ANALYSIS: Profile - Sitrick: the PR godfather with a typewriter Tough as a trial lawyer, the CEO of Sitrick & Company takes no prisoners when it comes to winning journalists to his clients’ agendas. Adam Leyland has a face-to-face with this

It’s not the Armani suits or the art-filled offices in Century City, LA, that single out Michael Sitrick as a sharp shooter. It’s the deep-voiced, sub-machine-gun-like patter that rattles off give-it-to-you-straight opinions and weighed-up-every-option ideas at a speed with which one struggles to keep up.

It’s not the Armani suits or the art-filled offices in Century City, LA, that single out Michael Sitrick as a sharp shooter. It’s the deep-voiced, sub-machine-gun-like patter that rattles off give-it-to-you-straight opinions and weighed-up-every-option ideas at a speed with which one struggles to keep up.

It’s not the Armani suits or the art-filled offices in Century

City, LA, that single out Michael Sitrick as a sharp shooter. It’s the

deep-voiced, sub-machine-gun-like patter that rattles off

give-it-to-you-straight opinions and weighed-up-every-option ideas at a

speed with which one struggles to keep up.



As tough and impregnable as a rock, the president of financial and

crisis firm Sitrick & Company will hit you with a smart answer to

everything.



He simply can’t be beat or admit he’s wrong. And even if he appears to

be on fairly shaky ground, at the very least, you can be sure he will

overwhelm you with a volley of facts and figures that takes you

energetically off the scent (and leaves you breathless with

admiration).



It’s this speed of thought, combined with exhaustive research and close

attention to detail, on which Sitrick has built his firm’s

reputation.



He thinks and talks like a lawyer - an Alan Dershowitz - and he even

acts like one.



’We work very much like trial lawyers,’ he says. ’We gather evidence, we

put it in a cohesive fashion and then we present it in a way which,

hopefully, will persuade the judge - in our case the reporter - to write

a story that presents our point of view. Fortunately, like a good trial

lawyer, we’re more successful than not.’



Aggressive



But it’s also his aggressive nature that makes Sitrick such an unusual

figure in the PR world.



Perhaps it’s his background, brought up on the South Side of

Chicago.



Or his protective nature, as the eldest of three brothers (both of whom

are lawyers). Or the significance of these factors could be overstated

and he’s just plain hungry and ambitious: his father was a ’turnaround

guy’ for radio and TV stations, ending up in an ad agency whose clients

include the Chicago Cubs, in whom his father still retains a stake to

this day.



Either way, he has a mean streak that has seen him described by client

Dennis Holt, chairman and CEO of Western International Media, as ’the

godfather with connections and a typewriter.’ And says Alex Yemenidjian,

MGM Grand president (and another client): ’He is very aggressive, very

focused, very well-connected and he thinks through the ramifications of

any PR activity, or lack thereof, quicker than anybody I’ve ever

seen.’



Much of his counsel is based on the long-known public relations axiom of

truth telling. ’We’re structured as a law firm. We hold ourselves up to

high ethical standards. We don’t take every client, and we’ve resigned

them in the past because we’ve not felt comfortable,’ he states.



Where his counsel might differ from a lawyer, however, is in the

communication he advises. ’If the truth is bad, that’s when you have to

communicate what you’re doing about it. You need to get journalists to

focus on the plans you’re taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again.’



As he demonstrates in his popular book, Spin, How to Turn the Power of

the Press to your Advantage, Sitrick is a canny manipulator of both

journalists and the media process. He has the ability to steer the

frenzied media herd into different directions.



But as Sitrick plays it, truth can be quite painful for those who get on

his bad side. In his book, he talks of putting people who are attacking

his clients under ’the wheel of pain’ when they need to be taught a

lesson.



’In the most extreme case, you’re going to make sure that not only the

target’s business associates become aware of the charges, but also his

spouse, his children and his minister.’



He’s also not afraid to attack writers. ’Our religion is to serve the

client. How many PR people are afraid to tell journalists they’re

wrong?



That can’t be right. You have an obligation or you’re not serving the

client.’



He even admits to blacklisting journalists who don’t see it his way.



’If a journalist treats us badly, we make sure they know about it.

Sometimes that means putting pressure to get an apology. Sometimes we

might take an ad. Sometimes, we simply stop dealing with that newspaper

altogether.



Eventually, the editor-in-chief asks why they’re not getting exclusives

from us, and we tell them.’



This aggressive fighting quality may be uncomfortable for some PR

pros.



But it is certainly appreciated by his clients. Sitrick & Company has

grown exponentially since its founding in 1989, even by the PR

industry’s standards. Though he refuses to divulge figures, he claims

that fee income was up 50% in 1998, and he estimates 30% to 35% growth

this year. Only one factor reins in the firm’s growth: the lack of

quality staff. ’We’d be up 50% this year if I could find the people,’ he

says. The firm now has 40 professionals.



Sitrick makes it company policy to employ only journalists. ’You can

teach a journalist about communication, but you can’t teach a PR pro

about news,’ he explains, as he proudly reels off the names of top

journalists he has ’persuaded’ to switch sides, as well as the media

they’ve worked at - ABC, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and

Business Week.



Electric mind



Sitrick is also resolutely sticking to his guns in terms of expertise:

investor relations (particularly transactional deals) and crisis work

(mostly bankruptcies). ’I don’t want to get so big that we get pockets

of excellence,’ he says. ’His mind is too electrified to deal with

something as simple as putting together a media list,’ adds a

colleague.



But Sitrick has not lost his ambition. He has resisted efforts by many

leading agencies to buy him up. And while most of the expansion has been

organic, through word of mouth (and Sitrick’s mastery in

self-promotion), he is not averse to acquisitions and wishes he had more

time. After an aborted merger with New York IR firm Krantz & Co. in the

early 1990s, his latest acquisition - Washington, DC-based Loving

Associates - led by former Fortune associate editor Rush Loving, brings

him a staff of four. ’Access to the Capitol is nice, but the main

motivation was finding someone of Loving’s caliber,’ Sitrick

explains.



Next on the agenda: a Moscow office. ’We’re proceeding cautiously but

we’re confident,’ he says. Well, why not? If anyone needs crisis

counseling, it’s the Russians.



MICHAEL SITRICK, Chairman and CEO, Sitrick and Company.



1970



Assistant director of public information



Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago



1974



VP, communications and government affairs, National Can Corporation



1981



SVP, communications



Wickes Companies



1989



Founds Sitrick & Company.



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