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,” he said. “There hasn’t been a single case that has gone to trial.”
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.
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.”
But although his celebrity clients attract a disproportionate amount of media coverage, they represent less than 10 per cent of Sitrick’s caseload, he said. Corporate crises are his speciality, including Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, Enron during its accounting-fraud implosion and Theranos, the company that claimed to have revolutionised blood testing but didn’t.
Sitrick, 70, was once a journalism student 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, “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 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 Company quickly acquired a reputation for pushing back against the press, using many of the same strategies as journalists. His 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 Company before he left to help found the public relations firm 42 West.
In Chapter 4 of the book, “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.
© 2018 The New York Times