MARKET FOCUS: TENNESSEE - Southern sensibility. Tennessee supports a number of independent agencies, and its homespun brand of PR is drawing national business. Sherri Deatherage Green reports

Public relations in Tennessee is mostly home brewed, and the state's practitioners take as much pride in a well-distilled marketing message as the folks in Lynchburg do in a perfectly aged whiskey. And while the Smoky Mountain region may at first conjure up images of fiddles and banjoes, music takes a back seat to the more stable industries of distribution, education, healthcare and insurance.

Public relations in Tennessee is mostly home brewed, and the state's practitioners take as much pride in a well-distilled marketing message as the folks in Lynchburg do in a perfectly aged whiskey. And while the Smoky Mountain region may at first conjure up images of fiddles and banjoes, music takes a back seat to the more stable industries of distribution, education, healthcare and insurance.

Public relations in Tennessee is mostly home brewed, and the state's practitioners take as much pride in a well-distilled marketing message as the folks in Lynchburg do in a perfectly aged whiskey. And while the Smoky Mountain region may at first conjure up images of fiddles and banjoes, music takes a back seat to the more stable industries of distribution, education, healthcare and insurance.

The roots of Tennessee's most prominent industries run deep. For example, the Mississippi River made Memphis a distribution center centuries before Federal Express called it home, and Nashville's HCA gave birth to the state's thriving healthcare industry in the 1960s by pioneering for-profit hospital management.

A certain colonel gave Nashville's PR industry a boost in the early '60s, as well. Based on the strength of its Kentucky Fried Chicken account, the city's first prominent PR firm, Noble Dury, parted with a local ad agency to establish a name for itself, recalls Nashville PR veteran Mark McNeely of McNeely Pigott & Fox. Executives from Noble Dury went on to form Holder Kennedy, which spun off several agencies still in business.

Today, strong independent firms dominate Nashville's PR scene, with several earning dollars 1 million to dollars 6 million annually. While multinational agencies have not invaded Tennessee, a few prominent Nashville firms belong to independent networks. The big boys usually call on independents when they need help locally.

'People in New York and Chicago don't pay a whole lot of attention to Nashville, and that's too bad for them,' says Michael Schoenfeld, vice chancellor of public affairs at Vanderbilt University, home to one of the larger PR operations in Nashville. 'There's a heck of a lot going on here.'

One national firm, Richard French & Associates (RF&A), moved into Tennessee last April by acquiring Equestrian Sports Marketing. The Raleigh, NC-based consumer product agency is mining a profitable Western lifestyle niche.

In Tennessee, it heads up western lifestyle initiatives for Jack Daniels and serves the DeLor Group, a Louisville pharmaceutical branding company.

The firm also allied with Hallmark Directions, a Nashville artist management firm. RF&A arranged sponsorship deals between its clients and Hallmark's, pairing Wrangler with the country band Ricochet and Pemican Beef Jerky with Montgomery Gentry.

Nashville's business community is relationship-oriented and somewhat closed, according to RF&A founder Richard French. 'It's not necessarily an easy market to penetrate,' he says. RF&A billed about dollars 500,000 in Tennessee during the last three quarters of 2000.



Management from afar

As is the case with other second-tier markets, many of the leading private-sector employers in Tennessee aren't based there, so high-level PR decisions are made elsewhere. For example, Nissan, Dell and the beleaguered Bridgestone/Firestone have major manufacturing facilities in the state but look elsewhere for PR leadership.

Even Saturn - whose early years were closely linked in the minds of consumers with its factory in Springhill, TN - recently moved its top communications positions to its headquarters in Troy, MI and has cut back on local PR.

'We have more of a product focus on our PR activities,' notes Saturn communications manager Bill Betts, who recently left Tennessee for Michigan. The company's product publicity unit has been based in Troy.

FedEx operates one of the biggest PR operations in the state, employing around 100 people in-house. A year ago, it reorganized its communications function and has more than doubled its PR staff, says spokesman James McCluskey.

The company's international PR team handles day-to-day issues and crises, while the six-person marketing media relations group focuses on placing stories about FedEx's tech leadership and innovations, McCluskey says.

Ketchum, FedEx's agency of record, has a Silicon Valley office to support the company's tech initiatives.



Playing with the band

A significant drop in country music sales has left some Nashville publicists singing the blues. The genre's popularity peaks and ebbs in regular cycles, and most analysts believe the outlook will improve. Historically, however, country music hasn't put that much emphasis on publicity.

'It didn't seem that people even pitched outside the country music publications when I came here,' says Susan Riles, head of Warner Brothers' three-person publicity team in Nashville and a 17-year veteran of the city's heralded music scene.

Locals credit Evelyn Shriver with helping elevate Nashville's music PR in the 1980s. Shriver moved from New York to represent Randy Travis. Several publicists who worked with her have since formed their own small companies, says Mike Hyland of music publicity firm Full Court Press. Shriver recently stepped down as head of Asylum Records, which became part of Warner Brothers last year.

