To state the obvious: The world of public relations and crisis communications have had few legends like Mike Sitrick, the founder and CEO of Sitrick and Company. For decades, the Los Angeles-based media expert has been wielding his talents and influence in disputes ranging from the highest of high-profile to the potential embarrassments forever kept under the rug. Sitrick himself once considered a career in the law before starting out in journalism for a brief period in the late 1960s.
“I was offered a journalism job at $125 per week and a PR job at $160 per week,” Sitrick recalls. “I liked journalism, but preferred eating.”
But Sitrick, who is also the author of the books “Spin” and “The Fixer,” has the instincts and savvy of an experienced newshound.
“The most important component of what I do – other than judgment and creativity – is understanding what makes news, whether in dealing with the media or any other constituent,” he says.
Lawdragon: Can you describe the range of matters that Sitrick and Company works on?
Mike Sitrick: We have an extensive practice in litigation support, both on the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ side – primarily as it relates to dealing with the media. We also have a significant mergers and acquisitions practice and corporate governance practice.
Matters with which we have been involved span the spectrum. They include litigation support of all kinds – including intellectual property matters, allegations of stock manipulation, wrongful termination, claims involving contract disputes, allegations of fraud and fraudulent inducement, wrongful death claims, allegations of illegal drug use, a variety of white-collar crimes, criminal and civil cases against companies and their executives for such things as price fixing, insurance fraud, options backdating and antitrust violations, race and sex discrimination, sexual harassment, racism and #MeToo matters. We have also done extensive work combatting short sellers and dealing with data breaches. Other issues include extremely sensitive environmental matters, racketeering cases, family disputes and high-profile divorces.
LD: What do you like about what you do?
MS: I like the ability to work with very smart people and come up with a strategy which will bring about the desired results for our mutual clients. For example, our efforts in combatting short sellers contributed to one company increasing its market cap by more than $1 billion in one year and $3 billion in four years, and another which was split in half increasing its market cap in five or six years from around $100 million to over $10 billion.
In another example, the strategy we developed and implemented in a patent infringement lawsuit we handled the litigation support for resulted in so much media and market pressure that the defendant settled less than two days after the complaint was filed, saying if our client would stop the publicity the plaintiff would pay all back fees, interest and all legal and PR fees. We achieved the same result for another client, though it took about a week or so for them to settle, in a similar matter.
Lawyers for the defendants in yet another case, where our client was considerably smaller than the plaintiff’s company, were all but ignoring our client’s attempts to settle. We placed a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal on the case, and that changed their mind. The case was settled shortly thereafter. Today, the company and its CEO are household words.
LD: When you think about all those types of disputes you’ve worked on, does one stand out?
MS: It’s impossible to pick one with all of the various cases we have had. But these four would rank among the top.
We represented Pattie Dunn, the former chairman of HP who was indicted for “spying on her board.” She was depicted in the media as the personification of corporate evil. We put her on 60 Minutes, on the front page of the WSJ and she was featured in a story by James Stewart in the New Yorker. Not only did her image change, but all charges were dropped. We not only developed and ran the communications effort but pulled together the entire team.
Another of our clients was faced with liquidation because its lender refused to extend its line of credit. We developed and implemented a strategy that, in less than a week, “convinced” the lender to not only extend the line of credit but reduce the interest rate. The entity is still operating today.
A lender’s refusal to provide previously agreed upon exit financing from a Chapter 11 caused that company to begin plans for liquidation, an act that would have caused 29,000 people to lose their jobs. This time it took two weeks, but a strategy we developed and implemented resulted in the lender “changing its mind” and providing the financing allowing the company to continue operating.
We developed and implanted the withhold campaign for Roy Disney against Michael Eisner, then the chairman and CEO of The Disney Company. We created a “SaveDisney.com” website and held a “SaveDisney.com” annual meeting the day before The Disney Company annual meeting. Forty-five percent of the company’s shareholders voted to withhold their vote. If it were counted the way proxy contest votes are counted, I am told it would have been 54%. Mr. Eisner stepped down as Chairman at that annual meeting and he retired as CEO the next year.
