Resurgence in Beantown

In the fifth year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek is returning to cities it has previously visited, as well as adding a handful of new regions to the rotation.

In the fifth year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek is returning to cities it has previously visited, as well as adding a handful of new regions to the rotation.

For each event, leading PR pros from a variety of agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and other organizations take part in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers. PRWeek's Eleanor Trickett and Ted McKenna were in Boston for this year's first Regional Forum.

The Participants

Nicole Barrick
PR and marketing director, American Food Management

Colleen Beauregard
GM, Boston, Waggener Edstrom

Paul Capelli
VP of PR, Staples

David Close
EVP, Schwartz Communications

Marijean Lauzier
President and CEO, Racepoint Group

Mike Lawrence
EVP, Cone

Danielle Perry
Director of PR, Monster.com

Lois Paul
Founder and president, Lois Paul & Partners

Tony Sapienza
Cofounder and partner, Topaz Partners

Hank Shafran
Director of communications, Bingham McCutchen

Micho Spring
Chair, US corporate practice/New England office head, Weber Shandwick

Donald Wright
Professor of PR, Boston University College of Communication

Eleanor Trickett (PRWeek): What's interesting about the Boston market now, and what changes has it undergone in recent years?

Lois Paul (Lois Paul & Partners): It was a rough few years when the [telecommunications] downturn hit. There's been a lot of resurgence here, which is great to see.

Micho Spring (Weber Shandwick): The traditional Boston way was to not seek a high profile. But now, because of this confluence among Sarbanes-Oxley, greater scrutiny, technology, and the enormous pressure [companies] feel to proactively communicate, it's totally changed. Companies we work with - from Liberty Mutual to the hospitals to universities - all of a sudden, they are facing the same scrutiny as other companies, so they've got to learn how to do it right.

Colleen Beauregard (Waggener Edstrom): For someone who was really focused on tech, then worked on the West Coast for 10 years and then came back, the biggest opportunity I see is in life science. We have a lot of staff that are really focused on the healthcare space, and this is a great place to be.

David Close (Schwartz Communications): We've been in Boston for 17 years, and our business is about 60% computing technology and about 40% healthcare, which is increasingly pharma and biotech. While the downturn in the late '90s and 2000-2001 was tough, a lot of things that made the area great have never changed. This is where a lot of innovation is; the VC community is still strong. And also, this is the place where we can get the people we need to represent these clients. A lot of people come to college here because of the fantastic secondary education system, and they don't want to leave.

Tony Sapienza (Topaz Partners): A lot of technology companies look to Boston agencies first because of the tech talent that's here. We're relatively small, with 30 people, but we have clients in Texas, California, and Florida, doing business across the world. In the late '90s, a lot of folks left this business. And I'm not talking just about tech PR, but PR in general. Building that back is difficult.

CORPORATE OPPORTUNITIES

Trickett (PRWeek): How do corporations in this market use agencies?

Nicole Barrick (American Food Management): We don't use agencies. We're small enough that we don't have a need. But the benefit is just a much broader reach than you could get on your own.

Hank Shafran (Bingham McCutchen): We've tried a couple of agencies, neither of which was located in Boston. When I came to the firm, we were very Boston-centric; we had 175 lawyers 12 years ago, and 150 of them were in Boston. Now we have 975 lawyers, and less than 300 of them are in Boston, so our focus has changed to a worldwide focus. We've had mixed results with agencies, and I think professional services firms are very difficult to service properly, unless you get the right mix.

Danielle Perry (Monster.com): We're probably coming from the opposite perspective. We've relied heavily on Weber Shandwick for several years now. When we started, we didn't want to grow internally too quickly, so we relied on outside expertise.

GLOBAL MARKETS

Trickett (PRWeek): The demand for communications is increasingly global. What are your experiences getting your arms around this hugely increased universe?

Mike Lawrence (Cone): We've seen that in corporate responsibility and crisis, and it's largely tech-driven. Markets are touched by others by word of mouth and new media. So an issue that arises in one city quickly becomes global, depending on what it's about.

So companies, let's say, that sell fast food are suddenly in the human rights business in other countries they don't do business in. It's very hard for a company to be as isolated as it was five years ago, before new media took over.

Marijean Lauzier (Racepoint): Today, inside of a year, a new company is moving to Europe or one or two markets in Asia, and the expectation is that even if it's your first agency partner there, you'll deliver. Thank heavens for the Web, because so much of that is possible because of the dominance of that channel.

