Changing workplace culture

Changing workplace culture

Allan Ripp reps heavyweights like Gretchen Carlson, who is battling former employer Fox News.

Photo by Ivan Alexander
Allan Ripp reps heavyweights like Gretchen Carlson, who is battling former employer Fox News. Photo by Ivan Alexander

Allan Ripp didn’t start out as a PR man.

“I wanted to work for The New York Times really badly,” Ripp, who reps former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson in her battle against her former employer, said of his early career aspirations. That would be a far cry from his first ever job, as a delivery boy for a Pittsburgh pharmacist. Ripp spent hours driving around the city he’d grown up in, and said that “those neighborhoods are completely in my DNA.”

A former member of Tree of Life Congregation, Ripp loves Roberto Clemente and grew up next door to another famed Pirate, Willie Stargell. He was also the only member of his immediate family who didn’t attend the University of Pittsburgh, instead enrolling at Washington University in St. Louis, on the advice of a friend from Taylor Allderdice High School.

The same friend told him, in their senior year, that a magazine in New York was looking for editorial interns. “The day of my college graduation, I was in New York interviewing for a job.” In the end, Ripp was one of three interns hired to work for Horizon, a “famous hardcover cultural magazine.” After two years there, he took another job at a Hearst paper in Baltimore as the culture critic.

Coming from New York City, Baltimore felt “backwater” and full of “hard drinking, pot-bellied old editors.” Ripp mostly sat at his desk, handwriting all of his articles on large legal pads before typing them up and turning them over to the copyeditor. But, said Ripp, though Baltimore was OK, he felt “restless,” and so he took a job with People, which he considered “a bubblegum magazine,” but it took him back to New York, and he got to interview Paul Newman.

After a stint with Time magazine where he did “hardcore rewriting” based on Telex messages from foreign correspondents, Ripp got married and freelanced “for a little PR agency,” which sent him to Paris to work on the Aga Khan Architecture Awards. A few years later, Ripp took a job with J. Walter Thompson Worldwide, a big advertising firm. The job was “not the kind of profession I’d imagined for myself,” but it did allow him to freelance for big publications, and soon, Ripp was having his work published by The New York Times, just as he’d always dreamed.

Still feeling that old restlessness, Ripp left PR for a while to work at American Photographer. He loved the job, but had taken “a serious pay cut” to be there, and was on the verge of accepting an offer from a PR firm and going back “with my tail between my legs” when he got a phone call.

A few months before, he’d written a profile for Avenue Magazine about a couple named Tim and Nina Zagat, who had just quit their jobs as corporate lawyers to found a restaurant survey compilation book. It was one of the first big profiles of a couple whose name would soon be a barometer by which foodies everywhere would measure. As their business grew, the Zagats realized that they needed a PR man, and thought of Ripp. American Photographer was happy to let Ripp work for the couple on the side, and so began his first solo PR endeavor. He remembered working “like a maniac out of my dining room. The Zagats were drowning in publicity, and they loved it.”

Soon, Ripp’s PR practice was taking up most of his time, even necessitating that he buy his own fax machine for his office at American Photographer, so he could communicate with clients. When the magazine changed formats, he took it as a sign, and they “parted ways very amicably,” with Ripp devoting even more time to his “little stable of clients.” To accommodate his growing practice, Ripp moved to a shared office space on the Upper West Side.

By the late ’90s, Ripp’s firm employed four or five people, had many large law firms on retainer, and had, at different points, represented Expedia, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

But one of Ripp’s clients would land him in the middle of a media storm, as he represented Martin Shkreli, founder and former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, and “the most hated man in America.” Shkreli and his company came under fire after they raised the price of Daraprim, a medication that treats parasite infections and is often prescribed to HIV/AIDS patients, from $13.50 a pill to $750, an increase of over 5,000 percent. The day the price hike occurred, Turing’s in-house PR representative “walked off the job.” Ripp and his firm were brought in as consultants on a job that Ripp described as “like trying to contain a forest fire.”

The firm received “many thousands of emails” telling them that they were evil, that they should be shot or tarred and feathered. Ripp himself was getting death threats on his voicemail. Ripp and his team “wanted to be more combative,” to hold press conferences and release statements so they could have some semblance of control in the narrative. But Turing refused, which was made more problematic by the fact that Shkreli was communicating with the public via social media. In the end, said Ripp, Shkreli ended up “looking like a thug” and Ripp’s team and Turing parted ways. Shortly after, Shkreli was arrested by the FBI on charges of securities fraud.

If Ripp thought that Shkreli was the client who would draw the most press, he was wrong. One month ago, he and his firm agreed to represent Carlson, who filed a suit alleging that Roger Ailes, the now former head of Fox, sexually harassed her for her entire tenure at the company. In the days since, more than 20 women have come forward with their own stories of harassment from Ailes, including fellow Fox employee Megyn Kelly.

Though they’ve only been representing Carlson for a month, Ripp said, “It feels much longer, because of the intensity.” Her case has been “as around the clock as the news cycle.” Ripp said that, looking over the lawsuit, he was struck by “a pattern of conduct that was unmistakable. It wasn’t just one statement or just one moment.” He added that “Roger Ailes is certainly one of the most powerful men in the news business, [and] Fox is known for having a very aggressive press machine and does not shy away from counter attacks — that has been their M.O.”

Speaking just several hours before Ailes announced his resignation last week, Ripp predicted that his departure from the company, if it came, would be an amicable one, and his words proved prophetic. That evening, Fox put out a press release praising Ailes’ “remarkable contribution to our company and our country,” and announcing that he would remain in a consultancy role until 2018. The statement makes “zero mention” of the lawsuit or any of the allegations Ailes now faces and that omission, said Ripp, means Fox is “essentially sending him off with a 21-gun salute.” He added, “In all my years of doing press relations, I’ve seen events unfold very quickly in litigation, but nothing that has advanced with this degree of warp speed.”

Ailes denies the charges.

For Carlson, Ailes’ departure isn’t cause for a victory lap, though she is “holding her head up very high.” There is still the court case to come, and “her attorneys are arguing that the case be heard in an open jury trial,” said Ripp. Carlson’s lawsuit is “only one step to a long process of trying to change the workplace culture.”

Masha Shollar can be reached at