We have been fortunate enough to work on some of the biggest and most interesting cases in the world. I am fortunate that I still love what I do – most of the time.
LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in current work?
MS: The impact of social and digital media continues to grow. And of course, we are seeing a lot of activity in the #MeToo matters.
LD: What’s a recent matter you’ve worked on?
MS: The attorney for the filmmaker who created “Icarus” came to us voicing a concern that the whistleblower in a documentary could become the target of an attempt on his life to silence and discredit him before the film came out exposing Russian doping during the Sochi Olympics. There was also a concern about the inability to come out with the film, let alone sell it without corroboration of what he was saying. We brought the story to one of the world’s leading newspapers which had its reporters do due diligence and reporting and then ran a major story on its front pages. The film won an Oscar, was sold for a record amount and the whistleblower is safe in witness protection. The Russians were also temporarily banned from the Olympics.
LD: What are some of the challenges about handling something so intense?
MS: Doing our own due diligence before we brought the story to a media organization; ensuring that we got the story out without “giving away” the story of the film; coordinating what we were doing with the myriad of lawyers and others who were involved – balancing their needs with the goal of implementing the strategy we developed.
LD: You mentioned being a journalist for a while. What was your educational path and what other jobs did you have prior to founding your own firm?
MS: I have a degree in Business Administration with a major in Journalism. I worked a very short time as a journalist and then moved to public relations. My jobs included serving in the Richard J. Daley administration, working as an assistant vice president at an old-line Chicago public relations agency, as head of public relations for a Fortune 500 company and then as senior vice president for communications and a member of the senior management team of a Fortune 50 company before founding my current firm, Sitrick And Company, in 1989.
When I left the corporate world, company executives and lawyers would call me and ask for my help. This was before I had decided to start a firm. It kind of just happened. In our first year in business, we were among the top 15 independent firms and in the second year the top 10.
LD: What advice would you give to young folks who wish to have a similar type of career?
MS: Learn your craft, be willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to get the job done – including working evenings, weekends and holidays, and never stop learning.
LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?
MS: My father has always been my mentor, but I have also had the opportunity to work for and with some of the smartest people in the world.
LD: How has your profession changed since the early part of your career?
MS: The speed of communications and the effect on people’s lives and businesses of those communications have both been dramatically increased.
LD: What does it take to thrive in your area?
MS: Doing your due diligence, expertise in your craft, creativity, integrity, judgment and understanding your clients’ objectives – and then using all of your skills to achieve those objectives. It is also important that you understand that winning in the court of public opinion does not do you any good if what you do compromises the legal case or causes you to lose in the court of law. You also have to understand the client’s real objective and develop a way to help him or her achieve it.
LD: What advice would you give potential clients on how to most productively work with an outside advisor?
MS: In order to do our job, we need to understand both the client’s objectives and the legal strategy so that we can augment both.
LD: What are some current challenges in your leadership role running the firm?
MS: The biggest challenge is finding the right people. Most of my top executives are ex-journalists, reporters and editors from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Bloomberg, Forbes, The LA Times and CBS and NBC Television News – to name just a few. I find it easier to teach a journalist PR than a PR person what news is. Having said that, we have former attorneys in the firm and have had success with a handful of former PR people. And, not all journalists can make the transition.
LD: There are many high-quality firms out there. What do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential clients – how is it unique?
MS: Almost all of our clients come through referral – from former clients, investment bankers and attorneys. We believe what makes us unique are the results we achieve for our clients.
LD: How have management challenges changed since the start of your career?
MS: As a manager, you need to make sure that you and your people stay current on what is required to achieve your clients’ results.
LD: What do you do outside the office, whether for fun or community involvement?
MS: I spend time with my family, vacation in Hawaii and have returned to playing the guitar. I also serve on the Board of a hospital, and we do pro bono work for worthwhile causes.
LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the law?
MS: “The Man to See” [the biography of Edward Bennett Williams].
LD: If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing now?
MS: I probably would be doing in politics what I do for my clients.