Mark Saylor is a certified chess master.
Just 30 seconds after examining a game in progress, he says, "I can tell you where likely battles are going to occur." Most of the time, he adds, the games "will play out that way, unless somebody makes a huge mistake."
The ability to predict critical moves is valuable in chess, but it also serves Saylor, 53, well in his profession. A member of LA-based crisis communications firm Sitrick & Company until earlier this year, Saylor recently launched his own practice, Saylor Company. Since then, he has been quietly but assertively growing his business among besieged clients.
There are PR pros who wish to avoid crisis management, opting instead for the thrill of a well-executed integrated campaign. Then there are the others, specialists in the sexy, strategic art of handling the most sensitive of client issues.
Having spent the majority of his career as a journalist, Saylor never realized he was the latter until he was approached to join Sitrick in 2005. As it turned out, crisis counseling was his ideal job.
Years in the media have given Saylor a keen grasp of what makes journalists tick. That skill, he says, allows him to "come into a situation and damn near instinctively know" how to stay a step ahead of a story, to draft out its evolution, and act quickly for clients.
Fast action is essential in PR's shadowy sub-culture of crisis management, especially in an era of Web-driven, 24-hour news cycles, where damage to a client's reputation can happen almost instantly.
"Something can turn into a crisis much more quickly than ever," Saylor says. But as anyone who's spent time clicking through the Drudge Report can attest, advances in technology have also created more perceived crises than ever before. So assessing the magnitude of a client's problem is one of Saylor's first orders of business.
"Part of good crisis advice is to know when there's not a crisis," he explains. "The first thing you want to do is tell the client the sky is not always falling."
And when there is a genuine crisis? "It's not so much about what [has] happened," Saylor explains, "but that it can't happen again."
While Saylor's job is hardly limited to media interaction - he also deals with corporate stakeholders, litigators, and employees, among other constituents - he has "no qualms about being extremely aggressive with the media."
Convincing an editor to cut an investigative report from a five-part to a three-part series, for example, can mean a big difference in impact, Saylor says, from the affect it has on a corporation's morale to its ability to trigger a government investigation.
That's not subterfuge, he notes, but "encouragement" to help journalists think a different way.
Saylor also says that though he doesn't "always make public the things I do, I regard everything I do above the board and straightforward" - whether dealing with a doctor linked to Anna Nicole Smith or Dubai's executive office.
"I still have plenty of friends in journalism who look at me like I've gone to the dark side," Saylor jokes. But part of the reason he left journalism, he says, was because of ethical concerns. A member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams while at the LA Times, the still on-staff Saylor was actively involved in exposing the paper's questionable profit-sharing arrangement with the Staples Center in 1999.
Coincidently, the paper is currently ensnared in another potential scandal - this time, involving Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, a dangerous romance, a killed editorial section, and Saylor's former Sitrick colleagues (now with PR firm 42West) Allan Mayer and Kelly Mullens.
Saylor has found his transition from journalism to PR to be smooth, and has not seen any of the pitfalls that concern some reporters looking at the industry as a career destination. Some clients may have "made mistakes or done wrong things, sure," he notes, "but there's nothing I'm doing that I have the least ethical qualm about."
Founder, Saylor Company
Sitrick & Company, executive
Key3 Media, SVP, publishing group
Los Angeles Times, various editorial roles