He Fixes the Worst PR Crises Imaginable. Then Came Harvey Weinstein.
Posted June 1, 2018 6:10 p.m. EDT
Michael Sitrick couldn’t comment on Harvey Weinstein.
Until a few weeks earlier, Sitrick’s crisis management firm, Sitrick and Co., had been managing Weinstein’s unprecedented crisis.
Sitrick had dropped Weinstein, but he couldn’t say why. He couldn’t confirm if it was because Weinstein had stopped paying his bills, though he could confirm it was true that Weinstein had stopped paying his bills and that the two parties were in arbitration.
He couldn’t say if there were other factors. But he could say what were not factors. He could confirm, for instance, that he did not resign out of concern for his company’s own reputation. “You can’t do that,” Sitrick said. “You cannot put your firm’s interests ahead of the client’s interests.”
Sitrick could also confirm that he had not grown morally uncomfortable with the flood of allegations against Weinstein. When I asked about this — and this was not long before Weinstein would be arrested in Manhattan on charges of rape and a criminal sexual act and swiftly indicted by a grand jury — he looked at me as if I’d just stepped off a UFO. “The law of this land is innocent until proven guilty,” Sitrick said. “There hasn’t been a single case that has gone to trial.”
All this to say: Sitrick could not “comment,” but he could do what he has made a fortune doing for the better part of three decades. He could spin.
Better Call Sitrick
Even if you don’t know his name, you know his work. Sitrick has been managing the narratives of besieged celebrities since the early 1990s.
He represented Kelsey Grammer when the star was accused of having sex with his underage baby sitter. He helped Christian Slater when the actor was arrested on charges of assaulting his girlfriend, biting a man who tried to stop him and then trying to grab a police officer’s gun. When Erin Everly, about whom Axl Rose wrote “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” was suing Rose for assault and sexual battery, Sitrick got her story on the cover of People magazine.
Sitrick was retained by Halle Berry when she was in a hit-and-run, Naomi Campbell when she was accused of assaulting her housekeeper and Rush Limbaugh when he was arrested on prescription drug charges. “Paris absolutely did not smoke pot Tuesday night or Wednesday morning,” Sitrick told a reporter shortly after Paris Hilton was released from jail in 2007. When The New York Daily News reported that Kobe Bryant may have been flirting with someone other than his wife at a Jay-Z concert, Sitrick was there to push back: “There was no touching of the face and he did not dance with her.”
It was Sitrick who released the first statement on behalf of Chris Brown after he was arrested on charges of assaulting Rihanna: “Words cannot begin to express how sorry and saddened I am over what transpired. I am seeking the counseling of my pastor, my mother and other loved ones and I am committed, with God’s help, to emerging a better person.”
Sitrick has also deployed his strategies on behalf of Michael Vick (the dogfighting ring), Alex Rodriguez (the steroid scandal) and R. Kelly (where to begin).
But although his celebrity clients attract a disproportionate amount of media coverage, they represent less than 10 percent of Sitrick’s caseload, he said. Corporate crises are his specialty, including Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, Enron during its accounting-fraud implosion and Theranos, the company that claimed to have revolutionized blood testing but didn’t.
Sitrick helped Roy Disney oust Michael Eisner and he helped American Apparel oust Dov Charney. He has represented the Daniel Pearl Foundation, on a pro bono basis, and the creator of “Girls Gone Wild.”
One of Sitrick’s more notorious cases was for years taught at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, a kind of cautionary tale about the perils of going undercover.
In the early 1990s, two producers for “Primetime Live,” an ABC news program, got jobs in Food Lion supermarkets and secretly videotaped workers, raising questions about the company’s meat handling practices. Food Lion then went to Sitrick, who obtained outtakes of the videos and raised questions about ABC’s practices, effectively turning a story about bad meat into a story about bad journalism.
Richard Wald, an emeritus professor at Columbia, was an executive at ABC at the time, and he has asked Sitrick to address his journalism students over the years. The point of the lesson, according to Wald, is that “just because a journalist is finished with a story does not mean the story is finished with the journalist.” Of Sitrick’s work for Food Lion, Wald said: “He did an absolutely brilliant job, but it annoyed the hell out of me at the time.”
The Court of Public Opinion
Sitrick, 70, was once a journalism student himself, at the University of Maryland. He moved into public relations after graduation, following a stint reporting for the Baltimore News-American. “I love journalism,” he remembers telling his wife, Nancy Sitrick, “but I’d rather eat.”
