Leaders in Legal Consulting: Hall of Famer Michael Sitrick

You know Michael Sitrick.

Even if you don’t know his name, you know his work. And even if you don’t know his work, you know the people and companies that are indebted to him. He has advised presidential candidates, helped launch companies, tackled mammoth scandals, provided litigation support for big cases and small and put pressure on some of the world’s highest profile executives and largest companies. He is, unquestionably, who you call in a crisis.

Sitrick is a PR mogul. The Los Angeles Times called him “The Wizard of Spin.” Forbes dubbed him “The Flack For When You’re Under Attack.” The Financial Times said he is “the spin doctor’s spin doctor.” If a high-powered person or company is in trouble, he knows how to flip the narrative on its head without ever uttering a false word. His reputation is warranted by a lengthy, successful track record: Sitrick first exploded onto the crisis management scene 33 years ago, immediately taking on noteworthy clients. Those early clients included Roy Disney, the son of the co-founder of The Walt Disney Company, who was navigating the acquisition of Polaroid at the time. He later developed and implemented the communications strategy for the withhold vote he led against Michael Eisner, then Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company. Roy Disney remained a client of Sitrick’s until his death 20 years later. Such high-profile clientele triggered the need for a firm, so, in February 1989, Sitrick And Company was born.

Since then, Sitrick’s considerable roster has included clients from all sectors, including former chairwoman of HP Patricia Dunn, Guggenheim Partners, Wynn Resorts, Cerberus, KKR, McKinsey, Oaktree Capital, Kobe Bryant, The Los Angeles Dodgers, Bond King Bill Gross, commentator Rush Limbaugh, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and many more. He is famous in the journalism industry for his 1992 work with grocer Food Lion, which was under fire for allegedly selling expired meat, rat-gnawed cheese and having filthy stores. Those allegations were first reported by ABC News, which sent undercover journalists into the company’s factories. When Sitrick was brought on board, using outtakes he proved the broadcast was wrong and pivoted the heat in the other direction.  In doing so, he spun the story into one about bad journalism, impacting journalistic practices for years to come. His work is now a Columbia Journalism School case study.

When a client’s circumstance involves litigation, Sitrick’s firm works in tandem with the client’s lawyers. More than a PR firm, Sitrick and Company’s well-rounded and highly qualified team is also able to assist with legal strategy and strategic consulting. In more than one instance, the litigation strategy he assisted with and the media strategy he developed for his plaintiff clients has resulted in the other side settling within days. The firm has assisted in an astounding array of practice areas, from patent and trademark claims to asbestos litigation, from routine corporate issues to wrongful death cases. For this reason, he has been listed on Lawdragon’s “Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy & Consulting” every year from 2017-2021, and this year was inducted into Lawdragon’s Hall of Fame.

Lawdragon: You’ve obviously had amazing success over the years. To what do you attribute those achievements?

Michael Sitrick: I’ve been very fortunate to be able to identify and put together an outstanding team. I’ve kept the firm a boutique because if you get too large, you’re only going to have pockets of excellence. If you have 1,000 employees, the chance of all 1,000 being superstars is pretty low. I approve or I hire every single partner-level person in our firm.

LD: How do you determine who’s a good fit?

MS: With a couple of exceptions, they tend to be ex-journalists. I’ve found it’s easier to teach a journalist what PR is than a PR person what news is, and our work is all about telling a story and identifying news. I have a degree in business with a major in journalism from the University of Maryland. When you’re in journalism school, you’re taught to ask “who, what, where, why, when and how.” Here, we also ask, “So what?” Why should someone care? It’s a matter of identifying what the strategy is and then how you can achieve that strategy by utilizing your skill set.

LD: Do you have any other main questions that drive your work?

MS: The other primary question we ask is, “What’s the goal?” That’s where having a business degree helps. What’s your objective, and what can we do to achieve that objective?

Then, the other important thing we look for is people who recognize the need to be on call all the time. You can’t wait. From a news standpoint, if you get a call at 5:00 at night or 5:00 in the morning, you can’t wait until the next day and sometimes even the next hour or the story breaks without you.

That said, with regard to hiring, I must tell you that I’m a practitioner first. If I couldn’t practice, I would have retired. I love what I do. The part of my job I like least is the administrative part.

LD: So, let’s get to the part of the job you do like best. Can you tell me about a client who stands out to you?

