Ketchum layoffs mark end of an era for Pittsburgh PR

PITTSBURGH: Ketchum's recent decision to downsize its office here is sending shock waves through the Pittsburgh PR community.

PITTSBURGH: Ketchum's recent decision to downsize its office here is sending shock waves through the Pittsburgh PR community.

"It's clearly the end of an era. It's a sad day for the entire public relations community," said Jeffrey Cohen, a Ketchum alumnus who now serves as director of marketing with Akustica, a tech company.

Ketchum began its life in Pittsburgh in 1923, and over the years has served as the primary training ground for many of the city's PR people.

"The presence of Ketchum elevated the business in this town beyond what its size would otherwise merit," said Ketchum alumnus Paul Furiga, who now runs PR firm WordWrite.

Ketchum has decided to combine its Pittsburgh office with its Chicago office to create a single regional operation, said Robyn Massey, VP of corporate media relations.

Jerry Thompson, who has served as director of the Pittsburgh office for the past four years, is moving to the agency's Atlanta office as an associate director there.

Adaire Putnam, who had been director of the firm's Chicago office, will become director of the Midwest region. She will oversee both Chicago and Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh office also recently let six people go, reducing its PR staff to 20 people.

That compares with a staff of more than 80 before the recent recession began. The agency maintains a back-office staff of about 70 in Pittsburgh.

Ketchum's changes received widespread media play in the market. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headlined a September 25 story, "Ketchum roots torn from city in merger."

"Ketchum is clearly committed to Pittsburgh and the region. I think we're proud of our roots," said Massey.

Others in Pittsburgh attributed Ketchum's downsizing to the recession and the changing nature of the PR business there. "So much of what any-size company would need today can be handled by much smaller firms," said WordWrite's Furiga.

Clients are shopping for the best price, and aren't necessarily concerned about finding an agency with an international network of offices.

"A lot of the business in Western Pennsylvania is project-based, and it's really difficult to sustain a large-agency model on month-to-month business projects," explained Jack Horner, founder of Jack Horner Communications and another Ketchum alum. Ketchum's downsizing is "a sign of the times, and it's not necessarily a good sign," he said.

Horner and others wonder what the long-term impact of the downsizing will be on the PR talent pool in Pittsburgh. "Working at Ketchum was like getting your doctorate in PR," Horner said.

"The learning is going to have to go on at smaller firms now," Furiga added.

Burson-Marsteller and Magnet Communications both have offices in Pittsburgh, and some wonder if those agencies will move into the leadership role once occupied by Ketchum in the market.

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