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Brian Burgess is the man behind Gov. Rick Scott's message, but doesn't always play nice with press

When Gov. Rick Scott held a Twitter town hall in January, his top communications adviser, Brian Burgess, was at his right hand.

COLIN HACKLEY | Special to the Times

When Gov. Rick Scott held a Twitter town hall in January, his top communications adviser, Brian Burgess, was at his right hand.

TALLAHASSEE — Brian Burgess, the man charged with shaping Gov. Rick Scott's image and message, got his start working with reporters on behalf of a Kansas district attorney best known for prosecuting an abortion provider.

"I really don't miss some of you dips---s at all," Burgess e-mailed a Kansas reporter in 2008, after he left to work with a conservative public relations firm in Virginia. "Have fun in your world of make-believe."

The line is vintage Burgess, the most combative communications director for a Florida governor in many years.

By its nature, the job stirs tension between reporters hunting for news and press staffers concerned about the governor's image. But Burgess' public hostility toward the traditional press corps reaches a level rarely seen.

On Twitter, the 6-foot-4 Burgess poses for a photo standing in front of public records that, after six months, still have not been released to the reporter who requested them. He accuses another reporter of making mistakes, but won't specify an error when challenged. He yells at reporters day in and day out for stories he doesn't like.

"He is a different type of communications director than we've ever seen, a full body contact, knuckle-to-knuckle press person — and I say that as a compliment,'' said Republican communications consultant Sarah Bascom. "If you have one of the most aggressive and one of the most knowledgeable capital press corps, as we do in Florida, having an aggressive knife-fighter communications director fits very well."

But is it serving his boss well?

Polls show Scott may be the least popular governor in America. Clearly, Florida's economy has a lot to do with that, but Scott's communications team appears to have done little to help.

Burgess was part of the group of outsiders with little Florida experience that populated the new administration. Now, Scott is reversing course, as outsiders are leaving the inner circle and veterans of Tallahassee politics are coming in. Burgess' future appears tenuous, but he declined to speculate Wednesday on whether he'll hold onto his job.

"I'll be the first to admit I don't know everything there is to know about communications," says Burgess, relaxing on a couch in his sparsely decorated corner office in the Capitol. "I'm a student of this game. I learn from my mistakes."

Burgess, a father of three who earns $110,000 annually, is not operating on an island. The testy, us-versus-them mentality is part of a culture instilled by Scott and his top advisers. They tend to view most reporters as liberal, biased enemies to be avoided.

Scott, a political rookie, says he does not read Florida newspapers and became the first governor who refused to meet with editorial boards while campaigning. Scott narrowly won after spending more than $70 million of his own money on TV commercials.

"Not in a negative sense, but just as I have beliefs, the media's going to have beliefs," Scott said on his campaign bus last fall. "They might perceive themselves to be completely unbiased, but you always walk in with beliefs. It's life."

Now, Scott and his team are governing and communicating without the benefit of TV ads drowning out most everything else. It's a new world to them, and they're feeling their way.

Scott was horrified, for instance, when a reporter entered his elevator at the start of his administration — reporters have been riding the elevator with governors for years — and insisted his team never allow that to happen again. Likewise, he was stunned that Tallahassee reporters clustered around him after a news conference to ask more questions. That, too, is a longstanding practice in Tallahassee.

"Don't come lunging forward," Burgess told reporters. "We're going to try to maintain some decorum in here."

The son of a John Deere executive, Burgess is a native of Moline, Ill., who grew up in Fort Collins, Colo. He attended Friends University, a Christian liberal arts school in Wichita, Kan., where he played basketball. He spent three years as a radio operator in the Army before working for Phill Kline, the district attorney crusading against abortion in Johnson County, Kan. While serving as Kline's spokesman, Burgess clashed with local reporters, including Justin Kendall, a writer for The Pitch, an alternative weekly in Kansas City.

"He called me a 'bottom-feeding journalist.' That sort of endeared him to me," Kendall said.

Burgess entered Scott's orbit while working at CRC Public Relations in Alexandria, Va., a firm that represents conservative interest groups, and in 2004 worked with the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attacking John Kerry's war record.

CRC in 2009 landed the account of Scott's Conservatives for Patients Rights, the advocacy group that campaigned against President Barack Obama's health care plan and became the springboard for Scott's candidacy for governor.

Burgess' attempts to steer reporters away from certain stories and toward others is nothing new in Tallahassee, or elsewhere. It's the way he does it that's unusual.

He publicly lambasted Times/Herald reporters who directly asked Scott why he included $370-million in federal stimulus money in the state budget after repeatedly attacking the stimulus package as wasteful government spending.

Burgess objected to the reporters asking the governor about it rather than talking to him first.

"You're unprofessional and engage in 'gotcha' journalism w/o fact-checking," Burgess tweeted to Herald reporter Marc Caputo.

"You ducked the question for a 2nd time: Name 1 fact that was wrong," Caputo replied.

Ironically, many of the reporters who regularly butt heads with Burgess also call him funny and personable, and more than a few have joined him for beers. Still Burgess wears his outsider status like a badge of honor. He makes no effort to hide his discomfort with Florida's open government and records laws, which he says unfairly burden government officials.

"Are there things we don't want you to know?" he asked. "Yes. There are things we don't want to broadcast to our opponents."

Scott's team also has at times tried to bypass traditional media by focusing on direct communication through social media such as Facebook, 140-character tweets, and robo-calls paid for by the state GOP.

"This administration has opted out of dealing with the traditional media more than any other in modern history," said Ron Sachs, former communications director for the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. "The downside to that strategy is you miss opportunities to connect with the electorate on a broad basis ... No governor can effectively communicate his agenda in 140 characters."

Burgess says everyone in the governor's inner circle shares some responsibility for Scott's low approval ratings, but he says in some ways it was unavoidable because of the poor economy.

"The approval rating is reflective of the overall difficulty we faced coming in here," he says. "Could I have done things differently or better? Sure."

Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender and researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Brian Burgess is the man behind Gov. Rick Scott's message, but doesn't always play nice with press 06/22/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 25, 2011 11:56am]
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