfair question because I have 1,200 CDs in my computer, and it's still waiting for me to put together playlists... I've got Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I also have a number of books on CD and tape in the car.
Q. What is the last magazine you read?
A. I don't read a lot of magazines. I do read the Harvard Business Review, I do skim through the New Yorker, and I used to read cover-to-cover the food magazines, but who has time now. I read the University of California at Berkeley health newsletter...Discover Magazine, which is an extraordinary magazine. Those are the ones I try to get to but it's pretty difficult.
Q. What's your favorite TV show?
A. You know something, I do not watch television shows anymore, but the show that was my favorite was Law and Order.
Q. Who's your role model?
A. Fascinating question. I had lunch today with a wonderful PR professional who said that I was one of her mentors, but I am a mentor to her as an entrepreneur. I did not have mentors growing up in the business. I will tell you this: that my strategy has always been hire people who are smarter than you. Do not be afraid of excellence; embrace it.

Since starting his career in PR, Levick says that the industry itself has undergone a lot of change.

"It's not like it once was where you could know a handful of journalists and have lifelong relationships with them, and that was enough. You need to do that today, too, because they continue to play critical roles, but you also need to work with people who have these skills on Internet. And it's just getting too fast and too complicated, quite frankly, for people to do it on their own, there's just too much for any one person to know," Levick said.

Levick adheres to what he calls the "abundance mentality," in contrast to what many people adhere to, the scarcity mentality. Citing the bell curve used by so many college professors, he says that thinking students must fall along its curve implies that there is only so much intelligence or talent to go around. He emphasizes the fact that there will always be more opportunities available to you. He believes that this way of thinking stems from several critical moments in his early life: the death of his mother when he was just four years old in a "situation that should not have been fatal," and the fact that he lost part of his hearing after contracting measles at 10.

"We need to look at the world in ways where all of our setbacks are viewed as opportunities," Levick said.

Five years ago, Levick married a widow with two children. The family now resides in McLean, VA, just outside Washington, DC.
On the net:Levick Strategic Communications

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