Richard Levick, crisis communications specialist, dies at 65

Richard Levick, a prominent Washington crisis communication consultant whose eponymous firm boasts of “fixing the impossible” for foreign governments, companies and high-profile personalities threatened by lawsuits or other calamities, died April 11 at a hospice center in Bethesda, Md. He was 65.

The cause was cancer, said Phil Elwood, a spokesman for his firm.

Located in Washington’s K Street corridor of lobbyists and other fixers, Levick Strategic Communications specializes in generating media coverage that casts troubled clients in a more favorable light — preparing executives for interviews, urging reporters to pursue more sympathetic angles and spreading complimentary facts through news releases and social media.

Billing at rates of $75,000 a month and higher, Mr. Levick’s firm has represented oil companies following catastrophic spills, the insurance company AIG during its collapse in 2008, foreign governments including those of Dubai and Qatar, and the Catholic Church during the clergy abuse scandal.

Mr. Levick’s work took him around the world, placing him alongside chief executives and heads of state in sometimes dangerous environments requiring heavy security. This was a more thrilling and meaningful side of public relations, he said, than shilling for shaving cream or other consumer products.

“Being with the head of a company, being followed by spies, being under armed guard in, you know, Yemen or some other area that’s in significant turmoil — I think once you have crossed that Rubicon, nothing else seems as important,” Mr. Levick said in a recorded interview with colleagues before his death.

“Once you’re really involved in it, once you represent a government,” he added, “why would you do anything else?”

Following the terrorist 9/11 attacks, he agreed to represent a dozen Kuwaitis detained as suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Several of the prisoners and their families said they were innocent aid workers wrongly swept up in mass arrests in Afghanistan.

His firm created a “two-tiered PR strategy,” Mr. Levick later wrote in a PR industry publication.

“One tack was to put a human face on the then ‘invisible’ detainees in Guantanamo,” he wrote. “With such exposure, Americans would be more apt to ask themselves: ‘Does our country really want to be treating people this way?’ The subtext: The United States is supposed to be a beacon of freedom and justice in the world, and instead is resorting to nefarious and un-democratic tactics worthy of the terrorists themselves.”

The second part of the plan was to “help the public understand that the issues faced by the detainees affect all Americans,” Mr. Levick wrote. “The underlying message emphasized that suspending the rule of law, forsaking habeas corpus, and ignoring the Geneva Conventions diminishes this country’s image and endangers the lives of Americans abroad.”

Mr. Levick’s firm set up a website as a repository for information about the detainees.

“You can simply see these ‘real’ people on the website,” he said.

The firm also highlighted how some conservative commentators were on the side of the detainees when it came to constitutional issues such as due process — an angle that Mr. Levick sought to stoke.

“Why not undermine the opposition by reaching out to a yet broader spectrum of conservatives?” he wrote.

The firm and its tactics were fiercely criticized by the families of victims.

Debra Burlingame, a sister of one of the pilots of the plane that struck the Pentagon on 9/11, had an op-ed published in 2007 in the Wall Street Journal questioning the innocence of the men. She harshly criticized Mr. Levick and the law firm representing them.

“The Kuwaiti 12 case is a primer on the anatomy of a guerrilla PR offensive, packaged and sold to the public as a fight for the ‘rule of law’ and ‘America’s core principles,’” she wrote.

All of the Kuwaiti detainees were eventually repatriated. One of the released detainees later carried out a suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq, according to the New York Times.

Mr. Levick later offered guidance to the family of Austin Tice, a law student and freelance journalist who was abducted in Syria.

Richard Scott Levick was born in Mamaroneck, N.Y, on Dec. 10, 1957, and grew up in Bethesda. His father was in the real estate business; his mother died of pneumonia when he was 4.

Mr. Levick graduated in 1975 from Walt Whitman High School, after which he attended the University of Maryland, majoring in political science. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1979, he moved to Michigan, where he worked for a public interest research group run by Ralph Nader.

He received his law degree from American University in 1987, then worked in public relations and opened his firm in 1995.

Mr. Levick’s 2002 marriage to Debbie MacDougall ended in divorce and a lengthy court battle. Mr. Levick argued that the marriage had been invalid because of a date discrepancy on the license. The proceedings inspired MacDougall to self-publish a coloring book on divorce.

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