MS: Well, one of those is Metabolife, a weight loss supplement company. They had a doctor they’d talked to who, six months prior to them calling me, said that the product was safe and effective when used as directed. Then, suddenly, he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying it could kill you. I sent someone to look into the doctor, and we found out that he was listed as a paid consultant on a competing product’s website. Even so, he was going to give an interview about Metabolife on ABC’s “20/20.”

I called the ABC producer to tell her what we had found, but she said she didn’t think that would affect his objectivity, to which I said, “And you can believe in Santa Claus, too.” I said, “Well, you will identify that he is a paid consultant for a competitor, won’t you?  She said no.  So, we took out a full-page ad in the New York Times and in the New York Post saying, “See, for the first time ever, the complete, unedited “20/20” interview before it’s broadcast. Why are we doing this? We then listed all of the journalistic and ethical breaches in their reporting, including using a doctor who was on the payroll of a competitor without identifying him as such.”

I then called the Wall Street Journal the day before the ad ran.  They did a major story. ABC changed the broadcast. Dramatically. Instead of the debate being about whether the product was safe, the debate became about whether ABC was being fair. In the end, the broadcast ended up being more positive than negative because they were addressing all of our concerns.

LD: Wow. Are there any particularly risky moves that you’ve taken to turn the narrative?

MS: Well, our work for the clothing company Lane Bryant is a kind of fun example. A very senior executive at one of the company’s advertising agencies contacted us and told us that ABC wouldn’t run their lingerie advertisements during prime time, which they claimed was due to the scantily clad models in the ad. But, despite what they’d said to Lane Bryant, they were running ads for Victoria’s Secret during prime time.

So, I said, “This is discrimination against full-figured women.” I suggested that we write a letter to ABC arguing that they’re discriminating against full-figured women, and then leak that letter to the New York Post, who would just love the story.

After it ran, it went viral, as you might imagine.

LD: Of course.

MS: Everybody was picking it up. It was on CNN. USA Today picked it up. And then we helped. We made sure it went viral. ABC came back and said, “Well, again, they are scantily clad.” And I said –

LD: “So is Victoria’s Secret.”

MS: Right. The difference is one model is a full-figured woman, and the other is a size zero.

In the end, I think we figured Lane Bryant got $20M worth of publicity from the situation. The model was opening malls and appearing on TV – she was on Jay Leno and “The Today Show.” They were only willing to spend $3-4M on advertising originally. And, of course, ABC let them air the ad in prime time. 

LD: Of course. That’s a great example of that outside-the-box thinking you’re known for.

Naturally, you’re known for your high-profile clients. But could you tell me about some of your lesser-known clients? Some of the other issues you cover are also fascinating, especially for lawyers. Your litigation support practice, for instance, covers asbestos litigation and environmental impact issues.

MS: Sure. Well, early in the life of the firm, we were involved in the Manville asbestos situation. We’ve helped launch companies, including doing the publicity for Oaktree Capital and working with the inside people at DoubleLine, both of which are very successful. We also have a major short seller defense practice.

Another case in that realm was the work we did for Hostess, which used to be called Interstate Bakeries.

This is what I mean about being available 24/7: I got a call from them in Kansas City on Christmas Eve, while I was on vacation in Mexico. They were going to have to liquidate the company, which would cost 29,000 jobs, because GE Capital was reneging on their agreement to provide the financing IB needed to exit Chapter 11.

I said, if my memory is correct, GE got Federal HARP or TARP funding, as part of the country’s effort to help stabilize the U.S. financial system and restart economic growth. One of my partners banging away at his computer said, yeah, you are right.

Well then, I don’t think you are going to have to close this company.  What do you think GE is going to say when confronted by the media and asked, didn’t you get this funding to provide exactly the kind of relief that IB needs to save jobs? What do you think they are going to say to State and Federal legislators? So, I suggested we have the unions and our employees contact their State and Federal legislators and tell them what was happening and that we reach out to Senators Schumer and Clinton. I also said, my team and I would educate the media. Strongly worded letters started pouring into GE’s CEO, including ones from Senators Schumer and Clinton. Stories began appearing in the media on how those getting this funding, including GE. were not using it for the purposes intended. And shortly after that, GE’s CEO called IB’s CEO and said they had changed their mind. They would provide the exit financing. And the Twinkie was saved.

LD: Absolutely. And, when working with attorneys, does attorney-client privilege play into the dynamic in an advantageous way?

