At the end of last week, as the chaos swirled over which network would land the post-jail interview with Paris Hilton, and for how much money, and which network was denying most stridently that it had offered her cash, Hilton's new "crisis manager" Mike Sitrick gave a statement to the press. "Contrary to media reports," he said, "Paris Hilton is not being paid for any television interview nor is Paris Hilton being paid for any collateral material, including videos or photos."
The hiring of Sitrick proved that the Hiltons are taking this latest crisis involving Paris very seriously indeed. It's a problem that clearly could not be managed by Paris's longtime spokesman, Elliot Mintz, who is "more of a PR footman," snipes one entertainment journalist. (He was also not long ago off the job for a while, if the tabloids can be believed.) "It's not like Mintz really has a strategy or anything." Others expressed surprise that Sitrick was taking on Hilton as a client: "He usually works with people like Ron Burkle, not Paris Hilton," said one magazine journalist.
So just who is Mike Sitrick, whose fees are reportedly up to $700 per hour? And why did the Hiltons turn to him? Well, he's a PR pit bull, and even Howard Rubinstein gives him respect—though he seems to regard him warily. He's a master of spin (he wrote a well-regarded PR book in 1998, Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage). And he's known as someone who will stop at nothing to turn public opinion in his clients' favor.
Sitrick's Los Angeles-based "strategic communications" firm Sitrick & Company are known in the business and entertainment communities as the place to turn in the face of a potentially huge public relations disaster. Billionaire businessman Burkle is indeed a longtime client of his—Sitrick orchestrated the sting of Jared Paul Stern last year, then defended Burkle in the press when the whole thing threatened to blow up in his face—but his client list is staggeringly wide-ranging. He currently represents fired Wal-Mart marketer Julie Roehm. Atoosa Rubenstein hired him in October 2006 when items about departing staffers at Seventeen started appearing in Page Six. He represented Naomi Campbell when she was accused of assaulting her former housekeeper. He was retained by the law firm that represented the Archdiocese of Los Angeles when it was embroiled in the pedophile priest scandal. He helped Halle Berry when she was accused of a hit-and-run, and he was retained by Rush Limbaugh during his prescription pill addiction scandal. He's also represented people whose interests seem to be at odds; Ron Burkle sued former Disney chief Michael Ovitz over Internet ventures they were both involved in, but Sitrick reps both of them (and managed to get sympathetic coverage for both of them in the heat of the Anthony Pellicano scandal). Another longtime client of Sitrick's is Roy Disney, who, of course, has been at odds with Ovitz for several years.
His methods are aggressive and strategic. He uses what he calls "truth squads" to monitor the media (including blogs) to ferret out inaccuracies about his clients and "wheel-of-pain" tactics against his client's foes—a campaign of negative publicity intended to spur a quick settlement. Of course, to be effective, Sitrick employs a veritable public relations army. He's known for luring well-connected former journalists (presumably for a massive raise). Two of his more high-profile hires in the last couple years were Wall Street Journal reporter John Lippman, who wrote a weekly Hollywood column and had covered the TV business for the paper, and Los Angeles Times senior editor Mark Saylor. He's also fond of hiring corporate executives and lawyers.
So it's perhaps no surprise that the Hiltons hired Sitrick—Paris could certainly use some PR help. But the mere act of hiring Sitrick sends a strong signal that the Hiltons are spooked by the way Paris's sentencing and jail term were woefully mismanaged from a PR standpoint. The family lost control of the story in a major way, and the only way to start to try to fix it is with a big gun. Already it seems to be working—Hilton will go on Larry King Wednesday night after her release, and, so they say, won't be paid for her appearance—which seems to have given her just the tiniest bit of legitimacy back.