Michael Sitrick: PR Crisis Manager. Street Brawler. Rock God?

By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief

As a high-profile master of global crisis management over four decades, Palisadian Michael Sitrick is used to blow back when defending the unpopular.

But the rowdy protesters under his office window a few weeks ago was a new experience.

Sitrick has, in his new book “The Fixer,” on the art of protecting high-profile reputations, recalled joking to one client facing corporate hostile fire: “What are they gonna do, assassinate us?”

This calmer of bad karma, the Hail Mary of battered causes, is currently representing Harvey Weinstein in the media—a stand unlikely to win him many cuddles. (Editor’s note: In early March 2018 Sitrick resigned from the Weinstein team.) So, had #MeToo found the one man who might stand between the fallen movie tycoon and a life in orange jumpsuits?

If so, he was prepared. The penthouse floor above San Vincente has those sleekly automated slide-down blinds familiar from supervillain lairs. And leather chairs perfect for waiting out a siege. And, maybe, secret escape tunnels behind the Dodger wall art.

Even more thankfully, Sitrick And Company was not this day the protest target de jour.

That was the Brentwood headquarters of Breitbart News, a floor down—a newcomer just beneath him, in so many ways.

Even as a gun for hire, charging a reported $1100 an hour,  Sitrick has the luxury of rejecting clients. Who? “Those who won’t allow us to investigate the truth, those who lie to us, white supremacists, racists, these kind of people.”

(He also reportedly turned down O. J. Simpson.)

No wonder Breitbart moved out a few days later—although former boss Steve Bannon, who has family in the Alphabet Streets, has reportedly enjoyed nocturnal solace at Toppings.

(A vanilla man, you think?)

The image tickles Sitrick, who knows this village pump gossip is exactly why so many people love Pacific Palisades.

As does Sitrick and his college sweetheart, spouse Nancy, who, since the mid-1980s, have lived up in the mountains in a 10,000-square-foot “Hawaiian plantation”-style home designed for them by Santa Monica architect John Kilbane.

Although silly, the Bannon tale, a distressed kingpin self-soothing with treats, resonates. And Sitrick knows the power of great stories—and how to deploy them to disrupt narratives before they become the dangerous orthodoxy.

Whether it’s defending the Los Angeles diocese against abuse cover-ups or a stream of troubled names from Halle Berry to Rush Limbaugh, there are always holes to be shot through headlines.

And, surgically inserted through those gaps, an alternative version to blunt the mass force of media leveled against the client.

Not fake news, sad, tired phrase, just offering tomorrow’s rather than yesterday’s lead, getting ahead of an ever-faster curve.

Sitrick laid all this out in “The Fixer,” an extremely readable guide on how to avoid being swept overboard when the tide of public opinion abruptly turns against you—maybe because of an unfortunate phrase, friend or bad habit. He would never claim his clients are innocents, but all deserve not only to be heard, but be listened to.

This may not be the career the young Sitrick imagined when he got into his first street fight in 1950’s Chicago. His brother David had been jumped by half a dozen teens, so his “take-no-crap” father sent them both out to avenge family honor—but in a fair fight.

Sitrick recalled grabbing the biggest thug and holding him in a headlock while David took down the primary adversary. When the lout’s mother bawled at him to stop, he reposted, “You never did anything when your son and his friends beat up my brother, did you?”

He grinned as he relives this rule-breaking triumph. A 99 cent store Freudian might say this was where his sense of ready-to-rumble street justice was born.

Even today he likes a little gangster foreplay.

Among his first words to me, worrying at an unwelcome story in the Palisadian-Post, was, “I have been described as [TV fixer] Ray Donovan, without the bat.”

That jolly jape could have been misunderstood as a threat, a verbal dead fish on the hood.

He has always taken risks. In the early 1980s, when his first big employer Wickes, a San Diego furniture giant that went into bankruptcy, he gave the Wall Street Journal unfettered access to Wickes’ directors on its brutal road back to solvency.

The consequent reports revealed cut-throat soap opera, very “Dallas,” but were unmissable and built Wall Street confidence that the necessary was taking place.

The key reporter was what, unflatteringly, Sitrick called “the lead steer”—selected, like “20/20” or “60 Minutes” anchors, because other media will follow them.

Even in the era of Russian-poisoned social media, which he dismissed as a “means to an end,” most online fires are still ignited in traditional media. And they will always take Sitrick’s call.

He has one hard rule: never lie. But that leaves a lot of PR tactics on the table.

If a journalist wilts under the badgering from his fact-correcting “truth squad” (very Scientologist) they only have themselves to blame. If they don’t spot what he minimalizes—such as the criminal background of a herbal supplement tycoon elided in one “Fixer” case study—they have not earned the story.

Equally, he only has venomous contempt for PRs who hide behind “no comment.”

In the book he highlighted the case of Papa John founder John Schnatter, whose company shares dropped 9 percent when it was reported he would sack staff to pay for Obamacare.

In “fact,” Schnatter estimated it would add up to 20 cents to a cost of a pizza, but the company could absorb that.

Yet across social media, he was abruptly a poster child for Montgomery Burns-style corporate evil. And all his PR team could suggest was “ride it out.”

Having checked the transcripts, Sitrick got Schnatter to write an op-ed in the Huffington Post laying out exactly what he had said—not the hockey puck version bounced around the net.

And then sent every reporter who had incorrectly reported the comments a demand for a correction—and turned the tide.

Nancy and Michael Sitrick
Photo courtesy of Michael Sitrick

You may still think, as Stephen Colbert opined, a dead raccoon in your birdbath might be easier to digest than Papa John, but that other bad taste has faded.

He has taken on maybe-unexpected clients, such as Egyptian-born Imam Feisal, who wanted to build a mosque “in the shadow of the 9/11 monument” as a gesture of peace.

Sitrick said, as a Jew, he agreed with the intention—and wrangled Feisal onto “60 Minutes” to speak over the noise. Eventually, the building project failed, but not due to race-baiting.

Today he has around 250 clients, some of whom are wary of acknowledging his role—“calling Sitrick is a public admission you are eating poop” one CEO told me years ago—and the appetite for speedy, fact-based counter-aggression has never been more urgent.

Sitrick long ago made his fortune, avoided the Pellicano-type shortcuts that have devoured the less subtle Ray Donovans, and has earned the (sometimes wary) respect of peers and clients.

What next? Well, he’s looking forward to the opening of Caruso’s Palisades Village, which he thinks could be “brilliant,” although he still misses Mort’s. His kind of place.

In the industry Sitrick was long rumored to have no interests beyond clients and family—he lost his mother last year, and is still grieving, but speaks to the 92-year-old father the grandkids call “Papa Herman” daily. “He single-handedly caught 21 Nazis, what a man.”

Sitrick has always been a collector: of senior journalists at Sitrick And Associates (he could have joined the sacred cult, but said he prefers to eat), of intricate watches, and, more recently, he revealed, classic rock and roll guitars including most recently a one-of-a-kind Gibson Johnny A Signature. He now has 15 guitars.

Rocking at home
Photos courtesy of Michael Sitrick

When he was a teen he was set to record and tour: His mom laid the family paw down on that ambition. But now he is playing again, just for itself.

Who knew the man Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press and no snowflake herself, reportedly calling him “the meanest son-of-a-bitch I have ever worked with,” was a low-key fan of the delicate stylings of Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler?

That he is a vintage Gibson Les Paul man? Or that he is becoming bold enough to shred in public, or at least family events?

Can the Greek Theater be far away? You can just imagine his band of former clients helping out … Tommy Lee on drums, Johnny Depp on bass, R. Kelly on vocals … It would rock like Mike.