MS: If there’s a legitimate reason for privilege, sure. And, knock on wood, while I know there are mixed results on PR firms claiming privilege, we’ve prevailed on the few cases we have been challenged on during the past nearly 33 years. We know what’s covered. We contribute to the legal strategy and we are more than a PR team, we are partners pursuing a common goal on behalf of the client.

I’ve been fortunate to work with many incredible lawyers over the years. At the end of the day, they’re the field marshals, because you don’t want to win the PR battle and lose the legal battle. On the other hand, most lawyers realize that their clients don’t want to win in the court of law only to be destroyed and cancelled in the court of public opinion. So, we work very closely in partnership.

LD: Sure. And, like many lawyers, you’re working with clients who have suffered something catastrophic – in your case, often involving their work. How do you navigate working with a client who’s going through that kind of trauma?

MS: You have to understand what they’re going through, and you have to help them come up with a solution. You let them focus on their problems, and you work on solving the problem.

LD: That’s so helpful. Additionally, some of your more high-profile clients have been controversial figures. How do you answer people who question the morality of some of the clients you’ve worked with?

MS: In the more than 1,000 cases in which we have been involved, it has only happened a few times. You do your due diligence, but sometimes the potential client doesn’t share everything with you, or the lawyers. And we always check with the lawyers. You then find yourself in a situation where you are representing a person or company where, had you known at the outset what you know now, you wouldn’t have taken the case, But, unless they lied to you, I don’t believe it is ethical that you just resign, leaving the clients and lawyers high and dry. Having said that, I have fired at least one client after that individual lied to me, though I did work with the lawyers on transitioning out.

While we are known for our ability to change the narrative, there are some instances where  you’re just getting the questions from the reporters, going to the lawyers and working with them to get the answers and then give it to the reporter.

You may make a suggestion of how they phrase their answer, and the lawyer can agree or disagree, but it’s not a matter of placing a feature story in the newspaper or any of the other strategies I’ve discussed up until now.

LD: Are there any common reasons why you’d resign a client?

MS: As I said earlier, we will fire a client if they lie to us or they have personally misled us. But resigning a client is very rare. We have 200-250 active clients per year, but we have very, very few whom we’ve resigned.

LD: Are there any instances in which you’d decide not to take a client on at all?

MS: Yes, there are. But, usually the law firms we work with regularly are careful about vetting the clients, so we know they’re solid before we get into the case.

LD: Sure. Do you have any strategies either for PR or client relationships that you can share?

MS: Well, part of what we try to do when we get into a crisis situation is eliminate the need for our services as quickly as we can. You’d think that’s counterintuitive, but I play the long game. Shortly after I started the firm, I got an idea that would make the hostile takeover my client was facing go away. I thought this will probably cost me a quarter of a million dollars or more if I give them that idea, but it’s the right thing to do. I gave them that idea, we implemented it and the deal fell apart within days. My client, needless to say, was thrilled. When you play the long game, as I did there, you build your reputation.

I’d also say that you can’t worry about people being mad at you. When I would speak about the Food Lion case, journalists and PR people would say to me, “Well, aren’t you afraid ABC is going to be mad at you for how you’re speaking about them?”

I would always respond, “You cannot subjugate your client’s interests for your own. If you do, you shouldn’t be in this business.” At the end of the day, we greatly respect journalists and the difficulty of their jobs. But we want to make sure their facts are accurate and they are fair, while we are serving clients at the same time. It is not mutually exclusive.

LD: Absolutely. Do you have any advice specifically for lawyers?

MS: In one of my books, I mention that a lot of firms will tell their clients not to comment to reporters without even knowing what the reporter wants. I respond, you can always say no comment once you find out, but at least let’s see what information she or he has, what they are looking for and the angle of their story. If you don’t comment, they will only be able to run the allegations against your client, and not your side of the story.

LD: That’s great advice. So, 33 years after you started your firm, what’s kept you in practice?

MS: When I had Dennis Kneale helping me with my last book, he asked me why I was still practicing, and I said, “When it stops being fun, I’ll retire.”

Do I like getting up at 3:00 in the morning for a call? Not particularly, but if it’s necessary, I do it. We have and have had clients all over the world – in China, Japan, Russia and all throughout Europe. I’ve had several in the last few years (pre-pandemic) fly me from Los Angeles to Europe for what they say will be a two-hour meeting, though it is never just two hours. Recently, I said to one of them, “Do you know what this will cost.” The client responded, “Mike, I just sold my company for $3B cash. If I want you here, I can afford to get you here.”

So, I will go wherever the client wants me, get up at whatever time they want to talk to me, but I’ll keep practicing.