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
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
It’s this speed of thought, combined with exhaustive research and close
attention to detail, on which Sitrick has built his firm’s
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.’
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
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
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
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
’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
That can’t be right. You have an obligation or you’re not serving the
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Assistant director of public information
Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago
VP, communications and government affairs, National Can Corporation
Founds Sitrick & Company.