Up-and-coming country acts generally rely on label representation, while more established artists may seek extra help from small Nashville agencies or publicists on the coasts. Fletcher Foster, SVP of marketing at Capitol Records, thinks Nashville is ripe for a midsize independent music PR firm.

Currently, four-person Network Ink is among the city's leading music-focused shops, with clients such as Clay Walker, Tracy Nelson, the Country Music Hall of Fame and WSM AM, radio home of the Grand Ole Opry.



Behind the music scene

Mainstream PR firms are much more interested in the business side of music than in representing individual artists, which Wayne Edwards compares to running political campaigns. Edwards is EVP and COO of Bill Hudson & Associates, whose namesake was known as the 'Mayor of Music Row.'

However, these days the full-service ad and PR agency sticks to representing the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Sony/ATV Tree Publishing, the world's largest music publishing company.

It also handles Sara Lee, insurance company American General Career Distribution Group and several equestrian clients.

Gaylord Entertainment, the behemoth company that owns the Grand Ole Opry, has undergone significant reorganization over the last few years. Gaylord shut down the seasonal Opryland theme park and in its place built the more profitable Opry Mills shopping complex. The company also recently shuttered Gaylord Digital, which consisted of three Web sites.

From a PR perspective, Gaylord corporate communications VP Tom Adkinson pulled together a five-person internal team to handle media, community and government relations and marketing. Three other departments previously handled those functions. Gaylord also has a retainer relationship with Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence (DVL) - Nashville's largest PR firm - and turns to two-person Schmidt Relations for promotion of the Grand Ole Opry.

Last year was a busy one for the Opry, which celebrated its 75th anniversary.

A new general manager upgraded the venue and focused on drawing well-known acts. The Opry also stages an increasing number of winter shows at its original home, the Ryman Auditorium, taking advantage of great acoustics and crowds drawn to downtown Nashville by a pair of professional sports franchises: football's Tennessee Titans and hockey's Nashville Predators.

Hank Dye, CEO of DVL, called 2000 'birthday year' for his firm. In addition to helping promote the Opry's anniversary, the company worked on Martha White's 100th birthday, Jack Daniels' 125th and shoemaker Johnson & Murphy's 150th. Despite representing several big-name companies, DVL's revenues remained steady at about dollars 6.2 million. Dye says 2000 was also 'an investment year' devoted to moves - such as the creation of a new crisis management division called Sunbelt Strategies - he hopes will pay off in 2001.



Pleasing performances

Smaller shops such as Seigenthaler PR, Katcher Vaughn & Bailey and Kupper Parker Communications reported high growth rates that in some cases exceeded the national average.

McNeely Pigot & Fox's jump from dollars 4.4 million to dollars 5.1 million in billings last year was fueled in part by its Memphis office, which opened in 1999.

While the agency's Nashville office handles Dell, AT&T, Verizon and Manheim Auto Auctions, its Memphis outpost services International Paper, Baptist Memorial Hospitals and the FedEx Pilots Association.

The Ingram Group - the leading public affairs firm in Nashville - also recently opened a Memphis office and earned more than dollars 3 million overall last year. Memphis-based Thompson & Baker and Archer Malmo reported 2000 PR revenues of dollars 1.4 million and dollars 2 million, respectively, marking 100% growth for the latter.

Cathy Ackermann founded Ackermann PR & Marketing in 1982 in Knoxville, with major corporate clients she recruited as exhibitors to the Knoxville World's Fair. She estimated dollars 5 million in fees for 2000, with particularly strong growth in the technology sector.

Ackermann notes that most of her agency's growth has come from clients outside the region. Lower overhead means lower cost, and clients are more likely to deal with senior staff at smaller firms, she says.

'I think a lot of the larger corporations are looking to midsize regional PR firms for work they used to have the large New York-based PR firms do,' she says.

While national firms may not flock to Tennessee, some PR executives say the state's homegrown agencies will continue to attract more national clients - especially those whose PR budgets might not seem impressive in higher-rent cities.

Selected Tennessee PR firms, ranked by staff size

Agency                                           PR Employees

                                                 in Tennessee

Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence Nashville                          70

McNeely Pigot & Fox Nashville & Memphis                    60

Ingram Group Nashville, Knoxville & Memphis                32

Ackermann PR & Marketing Knoxville & Nashville             30

Katcher Vaughn & Bailey Nashville                          15

Seigenthaler PR Nashville                                  14

Thompson & Baker Memphis                                   10

Archer Malmo PR Memphis                                     9

Richard French & Associates Nashville                       5

Bill Hudson & Associates Nashville                          5

Kupper Parker Communications Memphis & Nashville            5

Walker & Associates Memphis                                 5

Source: PRWeek





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