After months of headlines about abusive priests, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has engaged Sitrick & Co., a prominent and expensive public relations firm specializing in high-profile clients with big troubles.
Known for navigating clients through bad publicity, Sitrick has represented Enron after the energy giant’s fall, talk show host Laura Schlessinger after her negative comments about gays, actress Halle Berry after her traffic accident, comedian Paula Poundstone after her child-endangerment case and Orange County during its 1995 bankruptcy.
The nationwide priest scandal reached Los Angeles in January, with the disclosure in The Times that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony had fired as many as a dozen priests for alleged sexual misconduct with children in the past. Now, more than 30 current or former priests of the archdiocese are under investigation by law enforcement authorities.
The Century City-based company was technically hired by the archdiocese’s new attorney, J. Michael Hennigan. “We’re really proud to be involved in this,” said Michael Sitrick, 54, head of the company. “We’re confident the church is taking proactive measures to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I don’t have to be Catholic to be anxious to help them work through this.”
Sitrick is handling the case with two other members of his firm. He said he will soon announce details of preventive measures by the archdiocese.
Over the last two months, the archdiocese had been advised by public relations firm Weber Shandwick. But when Hennigan was hired, he chose to bring in Sitrick, who worked with the attorney during Orange County’s bankruptcy.
Sitrick, who has worked for his new client for about a week, said he has met several times with Mahony.
“First we determine what the facts are,” said Sitrick, explaining his strategy. “We determine what is the perception. Is the perception equal to the reality? We’re trying to get perceptions to equal reality. You can’t do anything about what was, only what is and what will be.”
Hennigan said he hired Sitrick because the archdiocese “was not doing well in the press. I thought the press was focusing on the very negative aspects without the whole story coming out.”
Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said, “We’re pleased and grateful to have someone like Mike Sitrick with his understanding of the media market.... What we find in media coverage is the past mixing with the present. Trying to cut through all that with the clear pastoral message of the cardinal has proven difficult for us.”
Sitrick’s help doesn’t come cheap. He declined to say exactly how much it will cost the archdiocese but said “our rates are comparable to lawyers’ rates.”
When Sitrick has dealt with companies in bankruptcy--which he often has--he has reportedly been known to ask for a $100,000 retainer. Sitrick’s company was criticized for charging Orange County $450,000. Later he reduced that figure by $40,000 in exchange for the county expediting payment. Sitrick defends his bill, saying the county audited all the fees and concluded that they were appropriate.
Although the company has about 200 clients, the firm has made its reputation with people and companies facing trouble or controversy.
The book “Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage,” written by Sitrick with Allan Mayer, who heads the entertainment practice of the company, says, “Correcting a problem is necessary but, alas, rarely sufficient; that is where spin comes in.”
Crisis management is an increasingly common form of public relations.
Sitrick’s clients have ranged from government officials in Riverside County after the police slaying of black motorist Tyisha Miller to Universal Studios, which was accused of glossing over negative aspects of Nobel laureate John Nash’s life in the film “A Beautiful Mind.”
The firm also represented actor David Duchovny when he sued 20th Century Fox Film Corp. alleging breach of contract regarding “The X-Files” TV show.
“He thought he was being cheated,” said Mayer. “His lawyers felt Fox had no incentive to settle. We arranged for a big article in Forbes explaining the nature of Fox’s vertical monopoly, and that was very embarrassing to Fox. Maybe it was a coincidence, but not long after that, they decided to settle.”
Regarding his job representing the archdiocese, Sitrick said, “I call it getting the truth out. Some other people call it crisis management. But I don’t think anybody would disagree that it’s a crisis.”
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.