Spotlight on a Solo PR Pro: Meet Doug Levy

You could say Doug Levy was born to work in the media and communications industry. 

He grew up in a family of avid news consumers — rifling through the New York Times and watching the evening news on TV were daily pastimes. 

“I was that first grader who wanted to start up a class newspaper,” he jokes when describing himself. 

Doug started freelancing for NPR in 1979 when he entered college at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a frequent contributor to All Things Considered and Morning Edition and ended up as an intern in NPR’s Washington Bureau a year later, gaining extensive industry experience and honing his writing skills. After college, Doug was a typical journalism nomad, working in newsrooms in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. After spending most of the 1990s covering healthcare for USA Today, the newspaper transferred him to San Francisco to cover technology. In 2000, he jumped the fence to take a communications-focused role at global PR agency FleishmanHillard. 

When a former FDA commissioner became dean of medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine in 2004, Doug became his chief of staff and communications director, an incredible opportunity that allowed him to see how major research programs are put together and funded. This also kickstarted his experience in emergency management, as he worked on the response plan for things like pandemic flu H1N1, earthquakes and other crises.

After continuing his work in emergency and crisis communications for Columbia University Medical Center in New York a few years later, Doug honed his methodology and began penning his first book, “The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts.” The handbook guides new or experienced public information officers on best practices for communicating life-safety and other urgent information during an emergency.

Although he enjoyed the varying experiences and behind-the-scenes planning that went into his executive role, he missed spending the majority of his time writing. Doug decided it was time for a change and struck out on his own to return to that passion, forming Doug Levy Communications at the tail end of 2015.

From journalist to PR pro

Although it wasn’t necessarily something he had planned all along, Doug admits that transitioning from a role in journalism to one behind-the-scenes in PR made perfect sense on his career journey. 

In 1997, when USA Today moved him from D.C. to San Francisco to cover this brand new thing called the internet, he started covering a lot of startups, interviewing CEOs of companies large and small. 

It was during these interviews that he saw a need for skilled communicators to help businesses with their PR efforts. 

“As a reporter, it was very frustrating doing an interview with someone who had a good story to tell, but didn’t know how to tell it,” he says.

The then-general manager of the San Francisco FleishmanHillard office saw Doug’s potential value as a media coach for both clients and staff and scooped him up, and the rest is history. 

In his various agency and in-house PR roles, Doug was able to combine his love of writing and passion for storytelling with his extensive knowledge and experience in the tech and medical industries and emergency services. 

Building a solo business

When he first struck out on his own, Doug intended to primarily do PR consulting for various clients, including everything from coming up with campaigns and tactics to traditional block and tackle PR. 

But within a few months after leaving his position at Columbia University, Doug began receiving calls from companies who remembered him from his reporter days and wanted to solicit his services as a writer.

He started working with companies in the biotech space, and even a few academic institutions, helping to translate their complicated science jargon into easy-to-read, journalist-friendly content, and his solo practice took off from there. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

As with most solo PR pros, Doug felt the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic pretty heavily on his business at first. At the time, some of his steadiest clients were in the travel and hospitality industry, one of the most hard hit sectors of business.

“I was already paying attention to COVID initially, because it was clear this was going to make a big difference. I figured I was going to have some time without income,” he says recalling March 2020. 

Doug used the time to hunker down and pivot the book rewrite he was already working on to center it around the coronavirus and how to handle communications during public health emergencies. Titled “The Communications Handbook for Coronavirus and Other Public Health Emergencies,” the topic aligned well with his past experience in the science and medical communications field.

“The number one principle in emergency communications is that there has to be no ambiguity about who’s in charge. The messaging has to be clear and consistent,” he says about the confusion at the start of the pandemic and one of the major premises behind his book. 

Soon after the book’s release on March 19, 2020, he received a call from a senior executive at one of the largest nonprofit hospital systems. He needed help navigating the pandemic.

“I helped them recognize the importance of clear internal communications. Translating the science and practical guidance into messages that worked both internally and externally was the top task at that point, ” he says. “These are people who were very much thrust into the middle of the crisis, who were trying their best to do the right thing, so it was very satisfying to help them.”

Later in 2020, Doug was recruited by a federal contractor that supports the government agency BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to consult on science communications. Starting most days around 5:00 AM, Doug helps some of the federal government scientists responsible for the COVID-19 response explain their work and results.

“Not everybody understands how much communication impacts everything. And we, as professional communicators, have the opportunity to model best practices, not just in our work, but in everything we do,” he says. “Being able to help these organizations who are doing great work that impacts peoples’ lives every day is extremely gratifying.”

Looking ahead, Doug is about half-way finished with the second edition of his public information officer handbook. It will have expanded sections on disinformation and competing messages, in addition to a lot more about public health and, as he puts it, “all that fun stuff we’re living in today.”