Regional Roundtable: New York

In this third year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek will focus on seven top markets: Los Angeles; New York; Chicago; the Bay Area; Washington, DC; Atlanta; and Texas.

In this third year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek will focus on seven top markets: Los Angeles; New York; Chicago; the Bay Area; Washington, DC; Atlanta; and Texas.

For each of these regions, leading PR professionals from a variety of agencies, corporations, and nonprofits will participate in a roundtable discussion about the issues that affect them and their peers.  Julia Hood and Gideon Fidelzeid were in New York for the second of this year?s PRWeek Regional Forums. Click here for the pdf.

THE POLITICAL/ECONOMIC LANDSCAPE

Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): It's a politically charged time, with an uncertain economy. Does that impact PR?

Peter Pitts (MS&L): Companies take different views in good times and bad. The economy seems to better in some areas than in others. People are still on the bubble waiting to see where things fall.

Trudi Baldwin (Columbia University): We have our information session next month. I got an e-mail yesterday from someone who works at a large financial institution who can't attend now because her company has withdrawn tuition-reimbursement benefits. Our students do receive almost total support for their degree from their organization. I have yet to find out whether it's an anomaly in this particular department or the entire institution.

Maureen Lippe (Lippe Taylor): The US is polarized politically. PR pros must be careful about blue states and red states, both for our audience and our clients. We're hiring someone for our healthcare division and one client said to me, "You've got to hire a Democrat." I've never before felt a political climate so greatly affect my agency.

Pitts (MS&L): I've just come back from Washington, a place where red and blue sit side by side, to New York, where red and blue states are viewed somewhat inaccurately. We need to get away from our own East Coast mentality because the view is not as polarized as we'd choose it to be.

Lippe (Lippe Taylor): The way we think in New York is not the same as people in New Jersey or Connecticut.

Ken Weine (Newsweek): As a "mainstream media organization," we look to mine the middle and offend both sides equally. We had a horrifying crisis communications drill about the post-election special wrap-ups. A publisher was going to print a quickie [election-special] book and wanted to include it in its winter catalog. It would either be called "Bush: How He Did It" or "Kerry: How He Did It." It was put into a catalog, the press release was turned up, a gossip columnist got it, wrote it up, and said, "Newsweek has already decided that Kerry won the election." Sure enough, there was this four-hour crisis and I had to send a Blackberry to the Bush campaign explaining the situation.

Pitts (MS&L): If we allow politics to color our views, we do our clients a disservice.

Steven Rubenstein (Rubenstein Communications): As a rule, our industry is less of an economic indicator and more a market follower. If the economy does well, PR does well. What's great is that people are ambitious with their PR plans. For years, we had three-month projects. Now clients are planning further out because they feel the city is strong.

Christopher Boylan (MTA): I think there is a slightly more localized effect on our business because everything we're involved with now gets caught in the crossfire of the mayoral election. It's not only people criticizing us, it's vocal, media-savvy folks that get in front of the camera and keep it going. A one-day story unnecessarily turns into a two-week story. If you can sit down and actually talk to people about the good stuff you've done, the aberrations show themselves as such. But you don't always get the chance.

Julia Hood (PRWeek): A lot of the agencies here have national clients. To what extent is business coming out of New York?

Sean Cassidy (Dan Klores Communications): Interestingly, a lot of national companies are talking to us about having a greater presence in New York. We launched an airline here a couple of years ago and they were much more interested in establishing a local presence than just the standard national media presence. We're excited about leveraging that experience into other corporate business.

Charlotte Wray (Zeno Group): It's not so much about companies, but rather that the media are here. Eighty percent of our business is healthcare and every single healthcare client wants to be in the media. It's earned media more than it's ever been.

Ame Wadler (Burson): The issues business is really growing. Whether it's labor, energy, or hospitality issues, we're seeing tremendous growth, specifically on issues that are about how business gets done.

David Polk (Tyco): Speaking from the corporate side, are your clients looking for that media exposure in New York or are they looking for that Wall Street connectivity, the connection to influencers and thought leaders, that happens to be based in New York?

