The perfect PR climate

From biotech to multicultural outreach, the San Diego area offers a variety of opportunities for the region's PR pros.

From biotech to multicultural outreach, the San Diego area offers a variety of opportunities for the region's PR pros.

With its breezy Mediterranean climate, colorful Spanish-Mexican heritage, and pristine sandy beaches, San Diego has long been known as a vacationers' paradise. But since the mid-1990s, its once sleepy business community has begun to flourish, as well. And with that, new opportunities for PR have emerged in sectors from hospitality to technology.

The agency scene

"We have the most exciting downtown in the world," says Jack Berkman, president and CEO of Berkman Communications. Thanks in part to his firm's grassroots "San DieGo" campaign, now entering its second year, the city center has seen "an incredible renaissance," Berkman says, specifically in the once abandoned Gaslamp Quarter.

Now buzzing with restaurants, hotels, bars, and shops - as well as a first-class convention center and baseball park - San Diego is the poster child for urban revival. Though his firm deals mostly with national accounts, Formula PR president Michael Olguin says, "From a client standpoint, people love to have meetings here."

The city's recent political climate has been less inspiring. Bribery scandals and voting inconsistencies shook the region in 2005 and the city's finances have dwindled. But a new mayor is now in office, keen to reinstate stability among the city's tight-knit business community, says Bill Trumpfheller, president of Nuffer, Smith, Tucker (NST). And being "plugged into its fabric" is essential for a local PR firm, he says, even when working with national clients.

With just under 3 million residents in the entire county, San Diego is the country's seventh-largest city. "It's the biggest small town you'll come across," says Megan Dyer, director of Allison & Partners' Southern California operations. She agrees that it's imperative for firms to be "very well networked with the movers and shakers in town," and encourages staffers to participate in entrepreneurial groups.

"There's not even six degrees of separation here - it's probably three," she says.

The corporate PR scene

Many of the aforementioned "movers and shakers" are involved in the region's booming $8.5 billion life-sciences industry.

"It's almost a tale of two cities," says David Schull, managing director of Euro RSCG Life and Noonan Russo. "On the PR front, you have traditional agencies, then you have agencies that are highly specialized," he explains. "As life sciences companies advance from early stage to mid-stage, all the way through the commercialization of a product, opportunities to grow with them are tremendous."

From research institutions, including Scripps, The Salk Institute, Torrey Pines Institute, and the University of California, San Diego, to an aggressive venture capital network, San Diego County is home to more than 500 biotech, medical device and diagnostics, and pharmaceutical companies, employing almost 39,000 people, says Tim Ingersoll, associate director of communications at advocacy and networking group Biocom/San Diego.

Just north of the city, Torrey Pines is "considered the Rodeo Drive of the life-sciences industry," he notes. Homegrown players, such as Biogen Idec, Novalar, and Gen-Probe, share the terrain with pharma giants like Merck and Pfizer, which have acquired local start-ups.

Headquarters to Qualcomm and other communications-focused companies, the San Diego region is also "a hotbed of wireless" and Web 2.0, says Tim Wheatcroft, Lewis PR's business development director. Ranked by the American Electronics Association as California's leader in tech R&D, San Diego "is near Silicon Valley, but without some of the drawbacks," Wheatcroft adds. The sector plays such a critical economic role that the city has designated a Science and Technology Commission to counsel the mayor's office on the tech space.

While San Diego is hardly a corporate retail hub - due in part to its geographically challenging location and high-priced housing market - some companies, including Jack in the Box, WD-40, and Chicken of the Sea, have been based there for years.

A San Diego institution since 1965, Petco Animal Supplies displays its commitment to the city (and extends its brand) in an especially visible fashion, says Don Cowan, Petco's communications director. The company is the naming-rights sponsor behind Petco Park, the Padres' new $450 million stadium. And thanks to near-perfect microclimates and easy access to beaches, mountains, and deserts, Cowan says, Petco staffers from other parts of the US love to come to corporate headquarters.

There are other business sectors in San Diego and southern Orange counties that have yet to be tapped, notes NST's Trumpfheller. The area is "a hotbed for the action-sports world," he says, and is home to ski, surf, skate, and off-roading companies, such as K2, Execute Sports, and Jedidiah.

Melissa Schoeb, Southern California GM for Fleishman-Hillard, adds that with its proximity to Mexico's border, "we're seeing a lot of traction on the multicultural front." To that end, the firm has expanded its Hispanic focus.

The media scene

While it's true that San Diego offers a "thriving business community and a vibrant downtown," says Formula's Olguin, the city still faces the challenges of a small media market. "Once you've got a major feature in, the likelihood of getting another is almost nonexistent," he says.

But Schoeb says there are many broadcast options, including TV network affiliates KGTV-ABC, KNSD-NBC, KFMB-CBS, and XETV-Fox. The area is also rich in Hispanic media, including weekly titles like Enlance (in Spanish), bilingual La Prensa, ElLatinoOnline.com, and two dozen Hispanic TV and radio stations.

Trumpfheller adds that the local media market has seen "a lot of growth" in the past 10 years. While the city has only one major daily - the Copley-owned San Diego Union-Tribune - "community papers are thriving," he says. Several publications cater to the region's business and lifestyle scenes, including the San Diego Business Journal and San Diego City Beat. In addition, newly formed Sermo Media is expected to launch its Biz San Diego magazine, Web site, and community education and networking association this fall.

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