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.