Fox News leads with PR to achieve ratings success

To some, it's the hub of fair and balanced reporting; others view it as a conservative mouthpiece. For sure, the network's PR department has played an integral role in its climb to the top.

To some, it's the hub of fair and balanced reporting; others view it as a conservative mouthpiece. For sure, the network's PR department has played an integral role in its climb to the top.

These days, just mentioning the name Fox News Channel is bound to elicit a strong response from both sides of the political and social spectrum. Some will extol its fair and balanced reporting, while others will bemoan the fact that Bill O'Reilly has a platform for his conservative talking points.

Such an atmosphere makes the job of the communications department challenging and seemingly never ending. But Brian Lewis, SVP of corporate communications, insists that he and his staff of six wouldn't want it any other way. "How would you like to work for a network where the phone never rings?" he jokingly asks.

And the phone is certainly ringing off the hook at Fox News. Rated the top cable news network since January 2002, Fox News has come a long way since its debut in 1996.
"No one expected us to launch, let alone succeed," recalls Lewis, who has been with Fox News since before its launch. "We wanted people to believe that, because setting the bar low is much better than setting it too high." To add to the challenge, New York City's Time Warner cable system did not carry the network for its first year, meaning that many in the media could not watch the programming.

To this day, Lewis says one of the most important stories written about Fox News was by the Associated Press, stating that the network had in fact been launched. "We were the underdogs, and that's something I think we've kept," Lewis says. "Even though we're number one, we're still the feisty underdog."

Starting strong with PR

One of the department's core messages in those early days was credibility; it was important to publicize that the network was covering the same news as both CNN and the recently launched MSNBC in just as fast a manner or faster. To help with this, the PR team created a screen in the office to show when Fox beat the other channels on breaking news. Equipped with a time code of all the other channels, it allowed the PR staff to call the media and tell them when Fox broke news.

"After a few of those [situations], people began to see we weren't this fly-by-night operation," Lewis says. "We were in it for the long haul, and we were a reputable news operation."

Sam Roberts, professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Miami and a 30-year veteran of CBS News, says Fox News has come a long way since starting almost a decade ago. "I didn't think much of them [at first]. They've improved greatly," he says. "Clearly, among 24-hour [news] channels, they are the most popular."

That media relations and PR would play such an important part in the business strategy and subsequent success of the network was something that Lewis expected from the beginning. He recalls that chairman and CEO Roger Ailes - a former communications consultant who worked with presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush - told him that because Fox News would have a marketing budget one-tenth the size of CNN and MSNBC, its PR department would need to be 20 times better. To this day, Lewis says the department is involved in every business decision for the network, something he attributes to Ailes' experience in PR.

"It's so important to have someone who has been in our shoes, knowing how difficult our job is, and how important it is to the overall corporate strategy," he says. "He is a PR person's dream because of the value he places on media relations functions."

Much of the department's media relations work is highly strategic in nature. Irena Briganti, VP of media relations, says part of that strategy is where the network positions itself when reporting ratings. The department will now rank Fox News among other cable stations such as Lifetime, TNT, USA Network, and ESPN.

"If I must showcase Shepard Smith in his hour, I don't bother showcasing him against CNN and MSNBC," she says, adding that it's more important to point out when his ratings are higher than TNT, ESPN, or USA. "How does this news program at 7pm in a really tough time slot...do it? That's part of the story," she says.

That strategy carries over into how the department handles media requests. "We don't live to get mentioned every day," Lewis says. "There are some stories we purposely stay out of."

Selecting the right stories

As soon as the network began to inch up in the ratings, the quality of ink became much more important than the amount, something evidenced by the fact that the department refuses 50% of the media requests it receives.

"We're more selective now in what stories we participate in," Lewis says. "We sometimes don't see the value of being in a story with MSNBC or CNN." Instead, it would be much more important to be in a story about ABC's and NBC's news operations. It's what's right for Fox in the long run," he adds.

Sue Kopen Katcef, a lecturer at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a former TV journalist, says Fox News has done a good job of keeping itself as part of the nation's discussion.

"Anytime you can get your name out is good, as long as people are talking about you," she says. "[Fox News] has certainly done a good job of marketing itself and raising its image. They've had some criticism along the way, but that goes along with the turf."

Much of that criticism has been centered on the network's most visible personalities, including Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. Briganti says this is something that presents more of an opportunity than a challenge.

"They inject some life into the product," she says. But the department will go after journalists who use the word "conservative" to describe the network in news stories.

Briganti says the staff has sought corrections from papers all over the US, no matter what the size. And while she concedes that such prominent figures as Hannity and O'Reilly could contribute to the misconception that Fox News is conservative, she explains that the network is structured like a newspaper: "Our news programming is during the day; we have an op-ed page at night."

One misconception about the department is that it will fight any criticism, no matter what the factual basis. Lewis and Briganti deny that.

"Hit us fairly and we're fine," says Briganti. Case in point: the recent brouhaha over a New York Times story by Alessandra Stanley stating that Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera "nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety.'' Briganti says she reviewed the clip in question, determined there was no nudge, and asked for a correction.

When the Times initially refused to issue a correction, the department sent tapes of the clip to the top media journalists in the US, including The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. After Kurtz and others wrote that there was no nudge, the Times' public editor issued a correction.

"I don't think any other PR department would've gotten The New York Times to write that correction," Lewis says. "We kept the pressure on them."

For Lewis and Briganti, both of whom have been at Fox News since the start, the communications goal is still the same: win every day. Though the network has been top-rated for more than three years, it only brings up new challenges.

"You never rest on your laurels," Lewis says. "You look at the newspaper every day and think, 'How can I get my client in here?'"

PR contacts

SVP of corporate communications
Brian Lewis

VP of media relations
Irena Briganti

Director of media relations
Paul Schur

Senior manager of media relations
Paige Capossela

Publicist
Dana Klinghoffer

Coordinators
Shannon Sturcken, Christina Lycke

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