Wadler (Burson): All of the above, but it goes beyond connectivity. There are specific policy issues that occur that become a global bellwether because the media are here. So when you have New York's attorney general putting a focus on specific issues, you can bet Texas and California will follow suit.

Rubenstein (Rubenstein): New York doesn't even have to be the constituency. Look at the Republican National Convention. We were the platform, but they weren't talking to New York City. In fact, they totally wrote us off and we didn't vote for them. But if you compare the two conventions, the platform New York City afforded the convention far outpaced Boston.

Lippe (Lippe Taylor): The influentials for most of our brands are either in New York or LA. Finding those people and marketing to them every day is an obsession. And most of them are here.

Mark Greene (Sanofi-Aventis): My company moved its headquarters out to Bridgewater, NJ, and among the very few people that are staying in New York are investor relations and media relations. My office is right next to the head of investor relations and we work together on a lot of things. There's a lot of interwoven messaging and outreach going on.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): How has New York's PR community raised the bar for the industry in general?

Pitts (MS&L): New York doesn't pigeonhole itself. We can and will do anything. And the talent comes here.

Wadler (Burson): Healthcare is very much a global business with global implications. The talent for healthcare is in New York and London, so the innovation comes out of those cities.

Wray (Zeno): Even when you try to farm business out of different parts of this country, it doesn't work. We continue to see our New York practice pop up.

Polk (Tyco): Amy just touched on something. What is innovation from your perspective? Healthcare is a large part of Tyco's portfolio and the issues that affect larger pharmaceuticals to some extent may touch us. How do you become innovative in that environment?

Wadler (Burson): You must establish your definition of innovation. I define it as coming up with smart solutions. It may be just a different way of thinking about what your business objective is. The industry needs to become innovative to make sure it's heard in ways it hasn't been heard before. It may not be media coverage or government relations. It may be community-based programs or a terrific ambassador program within your organization.

THE MEDIA

Hood (PRWeek): Having that smart media strategy is what shops and clients are focusing on. Aren't there real relationships with the media here?

Rubenstein (Rubenstein): It's not the relationship that helps you get placement; it's the understanding of the market. If you read a reporter every day, you'll know what they're looking for. I think the second issue that makes this industry better here is the volume of PR people that call reporters. The competition for you to break through is immense. If you don't tailor your pitch appropriately, you won't get anywhere.

Greene (Sanofi-Aventis): At a lot of large agencies, media relations would go down to the lowest level. So you'd have AEs dialing for dollars. It's good for them to learn how to do it, but they shouldn't be calling the top outlets without some training. The execution just wasn't there, but I think there's been a change over the last few years and it's becoming much more important to people.

Polk (Tyco): Before I came to Tyco, that was one of my biggest pet peeves about big firms: a lot of work was passed down to junior-level staffers, issues that should be handled by people with experience and relationships with key reporters. To this day, I have a bias toward mid-sized and boutique agencies because I get to know the people and work with them more closely. They understand my needs and I know that when I call this person, that's the person that will execute it.

Baldwin (Columbia): But none of that should matter if you have the right strategy. So if you take the time to do the strategic thinking, can you not assign the execution?

Polk (Tyco): You can have the right strategy, but if you don't have the right talent.... It's like having a Little Leaguer pitching in Yankee Stadium. He can have the right mindset, but he just won't win you the game.

Cassidy (DKC): If you don't have first-hand experiences with the media, it's very difficult to counsel your clients and staff on how to navigate. Relationships are important, but if you don't have the right message, strategy, and sense of what warrants coverage in that publication, that relationship is of moderate value.

Pitts (MS&L): New York also leads the pack because this market presents the opportunity for junior staff to learn about very hard, high-profile things they would never have to learn about elsewhere.

Baldwin (Columbia): But I wonder if there is time to learn in the workplace. I don't hear that from students. It's part of the reason they enter our program.

Lippe (Lippe Taylor): One vital element in any PR program is writing. These kids come out and are great, but many can't write. We're talking a lot about media relations, but with regards to innovative clients, I think my most innovative healthcare clients are saying to me that it's not all about the media, go direct. Go grassroots. Find customers where they live. Of course the media are here, but they're jaded. If you don't do creative, innovative programs to get their attention, you're lost.