When Sitrick moved to Los Angeles with his wife and three young daughters and founded his firm, in 1989, he made it something of a policy to hire onetime editors and reporters. “It’s easier to teach journalists PR than to teach publicists what news judgment is,” he said.
Sitrick and Co. quickly acquired a reputation for pushing back against the press, using many of the same strategies as journalists. Sitrick represented the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles during its sex abuse scandal, the Kabbalah Center when journalists suspected it of being a cult and the Church of Scientology during its investigation by The New Yorker.
Prominent lawyer Edwin Stier, a former federal prosecutor, said he has retained Sitrick in cases in which “a public relations strategy became important to try to get accurate information in the public domain powerfully enough to move public opinion and change national policy.” He recently sought Sitrick’s help to protect the scoops in “Icarus,” the documentary about Olympic doping. It went on to win an Oscar.
Other powerful lawyers turn to Sitrick, including Marc Kasowitz, part of President Donald Trump’s personal legal team, who said he has used Sitrick in a “variety of large, high-profile cases.” When Kasowitz emailed a stranger with threats last July, warning him to “Watch your back, bitch,” Sitrick responded to the press inquiries that followed: “While no excuse, the email came at the end of a very long day that at 10 p.m. was not yet over.”
One advantage to being retained by lawyers for a client rather than by the client himself is that Sitrick is technically a member of the legal team and therefore protected by attorney-client privilege. And though he is not a lawyer, Sitrick views himself as a litigator in the court of public opinion. He also charges lawyerly rates — as much as $1,100 an hour.
Enter Harvey Weinstein
It was in early October, a couple of days after The New York Times published its first report about Harvey Weinstein, that the Hollywood producer called upon Sitrick to fix the unfixable.
Weinstein had initially handled his own press, together with Lisa Bloom, the lawyer and daughter of Gloria Allred. It hadn’t gone well. “I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Weinstein said in an early statement, before announcing a $5 million foundation for female directors, to be named after his mother, and misquoting Jay-Z lyrics: “I’m not the man I thought I was and I better be that man for my children.”
Sitrick, who said his memory of the initial contact is hazy, was called by Weinstein’s lawyers on Oct. 7, the day Sitrick’s mother died. He was in Chicago making funeral arrangements.
It was for this reason that he passed the Weinstein case to his colleague Sallie Hofmeister, Sitrick said, not because of the optics of having a woman run things, as reports suggested.
Hofmeister is a former journalist who had worked at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. She took over on Oct. 8, the day Weinstein was fired by the Weinstein Co.
Sitrick described his firm’s role in the Weinstein saga this way: “Our job was to make sure nothing was issued to the media, no statements, without clearance from the lawyers. Our job was to find out what information the reporters had, what information they wanted, go to the lawyers, tell them, and talk to the lawyers about what they wanted to say.”
Hofmeister issued Sitrick and Co.'s first response, on Oct. 10, when The New Yorker published an article that included accusations of rape and reported that people at the Weinstein Co. knew about the misconduct. “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein,” the statement said. “Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances.”
It went on: “Mr. Weinstein has begun counseling, has listened to the community and is pursuing a better path. Mr. Weinstein is hoping that, if he makes enough progress, he will be given a second chance.”
That was the first and last time the firm’s statements would refer to “a second chance.” Later that day, The New York Times published another article, this one containing quotations from Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie accusing Weinstein of abuse of power. As the #MeToo dam broke, the allegations against Weinstein multiplied. So did Sitrick and Co.'s rebuttals. An abridged timeline:
— Oct. 19: “Mr. Weinstein has a different recollection of the events, but believes Lupita is a brilliant actress and a major force for the industry. Last year, she sent a personal invitation to Mr. Weinstein to see her in her Broadway show Eclipsed.”
— Oct. 23: “Brit Marling is a super talented actress and writer. Mr. Weinstein has a different recollection of the events.”
— Dec. 14: “All of the sexual allegations as portrayed by Salma are not accurate and others who witnessed the events have a different account of what transpired.”
— Jan. 30: “Your piece omitted that Rose says she faked an orgasm while Mr. Weinstein was performing oral sex on her. Why? It’s misleading to leave out that part that she describes in detail in her book. Can you please update your story to include her full description of the encounter?”
— Feb. 3: “Mr. Weinstein acknowledges making an awkward pass 25 years ago at Ms. Thurman in England after misreading her signals, after a flirtatious exchange in Paris, for which he immediately apologized and deeply regrets. However her claims about being physically assaulted are untrue.”
