So, David Carr has gone and pulled the curtain back a bit on Fox PR-the single most vicious PR operation in all the media. Good for him. So let's do our part by zeroing in on the one flack who is the face of Fox's feared, vengeful media relations operation. Her name is Irena Briganti. She's the female alter ego and mouthpiece of Fox boss Roger Ailes (pictured). She's been described as bubbly and charming in person. But she's the one holding the bloody hatchet that Fox regularly brings down right on reporters' heads. Here's everything you need to know about the scariest flack in mediadom:
Who is she?
Briganti is Fox's VP of media relations, and #2 in the PR command structure under Brian Lewis. But if Lewis sets the tone, Briganti is the one who carries out the executions. Here's a very abbreviated list of her all time hits:
- When Anderson Cooper chided Fox for running with a false report of Obama going to a Muslim school, Briganti responded with, "Yet another cry for attention by the Paris Hilton of television news, Anderson Cooper."
- Briganti attributed Keith Olbermann's attacks on Bill O'Reilly to his "personal demons, and said "In the meantime, we hope he enjoys his paranoid view from the bottom of the ratings ladder and wish him well on his inevitable trip to oblivion."
- When Christiane Amanpour said CNN and Fox were intimidated by the Bush administration and practiced self-censorship in the run-up to the Iraq war, Briganti responded, "Given the choice, it's better to be viewed as a foot soldier for Bush than a spokeswoman for al-Qaeda."
How did she get so notorious?
Briganti's real reputation was not earned by zingers about famous cable talking heads; it was earned with a conscious, longstanding policy of publicly bullying average beat reporters who wrote straight news that was not to Fox's liking. She once insinuated that a WSJ reporter wrote a story about Fox that the network didn't like because her hormones were acting up (the reporter was pregnant at the time). She and her colleagues routinely complain to reporters' bosses and try to get them in trouble with their editors for the crime of not praising Fox well enough.
She's famous for blacklisting reporters who do not cover Fox the way it wants to be covered. Whereas most media operations strive to present a professional face even if they hate a certain reporter, Fox does the opposite. One reporter told me that Irena blacklisted him and even turned him down for a requested tour of the Fox studios because she felt his coverage was negative. Also blacklisted in the past were an AP reporter and a Baltimore Sun reporter. The notable thing is that these are not commentators that Fox disagrees with; these are regular, run-of-the-mill TV reporters, reporting fact-based news, who were blacklisted because said facts disagreed with Fox.
Strangely, nearly everybody who's met Briganti in person says she's nice and personable. One reporter heard that when Irena first started going to Fox press events in New York, she was outed to reporters as a rather bubbly person. That undermined her queen-of-mean persona, and she had to cut back on her events schedule-or at least be a bit less nice. Others say that Briganti was in fact a nice person before she got to Fox, and that being there has turned her soul dark.
That may be because she is the mouthpiece of Fox chief Roger Ailes, the former Nixon hatchet man who loves to run Fox and its PR operation as if it was locked in a nasty political campaign. Since the golden rule of PR is that a flack is only as evil as her clients, it makes sense that Briganti would develop a reputation as a rare, unvarnished attack dog in media flackdom. She learned from the best.
When I worked at PRWeek a couple of years ago, I tried to write a profile of Briganti. This, after several people who had dealt with her assured me that she was the single meanest flack in the entire media world (which is true). I sent emails out to a list of people in the media that Briganti had publicly insulted. And what happened? Some turned me down, citing fear of her. Some didn't respond, out of fear. And one, in what I still consider to be the biggest bitch move I ever saw as a reporter, ran straight to Irena, telling her that a PRWeek reporter was out to smear her. This-from a reporter who had already been publicly smeared by Briganti-is akin to the kid whose response to being bullied is to grovel and try to please the bully further.
Briganti expertly strung me along for months, promising interviews in the near future and then pushing back the date continuously. Eventually the profile fell apart and never got written. She's good at what she does. She is still quite willing to offer negative tidbits about her competitors to this day.
Here's some more Briganti insight, culled from my own experience and what other reporters have told me:
- She is the single most blatant horse trader for stories in the entire media business. That means she will tell a reporter, "I'll give you this tidbit of news, but in return you have to write a negative story about this or that element of our competitors." When a reporter takes the tidbit but doesn't do Fox's bidding with the other fluff or nasty story (as no respectable reporter would), that reporter goes on Fox's shit list, and is subject to have a negative item about them planted by Briganti. This kind of blatant favor trading and retaliation would make PR people from, say, the Times or MSNBC laugh or shudder. Fox is the only practitioner of this level of media PR bloodsport.
- Some PR people have decided not to apply for jobs at Fox-jobs they could use-solely because of Briganti's bad reputation.
- Briganti and Fox routinely refuse to participate in any news story that also mentions CNN. They try to convince reporters to cut CNN out of television stories entirely in order to get quotes from Fox.
- We hear that even some within News Corp's corporate PR department (separate from Fox's specific PR department) dislike Briganti, because her bloody-hatchet reputation frankly makes the entire company look like a bunch of crazy people. Which doesn't go over well in corporate boardrooms. But Briganti, as Ailes' mouthpiece, seems to be untouchable.
Does it work?
This is the real question: does Fox's fixation on retaliation and fear tactics aimed at the working press actually benefit the network? Well, they certainly work in the sense of making reporters fear them; David Carr himself writes about the "series of alarms" that go off in his head when he writes any story about Fox News. One tipster asked about Briganti eagerly volunteered information (and called her a "cunt,") but added, "I can't be attached to this in any shape or form. Or she'll get me."
But does fear equal good media relations? In the short term, it can serve to temper negative stories about Fox. But it also serves to temper reporters' enthusiasm for any good items about Fox. And long term, it creates a press corps united in its hatred and resentment of your company.
Fox News'-and Briganti's-main mistake is attacking the normal, workaday reporters with such angry gusto. It's one thing to go after Keith Olbermann. It's another to go after beat reporters at trade magazines and newspapers who are simply doing their jobs. Ever so slowly, despite their skittishness and fear, media reporters will coalesce against Fox in a seething mass, just waiting for the chance to get their revenge for Briganti's slights.
And though one of Briganti's favorite pastimes is leaking to blogs, she'll come to find that her detractors can do the same thing just as easily. Blogs are far less likely to cower in the face of a threat of "denied access." And even papers like the Times are getting salty these days, as you can tell by Carr's piece. Smart PR people have found, with long experience, that it's better to try to treat people fairly and take negative stories in stride. Karma can be a bitch.