A lawyer named Jeremy Pitcock got fired last year, and his firm put a fine point on his dismissal: they issued a press release attributing his firing to "extremely inappropriate personal conduct." That's, uh, not considered a good thing to have on your resume in the legal world. Turns out that the law firm crafted the release with the help of Sitrick & Co., the super high-powered PR firm run by shadowy, high-priced crisis guru Mike Sitrick. Now Pitcock is suing Sitrick and his old firm for $90 million, charging them with ruining his reputation over what he says was simply a misguided and consensual kiss after a drunken night at a bar. The bigger question is, doesn't Sitrick have more important things to do than get embroiled in a petty sexual harassment dismissal? Answer: not really!
Mike Sitrick is in some ways an LA version of NYC uberflack Howard Rubenstein: as much a power broker as a publicist. But Sitrick's firm is heavily media-focused; he employs a laundry list of high profile ex-reporters, and keeps a tight control on his clients' access to the media. He's the go-to guy for Hollywood stars embroiled in scandals, and does a ton of corporate work as well. He's hated—and even feared—by many working reporters because of his clout. But he's also extremely intelligent about how the media works, and able to wrangle the best possible coverage for clients in seemingly intractable situations. A 2006 story in LA Magazine gave a good rundown of his famous tactics, like this:
One of Sitrick's favorite gambits is "the Lead Steer." He frequently uses it when clients are besieged by negative pack coverage. His thinking is that if he can turn a single respected writer around, he can reverse the trend and maybe even start a stampede in the other direction. "There's an impression among a lot of publicists," says Sitrick, "that you want to deal with lightweight journalists. That's okay on a one-off story, but on a big piece you want a Mike Wallace." When the publicist was representing the actress Kim Basinger during her 1993 bankruptcy case, he says he used Judy Brennan, of the Los Angeles Times, as his lead steer. "She did a sympathetic article, and her piece reversed the way people thought of Kim."
And, more deviously, this tactic to push a story into oblivion:
When journalist Mim Udovitch was assigned by Radar to investigate whether the Kabbalah Center was a cult organization, Sitrick and Company inundated her with material. Indeed, the publicist contends that his staff kept her occupied so long that the firm can take credit for the article's appearance in the relative oblivion of the magazine's online edition instead of in print as originally planned.
So while Sitrick's most visible clients are celebrities, they don't nearly account for the bulk of his revenue. Calling Sitrick & Co. "Paris Hilton's PR firm" is as simplistic as saying "Barney's master invades Iraq." His firm has hundreds of clients, many of them smaller companies that want an experienced flack on hand in case the going gets rough. And that's exactly the role that Sitrick played for Pitcock's law firm: His agency helped to position the firm as the righteous ones, indignantly firing an employee who had gone astray (rather than letting them appear complicit in a harassment ordeal).
Was it worth it? In light of the $90 million suit, perhaps not. But if the aggrieved Pitcock walks away with nothing, it will only bolster Sitrick's own reputation for wizardry (not that he needs it). The lesson: Never be surprised to see Sitrick's name pop up anywhere. He is the scary unseen ninja of PR.