By February, more than 80 women had accused Weinstein of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and many of his business associates had spoken about a culture of complicity at his companies.
Things would get even worse for Weinstein. On Feb. 11, Eric Schneiderman, then the New York attorney general, before he resigned after reports that he assaulted four women, filed a civil rights lawsuit against Weinstein.
Weinstein was already under investigation by law enforcement in three cities. That same day, the Weinstein Co. filed for bankruptcy and released all former employees from their nondisclosure agreements.
Sitrick and Co. issued what would turn out to be one of its final statements to USA Today, for an article on March 22: “Mr. Weinstein categorically denies ever engaging in any non-consensual sexual conduct with anyone.”
Two months later, Weinstein was arrested. His lawyer is Benjamin Brafman, whose clients have included Martin Shkreli, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Vincent Gigante, known as “The Chin.” Who’s Writing This Story, Anyway?
Sitrick’s first book, published in 1998, is called “Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage.” He wrote it with Allan Mayer, who was a force behind the entertainment division of Sitrick and Co. before he left to help found the public relations firm 42 West.
In Chapter 3, “Inside the Reporter’s Head,” the authors explain that journalists are a peculiar species motivated not by money, but by an odd mix of cynicism and idealism and an egomaniacal drive to “own” a story. The authors also write: “As grubby as they may often seem, journalists are no less susceptible to the American dream than anyone else.”
In Chapter 4, “News Media Abhor a Vacuum,” Sitrick lays out one of his key tenets: that strategic press representatives must engage the media; “no comment” should never be a first resort. “If you won’t talk to them, they’ll simply find someone else who will,” he and Mayer write, “which is to say, if you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you.”
In keeping with that rule, Sitrick quickly agreed to an interview for this article.
Four days after that, as I read Chapter 7 — “Preempt the Situation” — a Google Alert appeared in my inbox, delivering what Deadline Hollywood billed as an exclusive: “Sitrick and Company Resigns Repping Disgraced Mogul Harvey Weinstein.”
The Blast, a celebrity news site and TMZ spinoff, followed a few hours later with an anonymously sourced article stating that Sitrick and Co. had filed for arbitration in February, after Weinstein’s bill went unpaid.
“We’re told,” the article said, in the most passive tense, “that even after legal documents were filed to collect from the disgraced producer, Weinstein and his reps ‘begged’ for the firm to continue working with him. We’re told Sitrick refused.”
Was Sitrick already starting to write this story?
Spinning Until the End
The Brentwood, Los Angeles, offices of Sitrick and Co. occupy the top floor of a black building on San Vicente. Airy and immaculate, they have the feel of a law firm, but with newsroom touches. Brown leather armchairs are arranged in the reception area where a cable-news ticker rolls silently across a screen.
Sitrick’s private office is behind two security doors. There, he sat in yet another leather armchair, next to a large potted plant. Asked question after question about Weinstein, Sitrick dodged and dodged. He became a little more forthcoming when the approach took a more general tack.
So, hypothetically speaking, what were reasons he might drop a client?
Sitrick said he might take that step if the client treated his staff badly. He also said: “I’m not talking about any particular client, but one of the reasons we have resigned cases is people have lied to us or told us information that wasn’t true and we believe they knew it.” So it went for close to three hours. A large painting hangs above Sitrick’s desk, depicting a dozen or so people gathered behind a barricade outside the O.J. Simpson trial.
The painting is not a memento. Simpson is one of few potential clients Sitrick has publicly acknowledged turning down. (Michael Jackson is another, although Sitrick has since represented his estate.)
Whatever Sitrick’s affection for the painting, it loomed on that day as a reminder of the fierce whims of American public opinion — of what we will and won’t forgive, what we will and won’t forget.
In this vein, did Sitrick think the #MeToo phenomenon had caused a lasting shift in American culture?
To give some historical context: Twenty years ago, for example, in a Los Angeles Times article, Sitrick was asked to weigh in on sportscaster Marv Albert, from a crisis-management point of view. (Albert was not a client.)
“The problem with Marv Albert was not his roughhousing women,” Sitrick had said at the time. “The problem was the allegation that he was running around in women’s undergarments.”
Today, I pointed out, it may very well be the other way around.
Sitrick thought for a moment. “I think people are going to realize that they are going to be held accountable for their actions in a way that they weren’t before,” he said.
To be clear, Sitrick wasn’t referring to Weinstein.