PROFILE: Dragon-slayer Lewellen sees PR's business value

Crisis PR acumen helped Michael Lewellen land Black Entertainment Television's top communications role - a post he believes contributes to every facet of business.

Crisis PR acumen helped Michael Lewellen land Black Entertainment Television's top communications role - a post he believes contributes to every facet of business.

Unfortunately for communications pros, a crisis can serve among their most defining achievements. For Michael Lewellen, being prepared for a crisis situation and effectively handling it signaled his arrival as a skilled PR player. When Chinese gymnast Sang Lan broke her neck during a warm-up vault at the 1998 Goodwill Games, the tragedy served as Lewellen's initiation into high-profile media relations. As director of corporate communications for Turner Sports Network, the broadcast outlet for the Games, Lewellen and his team had prepared for every possible occurrence, from an athlete's defection to a natural disaster. After Sang's accident, Lewellen stepped up as spokesman during the media's coverage of the event, giving medical briefings to an international press corps and ensuring that all ran smoothly, including the continuation of the Games and the arrival of Sang's parents to her hospital bed. "It was a big break," Lewellen says. "I was already visible, but this led to my FOX Sports job. You never know when you're auditioning for your next post." Now, Lewellen is VP of corporate communications for Black Entertainment Television (BET), serving as lead spokesman and head of PR and communications. His in-house team of seven is a tight-knit group, although it's scattered among BET's offices along the East Coast, with corporate communications directors in New York for music programming and Atlanta for entertainment and special programs, as well as four support and planning staff in the corporate offices in Washington, DC. Lewellen works with New York-based boutique firm the Mastermind Group for publicity for BET's news, public affairs shows, BET.com, and BET-branded digital stations. In LA, he works with Bobbi Marcus PR & Events for the BET Awards, the network's largest annual event. "Michael is a staunch professional," says Bobbi Marcus, founder of the aforementioned LA firm, who has worked with him for the last five years. "His game plan is so clear. He is able to relay that to the people he works with, and then give them a lot of autonomy to let them work the best way they can." Lewellen's management style could easily be derived from the leaders of companies for which he's worked. He has led communications under Ted Turner, News Corporation mogul Rupert Murdoch (at FOX Sports), and BET founder Robert Johnson. "I've had a knack for working in organizations run by charismatic entrepreneurs," he says. "It can be a bit more difficult because there are two separate entities that are both tremendously visible, and it's a challenge tracking what's said." But Lewellen welcomes that challenge, saying with a smile, "I enjoy having dragons to slay." He's faced his share of dragons since joining BET in 1999. In recent years, Johnson has faced scrutiny for selling the network to Viacom, and BET is continually criticized for showing music videos containing controversial images and themes. Despite having a variety of programs such as movies, music videos, public affairs shows, specials, spoken-word programs, news, and sports, Lewellen notes, "People want it to be all things to all people. Those opinions tend to come from individuals who don't watch enough of the channel." But the network has also seen its share of media coverage recognizing that it is a platform for reaching the African-American population. BET is watched in 95% of African-American homes with cable (12 million), and an estimated 75 million households overall. In December 2002, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott appeared on BET to apologize for comments that were widely interpreted to be racist. In February, Colin Powell hosted a forum for young people regarding the military conflict in Iraq. "As an African American, watching the network's evolution as a viewer and a fan is a point of pride and a reason to go to work every day," Lewellen says. Born and raised in Jonesboro, AR, Lewellen's mother, a teacher, wanted him to be a doctor. But he showed talent for writing at a young age, and wrote as much as he could, serving as editor of his school paper, majoring in journalism at Arkansas State University, and landing a job as a reporter at the Pine Bluff Commercial in Arkansas. Finding it hard to earn a living on a reporter's pay, he took a job writing for the company newsletter at Southwestern Bell, which fell under the communications department. After honing his PR and corporate development skills at various posts there, Lewellen took increasingly senior roles at Nike, ING Group, Turner Sports Network, and FOX Sports. Lewellen was offered his position at BET following an executive search of senior African-American communications pros. "When it comes to the top levels," he says, "those folks are rare." As a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Black Public Relations Society, the PRSA, and IABC, Lewellen spends time encouraging students to consider PR careers and reminding them of the importance of strong writing skills. "What hurts the cause," he says, "is when young people don't see black spokespeople. I long for the day when the White House spokesperson is an African American." In addition to raising the visibility of his network and African-American PR pros, Lewellen works to show that PR isn't all about issues management and media relations. "PR pros can contribute greatly to all business aspects, not just crisis control," he says. "We as practitioners contribute meaningfully to every cycle of business. I look forward to the day when CEOs come from the ranks of communications. If there's anybody in the business whose job it is to know it all, it's PR people. Everything else is specialized. To me, that brings value and importance. We become more valuable when bad things happen, but we're necessary all the time." ----- Michael Lewellen 1999-present VP, corporate communications, Black Entertainment Television 1998-1999 VP, media relations, FOX Sports Network 1997-1998 PR director, Turner Sports Network 1996-1997 Communications director, ING Group-North America 1991-1996 Various PR and corporate development positions, NIKE 1985-1991 Various communications positions, Southwestern Bell

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