Harvey Weinstein, Ron Meyer and the Secrets of Sheryl Sandberg’s Media Coach

Lunch At Michaels

LunchAtMichaelsIt was the usual mix of moguls on the menu (Harvey Weinstein and Ron Meyer at Table Four), seasoned with a smattering of stylistas, social types and a generous side order of  publicists at Michael’s today. The mood was downright festive in the dining room with a birthday celebration for Shari Rollins, who was feted by hubby politico Ed Rollins and a table full of BFFs at Table One, while a group of fashion folks led by Laurie Haspel toasted the return of National Seersucker Day in the center of the room. As the festivities grew more spirited and the decibel level rose, I leaned in to hear every fascinating utterance by my lunch date, Emmy-Award-winning correspondent and media coach to the famous and fabulous, Bill McGowan.

Bill McGowan and Diane Clehane
Bill McGowan and Diane Clehane

As founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group, Bill, who describes himself as a “total Cyrano de Bergerac,” has coached a head-spinning roster of newsmakers, captains of industry and media types to say the just right thing at the right time on air and in front of an audience when it really counts. He’s crystallized all his best advice and culled it down into a highly digestible, compulsively readable book, Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time (HarperBusiness), which was published in April. “I’ve been coaching HarperCollins authors for 12 years; now I am one,” said Bill. And, trust me, he’s got plenty of material. In the course of his 25-year career in television, Bill conducted thousands (!) of interviews and worked on ABC News’ 20/20, CBS News’ 48 Hours, Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel and Current Affair. He also worked with the “very generous” Bill O’Reilly back in the day at WCBS News as a desk assistant when Fox’s future front man gave him his first on-air shout-out. “I was 21 at the time and he was always really good to me.”

Since starting his own firm 13 years ago, he has become the go-to guy for some smooth talkers, including Sheryl Sandberg (“Outstanding”), Mary J. Blige (“Cool”), Eli Manning (“A gentleman”) as well as Jack Welch, who, we’re told, has no patience for long-winded storytelling (read the book and you’ll find out what I mean). What does this disparate group of overachievers have in common? “They are all relentless self-improvers,” Bill told me. He explained that all these folks, at the top of their game well before they came to Bill for counsel, are smart enough “not to believe they can phone it in.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but all of them “work incredibly hard,” said Bill, who made the comparison: “The very best athletes still have coaches.”

In fact, said Bill, the most noteworthy names have to be even more vigilant about getting the message they want to promote across when the media comes calling because “there’s so much to talk to those people about.” He added: “The more famous the client, the easier it is for them to be directed away from their message. It’s like when Dan Rather went on David Letterman to talk about his book and in the last 30 seconds Letterman said, ‘Oh and you’ve got a new book.’ It wasn’t Letterman’s fault; it was Rather’s because he let his message get away from him.” Maybe so, but we also agreed that Dave is a terrible interviewer.

This isn’t about obnoxious agenda pushing that involves ignoring a reporter’s questions (a personal pet peeve of mine). “We teach people subtle ways to gently steer an interview and not let the journalist hijack the conversation,” said Bill. “There has to be some connective tissue between the question and the answer.” The real key is “mastering the ‘softer social skills’ and explaining what you do in an empathetic way. With clients, I work on putting more empathy into the elevator pitch.” But it’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. “I usually start by asking someone what would you like to get better at and go from there,” he said. And answers are as unique as the clients. When working with one of Jerry Sandusky‘s victims and Cleveland kidnapping victim Michelle Knight in preparation for broadcast interviews, Bill needed to help them put into words their difficult journey overcoming unfathomable trauma. And his mission with chef Thomas Keller was fine-tuning his multitasking skills so he could keep multiple plates in the air. Interestingly, the one area Bill has no interest in cultivating clients is politics. “I’m not a big fan. I’ll leave that to K Street,” he told me with a laugh. “With politics, you wind up becoming a spinmeister.” No doubt “dead broke” Hillary Clinton could have used a few sessions with Bill’s firm before going on with Diane Sawyer.

Haspel's Laurie Haspel with James LaForce, Brenner Thomas and Tom Wallis
Haspel’s Laurie Haspel with James LaForce, Brenner Thomas and Tom Wallis

I asked Bill how it is that these normally on-message bigwigs detonate so spectacularly. “The landmines usually happen when verbal and mental fatigue set in,” he explained. “When someone loses sight of the finish line and spontaneously gives an answer. Remember when BP’s Tony Hayward said he ‘wanted his life back?’ People never forget those types of blunders.”

Later this month Bill is off to the West Coast to meet with Facebook’s product managers and engineers to coach them on fine-tuning their presentation skills and messaging around some top-secret new products. “People who are at the top of their game get that with the enormous media scrutiny that exists today, you don’t get a second chance to make your content memorable. But the same idea applies to everyone’s daily life. Whether you’re a parent who is looking get extra help for your child in school or a CEO speaking to a venture capital firm, how you nail that message the first time is what determines success from failure.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. One of my favorite Facebook (and now real life) pals birthday girl Shari Rollins (looking fabulous in white jeans!), celebrating with Nancy Collins, Lynn Paulson, Christine Khubeck, Bess Friedman, Susie Friedman (no relation), Jolie Hunt, Pat Schaen and Ed Rollins. Cheers!

2. Bill McGowan, Judy Twersky and yours truly

3. Cablevision’s Tad Smith and Vidicom’s Christy Ferer

4. Harvey Weinstein and Ron Meyer. We wanted to go over and tell Harvey that based on Jennifer Hudson‘s stunning performance at Sunday night’s Tony Awards, we can’t wait until Finding Neverland opens on Broadway. Judging by the number of well wishers who made their way over to his table during lunch we’re not alone. Or perhaps he was just fielding pitches between bites. Or both.

5. Nikki Haskell, just in from Los Angeles with the charming Eva Mohr and Stanley Mohr

6 & 12 Haspel’s Laurie Haspel celebrating National Seersucker Day (really!) with a squadron of similarly attired folks, including publicists James LaForce and Brenner Thomas;WWD‘s Jean Palmeri; and stylists Brian Coats and Michael Philouze and Ben Setiawan. A little birdie told me that 30 members of Congress, all clad in seersucker, were gathering in Washington, D.C., on this very afternoon to take a group photo to toast the day. Well, at least they can agree on something.

7. Some folks from DuJour, so we’re told

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia with my good friend Peter Lyden (long time no see!), who is now president of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Congrats!

10. Glamour’s Connie Anne Phillips

11. Mickey Ateyeh, enjoying lunch with a well-dressed gent we didn’t get to meet before she jets off to Europe. Bon Voyage!

14. Author Linda Fairstein with an elegant blonde pal

15. Dr. Mitch Rosenthal, Pamela Gross and Melanie Lefkowitz

16. Uber publicist Susan Blond

17. UTA’s Jay Sures with a casually clad (in sneakers!) Dan Abrams

18. Martin Pompadur

20. Peter Price

21. Jerry Inzerillo

22. Peter Asher

23. Brad Reifler

25. PR meister Tom Goodman, nursing an injured wing, thanks to a collision with a fellow NYC bike rider (“Those Citibikes are like trucks if they hit you!”) with The New York Times’ Eileen Murphy

27.  Reese Schoenfeld

28. AOL’s head of programming Brian Balthazar, whose fun, dishy interviews with celebs on the site are instantly addictive!

81. Wenda Millard

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.