Donald Wright (BU): If you look at the research on where people get information, that is even more pronounced. Research by the [Poynter Institute] found that in the last presidential election, Americans under the age of 35 got a majority of information from comedians.

At BU, there's all kinds of Boston Globe [editions] stacked up [for] students, but [they don't read them] much. One reason is it's not immediate enough. The stories they're reading at 9 or 10 in the morning were written at 9 or 10 the night before. They know there have been updates and that they can get their information online.

Paul Capelli (Staples): It used to be that you'd come up with a message, identify audiences, and disseminate that information. Now, it's what is that message, and after it's out, you're not going to be in control of it, so it's how do you get that message out so those audiences can move it around, and how can we take control of it, and how can we build relationships with those different segments so they can talk to each other.

From the corporate side, because of globalization and changes in technology, you have to think differently about how you're acting, both internally and how you're developing relationships outside the organization.

CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS

Barrick (AFM): Blogging makes crisis management the biggest challenge now because there is no guarantee the information being put out is accurate.

Lauzier (Racepoint): That's why we're at an inflection point in PR. If you made a list of the top 10 most frequently accessed sources of news on the Web, most people a few years ago would have been able to name those quick. All the iconic brands would be at the top.

Today, of the top 10, at least four are blogs. So the crisis opportunity is there for blogs. But it's also true that you are able to respond to a constituent immediately. As opposed to a much more traditional channel, you're able to address that issue very, very quickly.

Spring (WS): Ideally, you've got to have not only the facts lined up, but also third-party advocates who can get your point of view validated on the other side. The hardest judgment call is figuring out when you're spreading the fire as opposed to putting it out. [You must] determine if it's worth getting into the argument or stopping it.

Paul (Lois Paul): We've talked about the importance of corporate communications with executives. That's where it's very important that they can stop the argument, that this is not something you want to respond to, that all you're going to do is create a second-day story.

Sapienza (Topaz): It's a social media phenomenon. It's important to know your audience, the reporters, but it's increasingly difficult to do that with this new social media. If you do it effectively, you can create an echo chamber, where what happens in the blogosphere is influencing the mainstream media.

Beauregard (WE): Given that there are so many different communities, our challenge is figuring out if this news is relevant to all of our audiences, and how we would package and distribute it differently given all the different vehicles we have. It adds a whole other layer of complexity.

Trickett (PRWeek): Are clients willing to try new things, like podcasts, for example, even if the results are not measurable?

Paul (Lois Paul): The ones that are reluctant, they won't jump in with both feet until they feel comfortable and feel they can measure it. But we're trying it, so we might have the CTO do a blog and see how it goes and then expand it.

Spring (WS): We're seeing an enormous demand to make sure we are strategic and up-front about what the program will accomplish, but that they have a way of measuring that.

I don't think this is primarily a tech market. Many of us work to diversify because technology was not driving the full demand here. Life sciences are driving our economy in a much more growth-oriented way - certainly life sciences, certainly travel and tourism. So this is a very diverse market.

THE LOCAL SCENE

Trickett (PRWeek):How does Boston feel about its place in the PR world?

Close (Schwartz): I'll venture an impression from talking with people in different parts of the country. In our part of the business, medical and technology, there's probably a perception that Boston agencies are serious, that we're less inclined to be a place for an agency that does a lot of glitzy, events-based stuff, that we're maybe more into the technicalities of stories.

People sometimes say to us, "We are looking for a New York kind of agency." What they mean is there's a high degree of schmoozing and wining and dining, and that may be because of the nature of the client you might more tend to get in New York, which has a lot of retail and fashion.

Lauzier (Racepoint): I've never thought of us as a "Boston" firm. What we care about is [if] we have what the emerging company or global brand needs. What we think about is how our offer and our result and value proposition stand up to the best agencies in the world.

Trickett (PRWeek): What are the strengths and weaknesses of the job market here?

Beauregard (WE): We look for a nontraditional hire, so we try to be open-minded, bring in physicians, nurses, lawyers - people who have a different perspective. If you're looking at just the regular PR pros who are coming from other agencies, it can get a little bit sticky.

Lawrence (Cone): The pressure seems greatest in the middle. We are seeing people above the SAE and below the director level where there seems to be the most competition and the fewest bodies.

Sapienza (Topaz): We're fortunate to have schools here that are feeding our professions. I know all the young people to are turned on by being able to do a podcast, and you can apply that to PR.

Paul (Lois Paul): I think there's a strong group of kids coming out of schools now. We see people coming in as interns and found some people who are just superstars. The core skill is writing. There's really no substitute for strong writing. But I think communication over the phone is becoming increasingly important, again, because we're becoming such a fast-paced environment.

