REGIONAL FOCUS <b>Northwest:</b> Building optimism

Upturn and diversification are creating PR opportunities aplenty in the Northwest.

Upturn and diversification are creating PR opportunities aplenty in the Northwest.

The key to the Northwest's recovery might just be found at Seattle's new Central Library. When the 11-floor glass and steel building opened in May, journalists across the country and around the world drooled over Rem Koolhaas' architecture, with The New York Times calling it one of the greatest buildings it has reviewed. So as the Northwest continues its slow but steady economic recovery, the region is promoting itself to tourists as a wonderful place to visit and to businesses as a great place to set up shop. And as tourists and businesses return to the Northwest, so will the confidence of the region's PR community. "The economy has been relatively good, compared to the past few years," says David Blandford, director of PR at the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The tourism was growing before 9/11. And we have had good news since then. But we've also had to deal with bumps along the way, like the layoffs at Boeing." But now the region is promoting Seattle as a cruise-ship port, as well as the new Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, the Museum of Flight's new wing, the Seattle Opera's plan to present all three complete cycles of Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen, and, of course, the new library. "When a lot of [US] cities haven't had much to talk about, we've had so much to talk about," says Blandford. He also notes the region's business prowess, as it is home to companies including Microsoft, Amazon.com, Expedia.com, RealNetworks, Starbucks, Washington Mutual, Costco, Nordstrom, and Nike. "Look at the legacy of innovation in the area, from Microsoft to Boeing," says Rowan Benecke, VP and GM of Waggener Edstrom's Northwest region. "This area has always attracted a lot of talent." Oregon The Beaver State is also touting its opportunities, with a new branding effort that launched earlier this year under the tagline "Oregon. We love dreamers." "Oregon is still on very tenuous ground economically," says Lee Weinstein, Nike's director of corporate communications. "We still have high unemployment. Some people have been unemployed so long they aren't counted any more." The state is trying to diversify its employment base. Natural resources have been a huge driver of the state's economy for decades, and tech has become as much of a driving force. But the region suffered a blow during the downturn, when one of the state's largest employers - Intel - had huge layoffs. Yet the high quality of life in Oregon and reasonable cost of living, particularly in Portland, are attracting a lot of young people, says Weinstein. And, hopefully, the jobs will follow, including those in PR. As many young people move to the Northwest, agencies and corporations are finding they have a strong talent pool at their disposal. Firms and companies have seen their share of senior turnover in the past year. Expedia, RealNetworks, and the Nautilus Group all saw changes in senior PR staff, as did Wag Ed, Fleishman-Hillard, MWW Group, and Rockey Hill & Knowlton on the agency side. And firms have kept busy with key accounts coming up for review, including Amazon, RealNetworks, Expedia, and the Washington Wine Commission. "In general, the economy has gained steam," says Patrick McGuire, Edelman's Western region president. "We're seeing a steady increase in tech-based opportunities. There's a loosening of purse string in bioscience and biotech. We're optimistic about the future." So is boutique tech agency Armstrong Kendall. For the first time in its six-year history, the firm has seen more growth among new clients in the Northwest than it has in the Bay Area, says principal Abbie Kendall. "We've seen an uptick in business. For a while the tech sector here was like watching a toddler. It tries to get up, but keeps falling down. But the companies that have continued to invest in PR are the ones that get coverage and benefit from it when others go dark. The start-ups around here know that, and we've seen healthy growth in start-ups from the local venture-capital community." Wendy Lane, president of Lane Marketing, also sees the economy coming back in unexpected ways, with new business coming from real-estate companies and law firms. And as people gain confidence in the economy and their company's prospects, they are much more eager to build their visibility. While budgets are still tight, companies are ever so slightly loosening their grips on marketing and PR budgets, knowing they need to pay for that visibility they seek, says Lane. Growth in areas such as real estate, public affairs, and tourism shows that the region has become more diverse, not relying heavily on just one industry, such as agriculture or technology. But that doesn't mean those industries that many associate strongly with the Northwest aren't still paying off. The Washington Wine Commission recently hired Edelman for a major branding campaign, tying together the region's agricultural heritage and revitalized tourism industry. The commission decided to invest in PR because it knew it could get a lot of coverage for its relatively tight budget, explains Jane Baxter Lynn, the commission's executive director. And much of the campaign is focused on changing perceptions about the region, such as that it doesn't rain in Washington as much as people think and that the state produces award-winning wines. Idaho Agriculture has also been a driving force in neighboring Idaho. But an ongoing drought and state water legislation have slowed the state's agricultural economy, so Idaho is looking at other markets for diversification, says Ray Stark, SVP at the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. "Technology is a significant factor in the state," says Stark. "And we've barely started to see growth in bioscience at the university level. But we hope to carve out a niche with that, bringing together agriculture and technology, focusing on research and implementation. We could see some real growth from entrepreneurs and start-ups." Bioscience's growth is just one indicator that has many PR people optimistic about the region's future. Because the area is not as reliant as it used to be on agriculture and manufacturing, thanks to growth in public affairs, transportation, corporate, and other markets, companies are looking for more diverse offerings from agencies, says Benecke. Issues and reputation management, consumer marketing, and corporate affairs are just some of the skills clients are demanding these days, he adds. "People are more pragmatic and thoughtful about how they are using PR. And agencies aren't chasing after any business opportunity that comes their way. They're doing their homework about how they can be partners with their clients and not just promote their products. Clients are looking for someone who makes sure their brand and reputation is understood." That's a key challenge for a company like Vulcan, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's project investment firm. Vulcan's initiatives include the Experience Music Project, the Seattle Seahawks, and other ventures, from bio-science to real estate. Because Vulcan promotes ideas more than products to diverse audiences that care about sports or science fiction or investing, PR focuses on drilling deep into the image and messages of each particular venture, says Jason Hunke, senior director of marketing and PR. "Luckily, we still have two daily newspapers," says Hunke. "But it creates an interesting challenge for PR pros. You want to work with both papers, which are fiercely competitive. It's a great problem to have, being a midsize market with the editorial pool of a much larger city. And with so many beat reporters, you have a real opportunity to sit with them and build relationships." Oregon and Washington have had their share of national stories this year. Both states were courted by the presidential campaigns as potential swing states, and went Democratic in the end. Oregonians passed a gay-marriage ban and also faced pressure as the federal government has continued to fight the state's assisted-suicide laws. Meanwhile, Washington was in the spotlight, thanks to races for governor and senator, fights over charter schools and a monorail in Seattle, and, of course, Mount St. Helens threatening to erupt. And thanks to industry leaders, such as Nike, Amazon, and Microsoft, the region remains a barometer of the national economy. "When the US economy gets a cold, we get pneumonia," says Kirk Stewart, Nike's corporate communications VP. But the economy seems pretty healthy, thanks to a region that is becoming more diverse, along with a growing entrepreneurial spirit and many global companies calling the Northwest home, says Hunke. And that promises to keep the local PR community in good shape, he says. "You have a lot of leading companies with headquarters here," adds Hunke. "So I think that, combined with the up-and-coming companies and a great slate of entrepreneurial businesses, should keep the Northwest thriving and the PR side of the business busy."

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