The TH Interview: Michael Levine

I recently had the opportunity to interview legendary Hollywood public relations expert Michael Levine by telephone. He's represented some of the biggest names on Earth from Michael Jackson and Ozzy Osbourne to Elizabeth Taylor and Martha Stewart, and just so happened to feel that he could offer some insight into the growing green movement in America. I thought it was a great opportunity to pick his brain a bit on TH, and found his observations of both human nature and the environmental movement to be as striking as you might expect. I hope you enjoy them like I did.

Treehugger: Michael, what's your take on the recent rise of the green movement among mainstream Americans, and do you believe it has staying power?

Michael Levine: My understanding of people is that they respect wisdom but obey pain. They don't change unless they have to. And I think what's happened now is that the environment is sending signals out to the world through people like Al Gore and others that the problems we've been ignoring or thought weren't a problem are really a problem. Essentially, what seems to be for many Americans wacky weather has raised the suspicion that there really is indeed a serious problem. The earth movement had a real up-tick in the 70's but then went away. What we learned was that their interest was very wide but very shallow. If it required 1 extra step they'd do it, if it required 5 they'd think about it, at 10 they'd stop doing it and at 20 steps they'd laugh at you about doing it.

TH: In the past the environmental movement has often had difficulty convincing people to embrace conservation and put it into practice on a daily basis. Why do you believe that's been the case?

ML: People are lazy, particularly Americans. Plus, Americans also have an entitlement mentality. And life is increasingly overwhelming to them. With an increase in the overwhelming feelings that they're experiencing and the increase in technology that has also overwhelmed them it's created a real desire for convenience.

TH: But how do we help people get past that feeling of entitlement and realize that our future is at stake?

ML: I think that there's only one way to change behavior, and that involves fear and pain.

TH: One of the most challenging groups for environmentalists to reach out to has been kids in schools. Why do you believe that task has been so difficult?

ML: I think it's because kids live in a culture where they see massive indulgence and consumerism. Let's take Christmas, when I was a kid growing up it began being celebrated about the 15th of December through first of January. You put up a tree, sang carols, etc Today, if you call Radio Shack in mid-August you'll hear jingle bells. And today we are not only buying for our kids but our doctor, our chiropractor, his kids, the mailman, the Girl Scout leader and so on

TH: If you had to name one group or person that you believe is making the most difference in schools today, who do you believe that would be?

ML: I'm very impressed with what Jill Buck is doing with the Go Green Initiative, but the man who has had the most impact is Al Gore.

TH: You mentioned recently that there's constantly a PR Battle going on over any issue in the media on a daily basis. Who do you feel is winning the PR battle over environmental issues today, and why?

ML: Well, right now the environmental movement is very hot in the news and as long as the weird, wacky weather stays the same that's going to continue.

TH: One of the problems environmentalists are facing is that companies like BP have come up with huge, $200 Million marketing campaigns that amount to little more than greenwashing. What do you make of it and how might genuine environmentalists help people see through it?

ML: This is not unlike the tobacco companies. I think the reason business is getting involved is because they think it is good business. They know there's many consumers out there who are green oriented, and if you can speak to them in their language they will buy.

TH: Another issue is the fact that there are now so many non-profit groups engaging people in one way or another that it's become very competitive between groups within the environmental movement itself looking for both media coverage and donor dollars. A terrific example would be an issue like climate change where there's such a large need for action, but the many groups working on it are often reaching out to the same members of the media for coverage and the same donor base for dollars. How might successful groups differentiate themselves from the crowd in order to garner the media attention and dollars they need to survive?

ML: How do you separate yourself? How do you make yourself appear to be newsworthy? That's exactly why I wrote the book Guerrilla PR. You have to recognize that promoting your effort requires creativity. It's not merely a logical message where you show a dry chart or graph. You have to make it human or believable. You have to "time it" to the news.

TH: Well, do you have anything else you'd like to add to our discussion before you go?

ML: I'd really like to hear from some of your readers about all of this. They can write to me any time at Mlevine@lcoonline.com with whatever suggestions, ideas, or alternative speeches that they might have. And I'd also invite them to sign up for my daily breaking news e-lert at lbnelert.com where they can get all kinds of great breaking news delivered to their inbox in one easy package on a daily basis.

via:: telephone interview

Tags: Greenwashing | Hollywood