The girlfriend starring in Manti Te'o's stories may have been fictional. But the PR executive now helping to reset the narrative of the Notre Dame linebacker is very real, and it's not his first game.
Mr. Te'o and his family hired Matthew Hiltzik, the CEO of Hiltzik Strategies, when news of a hoax broke last week. In September, sports media outlets reported on the death of the athlete's grandmother Annette Santiago, and his girlfriend Lennay Kekua, with whom he had been in a virtual relationship. On Jan. 16, Gawker-owned sports blog Deadspin reported evidence that she didn't exist, as well as other details of the scam.
After a few days of silence, Mr. Te'o participated in his first interview with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, during which he conceded that he had been the victim of a hoax. During the interview on Friday, he denied playing a role in the hoax. However, ESPN reported that after he learned about Lennay's death he "tailored" his stories so people would think he had "met her before she passed away."
One industry executive familiar with the matter told Ad Age that one of Mr. Hiltzik's past clients referred Mr. Te'o's family to the PR executive and his firm. The person did not specify which client made the introduction. Mr. Hiltzik declined to comment.
The PR executive is understood to be advising on the post-hoax media strategy, which includes a coveted, first TV interview between Te'o and another one of Mr. Hiltzik's clients, Katie Couric. Some reports have attributed the move to Mr. Hiltzik's working relationship with Ms. Couric, but others say Mr. Te'o turned to her purely because she has wide reach.
A person who spoke with USA Today on the condition of anonymity described the purpose of the interview, slated to air Thursday, as "simply to tell the truth." The person also told the outlet that "the family wants to show how the scandal has hurt them, how it wasn't just their son who was fooled, and to talk publicly about the scam so that it doesn't happen to other people."
It's not the first time Mr. Hiltzik's expertise has been called upon by a high-profile star. When Justin Bieber found himself in the middle of a potentially disastrous scandal in late 2011, thanks to a woman who filed a paternity suit claiming the singer got her pregnant backstage at a California concert, he hired Mr. Hiltzik's firm to provide communications advice.
Mr. Hiltzik's background spans everything from politics to in-house corporate communications. The New Jersey native earned a law degree from Fordham University, then transitioned into a career in politics working as press secretary and deputy executive director of the New York State Democratic Committee. From there, Mr. Hiltzik became head of corporate communications for Miramax. He took a leave of absence when he was given the opportunity to advise Hillary Clinton's 2000 U.S. Senate campaign.
Following the campaign, Mr. Hiltzik was hired to open a U.S. office for British PR shop Freud Communications, which has done work for PepsiCo, T-Mobile, Best Buy and Mars. After two-and-a-half years there, he started his own firm, which he's now run for almost five years.
Hiltzik Strategies is a small shop with about 15 executives in New York City and plans to grow on the West Coast. The firm specializes in corporate and crisis communications and works with a range of brands, from celebrities and media personalities -- such as Ivanka Trump, Alec Baldwin and Glenn Beck -- to corporate real estate and financial companies. He's had a bit of digital marketing experience in the past working with entrepreneur Sean Parker, and sports experience via work for the New York Mets.
This month, Mr. Hiltzik is formalizing plans for a Los Angeles office to be run by David Shane, who most recently held senior-level communications roles at Juniper Networks and HP.