The PR Guru Behind Trump's Mouthpieces Speaks

Matthew Hiltzik, Hope Hicks and Josh Raffel - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of subject

Matthew Hiltzik, a former Democratic operative, birthed two of the most powerful — and now departing — voices in the president's orbit.

Tucked away on the 12th floor of a Flatiron-area office building lies the publicity firm founded by former Democratic operative Matthew Hiltzik. Until November 2016, the 22-person Hiltzik Strategies was best known for having represented such news-magnet stars as Katie Couric, Justin Bieber and Glenn Beck. Then Trump happened, and suddenly two of Hiltzik’s PR proteges, Hope Hicks and Josh Raffel, became key White House confidants of the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, respectively.

It was with Hiltzik that Hicks, now 29, and Raffel, 33, were first pulled into the Trump orbit via their work with Kushner (him) and Ivanka (her), who had business with the agency at the time. But their tenures at the company — nearly three years for Hicks, six-plus for Raffel — provided more than just introductions that would gain them entry to Trump’s inner circle, it armed them with the skills to also thrive in its toxic maelstrom. Since the pair announced plans to exit the White House the same week in February, those skills are being examined under a microscope as political observers obsess about the impact on Trump.

“They have different strengths,” says Hiltzik, 45, doling out a rare interview about his former colleagues. “But they both go about their business with humility and keep the focus on their clients, colleagues and principals instead of making it about themselves.”

Ironically, Hicks’ path to Trump began in February 2011, with the man who now plays him on Saturday Night Live. The Connecticut-reared former model had been with her father (then an NFL spokesperson), mother and sister at an official Super Bowl Weekend tailgate in Dallas when Hiltzik whisked his client Alec Baldwin into the VIP section. As the story goes, Hicks’ mother approached the actor, leaving her father, and later his daughter, to make small talk with the PR guru, whose own résumé is spackled with campaign work for Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. When the conversation turned to Hope’s interest in publicity, Hiltzik offered the recent college grad his card. Exactly a year later, at the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, he interviewed Hicks for a job. She was hired soon after.

Raffel’s ties go back further, having first met his future boss through a family friend while he was still in high school. In fact, Hiltzik helped secure the young film buff an internship at Miramax and later reunited with him at Freud Communications and, again, at Hiltzik Strategies.

At the PR firm, Raffel and Hicks got an early education in managing crises, chaos and big personalities, having worked on accounts including Ryan Kavanaugh’s beleaguered Relativity (Hicks) and a hacked Sony Pictures (Raffel). With Hicks, in particular, Hiltzik says, “she always embraced the chance to learn and, over time, she demonstrated that she had the necessary skill and perspective to navigate more challenging circumstances.”

Hiltzik, a lawyer by training, is said to have imbued a methodical approach to PR — which served both proteges well in Washington — and a belief that you don’t have to be ideologically aligned to do a client’s bidding. (Exceptions include Hiltzik’s more personal issue advocacy work with clients like Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist with whom the firm worked to reveal his status as an undocumented immigrant via a New York Times Magazine essay and, later, a documentary.)

To get through crises, Hiltzik employees are taught to look at situations as moments in time, allowing them to laser in on the issue and keep calm. The latter likely helped Hicks and Raffel (a Hillary Clinton supporter) digest situations that ensnared them with a president known for compulsive decisions. There’s also a trial-by-fire philosophy at Hiltzik, which is how Hicks came to lead PR on Ivanka’s brand while still in her mid-20s, and a model that exposes the staff to different people and businesses. In addition to Hollywood clients (Brad Pitt), Hiltzik and his team work on sports (NFL’s Jets), tech (Sean Parker) and politics (Reshma Saujani). For Trump’s pair, that volume and variety proved valuable preparation — to the extent anything could have prepared them for Trump’s White House. 

Like its leader, Hiltzik Strategies’ political diaspora leans left. One former employee exited to advise for Hillary Clinton’s State Department; another wentto head PR for New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Hiltzik has kept in touch with all of them. And though he’s keeping close to the vest the conversations he’s had with Hicks and Raffel about what’s next (neither has announced plans), he sees no reason for them to rush into anything. Asked whether either might return to Hiltzik Strategies, he laughs. “I probably can’t afford them.”

This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.