After collapse, Surfside condo board taps PR firm that claims to ‘fix the impossible’

·4 min read

Within days of the catastrophic collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, as a search and rescue operation expanded with over 150 people unaccounted for, the building’s condo association retained a crisis public relations firm based in Washington, D.C. that claims to “fix the impossible.”

The association’s work with Levick Strategic Communications began as details first emerged of infighting within the association over repeated warnings, dating back to 2018, that the building was in a dangerous state of disrepair.

The Champlain Towers South Condominium Association now faces several lawsuits from residents claiming the group knew or should have known of the building’s structural flaws leading up to the disaster, and failed to act.

President Joe Biden, who will visit Surfside on Thursday, has pledged federal support for an investigation into the causes of the building collapse.

Maxwell Marcucci, a vice president at Levick working as a spokesperson for the condo association, confirmed to McClatchy that the condo board had retained his firm in recent days.

“The Champlain Towers South Condo Association board has retained LEVICK, a crisis communications firm deeply experienced in these matters, to assist them during this very difficult time,” Marcucci said. “LEVICK has been handling the hundreds of inbound media inquiries from around the world interested in the latest breaking news on this unprecedented tragedy.”

“By taking over the important communications responsibilities to keep the media constantly informed, it has removed one burden from the volunteer association board members — who themselves are mourning the loss of their loved ones, friends and neighbors — so that they can focus on the critical work of assisting all manners of search and rescue involved in this tragedy,” Marcucci said.

Public relations experts say it makes sense that the condo board has turned to outside help.

“In the realm of crisis communications, you expect to have clients who are in tough situations, wrestling with serious matters, and so it’s not surprising that a PR firm would take them on,” said Evan Nierman, CEO of Red Banyan, a crisis communications firm based in South Florida.

Ronn Torrossian, CEO of the New York public relations firm 5WPR, which also has a Miami office, said that surviving members of the condominium board are themselves experiencing trauma, adding to the difficulty of handling the onslaught of attention.

“Every media outlet in the world is looking for a comment. This gives you a central point of somebody who knows how to handle these calls,” Torrossian said. “This is a full-time job for multiple people for some time to come.”

In Levick, the condo association has chosen a firm that claims to have represented a wide range of notorious clients around the globe.

Levick’s promotional material says the firm represented an order of the Catholic Church that faced sexual abuse allegations, as well as clients connected to the 2000 Florida election recount and the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Public records show the firm has also represented Citgo, a U.S.-based subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-run oil company, PDVSA.

Levick formerly employed legendary Washington lawyer and spin meister Lanny Davis, who served as a special counsel for President Bill Clinton, and recently represented President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.

In recent years, the company has filed registration documents for foreign lobbying work on behalf of three clients.

China Telecom paid Levick more than $230,000 for work in 2019 and 2020. Jho Low, the Malaysian businessman accused of stealing more than $4 billion from the Malaysian development fund in the 1MDB scandal, paid the firm more than $50,000. And Citgo, the subsidiary of PDVSA, paid the firm more than $1 million for work in 2019.

PDVSA – mostly through its U.S. refinery subsidiary, Citgo – has been using the services of American lobbying firms for years, seeking to counteract the negative image emanating from the Hugo Chavez and the Nicolás Maduro regimes.

Those lobbying efforts became important during the Trump administration as it gradually moved towards introducing general economic sanctions against the regime, and individual sanctions against high-ranking officials in the Maduro government.

While Levick worked with Citgo for the better part of a decade, it ended its relationship with the U.S. subsidiary in 2019.

“Firms have a choice to make when prospective clients come in, and they have to determine whether or not they’re going to take on those clients,” Nierman said. “It’s very easy from the outside to cast judgment on whether or not a firm should say yes or no, when nine times out of the ten, the facts aren’t really known and certainly haven’t been fully explored.”

“I don’t think that hiring Levick has a negative implication for” the condo association, Nierman added. “It means they are going to get serious crisis communications counsel.”

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