Greene (Sanofi-Aventis): Another thing that's happening now is media coverage for media coverage's sake. A lot of times you want to get your audience to do something. The use of websites and 800-numbers so you can gauge how many calls or hits you got. The call to action is much more important now than it was a few years ago.

Polk (Tyco): No one is really interested in column inches anymore. That's nice coverage, but we're about growth. Are our communications efforts helping the company grow organically? Everything we do must be tailored to meet that need.

Weine (Newsweek): An ironic challenge for New York-based companies is that you can spend all your time servicing the New York-based media. [Sometimes,] we might be better off doing WDID in Detroit, which has far more reach. It's easy to be seduced by this media market's unrelenting competitiveness.

Wadler (Burson): Media members are opinion leaders themselves, they're not just the conduit. There are a lot of people in important circles who wait to see what [The Washington Post's] Robert Pear says about something before they form an opinion.

Pitts (MS&L): I don't think a lot of policy people look to The Washington Post or the Times before they decide what to do. I don't think a [suburban] mom with two kids is waiting to see how the Post editorializes drug safety. They're getting it from other places.

TALENT

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): More universities are developing PR programs. How would you rate the talent of these programs' graduates?

Baldwin (Columbia): We have a lot of interest and it's a very competitive pool. Last semester, we got 110 applications and admitted 34 students. They're in their late 20s or early 30s. They're either working in corporate communications, financial, or nonprofit. They all want to know more than what they're able to learn in their niche.

Polk (Tyco): This is the second year for Tyco's specialized internship program primarily for minority students. I've been impressed with how focused and driven these people are, but there are some huge gaps in capabilities, writing among them. Very rarely do I have a person between 22 and 25, maybe even up to 30, that comes in and think, "Wow, this kid can write."

Baldwin (Columbia): We have a course called "Writing for the media" that nobody wants to take. They either think, "I can write, I don't need it," or "These days, with e-mail pitching, who needs to write?" But it's not about how to craft a press release. It's about finding a story and conveying it in a concise, persuasive manner.

Wadler (Burson): We have a writing test. And here's where you get stuck: You need to hire somebody, you get the writing tests back and none blow you away. So you tend to take the best talent you can find and put them immediately into your training program where we can hopefully teach them to write. But then these people might say, "I don't need to learn that. You hired me anyway." It's a Catch-22.

Rubenstein (Rubenstein): You look for a constellation of skills. Some people are great writers; others great verbal communicators. I think we're selling the talent pool short. We're seeing greater people every day.

Polk (Tyco): For internships and junior-level positions, I always look for school-paper experience. Unfortunately, most [industry entrants] think of it as shaking hands, kissing babies, pitching, and being "good with people." Many people go into PR, but they're not learning to write or think like journalists. They're looking at it from a sales perspective.

Cassidy (DKC): I think your prototypical great PR person is 50% marketer, 50% editor. What I see often in the applicant pool is 90% marketing, 10% editor, if that.

Lippe (Lippe Taylor): A much bigger issue is that we just can't find people. We're paying them a lot. We're in a niche market. But women ages 30 to 40, they don't exist. They're gone. They have a baby. Three or four women in the last year left to have a baby.

Wadler (Burson): Even men in that age group are looking for flexibility. Two of my mid-level managers' wives had babies and both of them asked for flexible work arrangements. And we give it to them because if we don't find a way to flex, we won't have them. It's not just a female issue anymore.

Hood (PRWeek): So staff retention is a major issue.

Rubenstein (Rubenstein): We ask a lot from people. If they love what they're doing, they'll stay with us forever. This is a fun business. You don't want to pay people the least you can to keep them. You want to pay them the most to have a healthy business and still keep them.

Lippe (Lippe Taylor): It's not a retention problem. For us it's growth. We're all growing. It's been a good year. But when things go well at PR agencies, you get new clients and have to find the people to service them. We struggle to keep up. We can't find those great people quickly enough. We have a strong retention program and mentoring. These are the basics you must do.