Perry (Monster): Does anyone see issues with the stereotypical Gen Y with different work ethics, different values, different way of thinking? Our clients at Monster have struggled with this a little bit.

Paul (Lois Paul): We encourage those people with all kinds of training, but you want to make quick decisions if someone is just not working out.

Wright (BU): If we in PR education were really doing our jobs properly and had the support from the occupation that law has, then we'd be doing such a terrific job that people would be lining up to hire our graduates. The fact that people are willing to hire an English or history graduate says that maybe we're not doing our job properly.

I could give you some horror stories about universities that have started to teach PR, but haven't put enough resources into it. But I think the BU program is unique: [Students] spend essentially a year and a half with us and get phenomenal writing and research methodology courses [and] we've hired Ph.D.s and MBAs to teach financial courses.

Trickett (PRWeek): How much of a challenge is diversity in this market, in hiring and retaining staff?

Paul (Lois Paul): It depends on where you're located. We're in the suburbs, so it's hard to draw people to where we're located. It's been an issue because we try to recruit as diverse a group as we can.

Sapienza (Topaz): We're concerned about it. We don't have a very diverse work force in our agency, and it's disappointing.

Spring (WS): We're certainly not where we need to be in terms of diversity, and I'm keenly aware of it. We have no problem with transportation, and it's still hard.

Shafran (Bingham): It's hard for us, for the industry, on every side. Our clients are concerned about it. If you cannot send in a diverse pitch team, you're at a disadvantage.

Barrick (AFM): There's a tremendous lack of diversity in the city.

Spring (WS): The demographics have hugely changed. This is a very diverse community, from Vietnamese to Russian to Chinese [and] certainly Hispanic. It's not that they are not here, it's that they are not surfacing with these jobs.

We do see some Hispanic and African-American professionals who have wisely set up their own firms. It can be advantageous for government contracts, etc., so that's an additional barrier.

MEDIA

Trickett (PRWeek): How relevant is the Boston media to all of you?

Sapienza (Topaz): Boston has a long history of tech trade press. We placed a story a couple of weeks ago in the Boston Herald, which is usually the poor stepchild, but eWEEK picked it up. It lends credence to pitching mainstream media that can influence tech media.

Wright (BU): For the size of the community, the quality is pretty high. You have two newspapers, and you've got pretty good television news.

Lawrence (Cone): I'm going to be a contrarian. I'm still on the board of directors for the broadcasters union. A lot of my friends are still broadcasters, and most are in the city. They're all miserable. The quality of the work has declined.

It's a resource issue; they're still good people that want to do good work. It's regulatory in some ways and greed in some ways. It is still relevant. But it's generational, too. There will be an increasing shift in relevance away from mainstream media. But I'm embarrassed at the quality of mainstream journalism in Boston. There has been a noticeable decline, cutbacks in staff, a loss in integrity.

Sapienza (Topaz): The successful ones are finding ways to strike that balance, between online and print and custom content and conferences. Computerworld is a good example of that. The media have changed how to measure success; it's not just by thickness.

Paul (Lois Paul): A quick anecdote: I was e-mailing with a software editor to see if he was interested in meeting with a client. He said the way he's measured now is not so much who he knows or what he knows, but how many hits he gets to the online site. He's just heads down because he has to constantly churn out material.

Selected PR firms

Brodeur
Chen PR
Cone
Feinstein Kean Healthcare
Fleishman-Hillard
Greenough Communications
Lois Paul & Partners
Manning Selvage & Lee
Morrissey & Co.
Ogilvy PR Worldwide
Porter Novelli
Racepoint Group
Rasky Baerlein Strategic
Communications
RF/Binder Partners
Schwartz Communications
Shift Communications
Solomon McCown & Co.
Text 100
Topaz Partners
Waggener Edstrom Worldwide
Weber Shandwick

Fortune 1,000 companies in Massachusetts

Company Revenue ($ millions)
Mass. Mutual Life Ins. $22,798.8
Raytheon $21,894.0
Liberty Mutual Ins. Group $21,161.0
Staples $16,078.9
TJX $16,057.9
EMC $9,664.0
BJ's Wholesale Club $7,949.9
State St. Corp. $7,496.0
Boston Scientific $6,283.0
NSTAR $3,243.1
Hanover Insurance Group $2,967.8
Genzyme $2,734.8
Thermo Electron $2,633.0
Biogen Idec $2,422.5
Analog Devices $2,388.8
Cabot $2,125.0

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