Wray (Zeno): It's not just about salaries, where people want to work, or what days they want to work. It needs to be the culture inside the company, which I think mid-size agencies do a little bit differently than larger ones. People don't want to be bricks and mortar anymore. They want their personality to shine and have a real future at the company.

Wadler (Burson): I think it's about the team of people you work with. Every employee survey that you see reveals that the reason people leave is because of direct experience with people they work with. My turnover rate is extremely low. Culture can be created in a variety of ways, whether it's a big or small agency.

LOOKING BACK

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What's been the biggest PR story to happen in New York in the last 12 months?

Lippe (Lippe Taylor): Martha Stewart. Her initial arrogance and hubris. All of the pratfalls she took from a PR perspective. And then she completely turned herself around. It was a classic case study of how PR can change perception.

Boylan (MTA): Our expectations of people have been defined down so we forgive people for egregious things much more quickly. I'm not sure if she was a PR whiz in her own right.

Cassidy (DKC): Never underestimate the power of "I'm sorry."

Wadler (Burson): The West Side stadium was a big deal. I have an 8-year-old who is a big, big sports fan and he's followed this story as his current events assignment for school. His whole focus is that this is not about the people, nor is it about sports. It's all about money. When an 8-year-old can see what we're already so jaded about, it's something that could have PR implications for New York. It impacts how people view us in terms of bringing business here and as a tourist destination, but it also speaks to our heart a little bit.

Boylan (MTA): Obviously, this was front and center in my life. I knew the day we took our vote that it was the biggest thing we'd ever done because I counted the number of satellite trucks outside our offices. There were probably 150 % more trucks than when we raised fares and tolls.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): That stadium is the centerpiece of New York's bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. What PR impact would winning the Games have, both for the city and for the local PR community?

Wadler (Burson): Look what happened when Beijing won the 2008 Games. The PR business in Beijing has never been stronger. For our clients, it would be about working the city. Everything from events management to media management is going to be huge for people who know how to negotiate.

Pitts (MS&L): The Republican National Convention showed that New York is still a major platform. New York was used as a magnifier. It's not about the city. It's about how the city can be used to forward an agenda.

Rubenstein (Rubenstein): We work for NYC2012. It's expansive and presents the city as a national platform. I also think it's a great insurance policy moving forward about the city's progress. If we get the Games, you can almost guarantee seven great years on an upward trend. We'll be incredibly optimistic about the future and the dollars will follow.

Ruth Kaplan (MoMA): From a PR standpoint, it puts a national spotlight on the city. We're all trying to get stories for our clients and institutions. Suddenly, you have an automatic international spotlight on New York and media everywhere are writing about you continuously.

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): MOMA is a perfect example of a popular New York tourist spot whose exposure will go up 100 times if we get the Olympics. Are you keeping your eye on the story?

Kaplan (MoMA): Our director is very involved with the committee. We helped them out with banners and the like. We have been very integrally involved because we will be very much affected.

LOOKING AHEAD

Fidelzeid (PRWeek): State your one wish for the next 12 months.

Joe Favorito (New York Knicks): PR is growing. Fifteen years ago there wouldn't have been a reality show on PR [referring to MTV's PoweR Girls] because no one would've known what PR was. We've got interns now not from the US who go back to their countries and share what PR is like here. The one thing I hope for is that a reality show on PR can help get people interested in our industry.

Polk (Tyco): I'd ask for five brilliant, hungry, talented people to come into our business. That would do a lot for us.

Wray (Zeno): I'd like to see us talk more positively about our industry. We should break our own story wide open. There can be some bad stories, but can we have a few more positive ones? We can attract more talent by talking positively.

Rubenstein (Rubenstein): I'd like to see the city win the Olympics. That would basically continue us on the optimistic road we're on. It would not only be great for my firm, but for all agencies here.

Weine (Newsweek): I would like more staff. Our consumer marketing effort is through editorial PR, but you need bodies to do it.

Cassidy (DKC): I genuinely believe that PR can define brands in ways that advertising cannot. So as those marketing dollars are out there, I wish that more dollars be allocated for PR.

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