PR pros strive to help San Francisco keep its heart

Despite a thriving comms scene, the city is at risk of losing its cosmopolitan feel due to soaring house prices.

When Hilary O’Byrne moved from New York to San Francisco two years ago, the biggest difference she noticed was the work-life balance. Although PR pros in San Francisco are connected to work all the time, employers in the area are more accepting of staffers working on the go.

"There is a bit more openness to being able to have your own life and integrate work into that accordingly," says O’Byrne, Wells Fargo’s assistant VP in corporate communications. "It is more encouraged here to see your family or work out or have some alone time."

That’s not to say PR practitioners in the area don’t take their jobs seriously.

"One misconception is that the hours are a little more lax," says O’Byrne. "It’s true the area has a different type of professionalism than New York and is a bit younger and diverse, but it is a very professional environment."

Local PR practitioners are surrounded by job prospects, from established companies to early stage startups. New offices and residential properties are constantly sprouting up – San Francisco’s tallest building, the Salesforce Tower, will be completed in 2017.

"The crane is certainly the most common bird in San Francisco," says Lewis PR EVP Morgan McLintic, referring to the widespread construction.

Importance of tech sector
Technology accounts for 39% of the city’s economy, so it’s no shock that Lewis PR’s office in the area solely focuses on tech. McLintic says security, big data, mobile, and cloud are tech’s fastest-growing sectors.

In financial year 2014, Lewis PR’s outpost in the area grew revenue 24% to more than $10 million. About a third of its earnings can be attributed to digital marketing services via the firm’s Lewis Pulse division, which grew 70% compared to last year, according to McLintic.

The trend toward digital continues with social media marketing, search, and pay-per-click, he adds. Last year, the office mainly attracted startups emerging from stealth, late-stage private companies planning to go public, or major brands with a disruptive approach, according to McLintic.

"We’re seeing a lot of companies, even early stage ones, wanting to supplement their earned and owned media with paid media strategies," he says. "We have also seen more brands ramp up international campaigns as economic conditions improve."

But the tech industry does not stand alone in San Francisco. Financial services such as Wells Fargo and consumer brands such as Gap and Levi Strauss are also prominent in the area. Food and beverage companies such as Popchips also call the city home.

San Francisco is seen as a culinary capital, according to Shelley Roth, SVP and group manager of global food B2B development at Ketchum. The agency’s office in the city sports an in-house test kitchen, a unique asset that has attracted numerous clients, including the US Potato Board, which calls on the Omnicom firm for recipe and culinary development assistance.

"There are interesting things happening here from the clean label movement to the ethnic food panorama. We are trying to be a focal point for a lot of that," says Roth.

Ketchum’s kitchen is used for tastings, events with chef panels, and Twitter parties. The firm works with food clients on culinary innovation, digital work, visual comms around food, and reputation management, thought leadership, nutrition and wellness, and sustainability.

"There are a lot of brilliant people moving here: Not only the Stanford and Berkeley graduates, but also people from the Ivy Leagues on the East Coast," she says. "There is a lot of competition, and as a PR pro you need to differentiate yourself a little bit more than you would in New York because the area isn’t as big."

The best way for someone entering the industry to stand out is to get at least one year of agency work under their belt, adds O’Byrne. Dipping a toe in this world affords a young PR pro the chance to become a jack-of-all-trades in different industries and get familiar with many types of media and trade organizations, she adds.

"We are increasingly seeing lawyers, journalists, and teachers, who write well and have professional poise because of their former roles," says Phil Carpenter, senior partner for the West Coast at Allison+Partners. "The smart agencies are looking at talent pools other than the same ones everyone else is hanging out at."

Finding top talent
While internship and junior-level positions go quickly, mid-level PR pros, such as account managers, are the most difficult candidates to find, adds McLintic.

"In 2008, as everything started to decline, agencies here stopped hiring junior people," he says. "You have a missing generation of staffers who should have seven or eight years’ experience at this point."

On the flip side, retaining staffers is a major struggle, as poaching is rife among rivals.

"Everyone has a friend who made it big in a tech company because they were in the right place at the right time, so there is a feverish sense of opportunities and that you might be missing something," adds McLintic."That manifests in people becoming short term in their career thinking and changing jobs too quickly."

The issue with this, he adds, is that many people who work for agencies tend to be lured to in-house gigs at startups without having proper experience in that area. And the area’s soaring property prices make high salaries a must if companies want to prevent staffers from departing for another job or even a different state.

The median home value in San Francisco is $984,500 and median rent price $4,000, according to Zillow.

"Not only is there not enough affordable housing, but there is also not enough housing," says McLintic. "Apartments are getting smaller, rent is going up, and landlords are turning houses into apartments."

Although the booming economy benefits PR pros, it is pricing out service workers such as teachers and police officers, and contributing to the area’s growing homeless population, which currently totals 14,000. In addition, few families call the city home and 75% of residents rent property, he adds.

Aside from the cost of housing, people are leaving the area due to overcrowding and high taxes, says Ken Pries, Oakland Athletics’ VP of broadcasting and communications.

"People are moving further inland," he says. "A lot of retirees are moving to Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon."

A key challenge for businesses is helping the city to keep its heart, notes McLintic.

"To remain a vibrant, liberal, and cosmopolitan city, you need to have jobs at all levels and people need places to live," he adds. 


Fact File

Top economic growth sectors
San Francisco’s economy is made up of 39% technology, 20% healthcare, 11% industrials, and 10% financial services

Biggest companies in the area 
McKesson, Wells Fargo, Gap, PG&E, and URS

Biggest agencies in the area
W2O Group, Sparkpr, LaunchSquad, Edelman, Lewis PR, Allison+Partners, and Ketchum

Why people love it
Opportunities abound: Skiing, sailing, kayaking, and canoeing are within a short drive

Why people leave it
High housing costs

Fun fact
San Francisco residents do not worry about earthquakes when they wake up in the morning, says Lewis PR’s Morgan McLintic. Instead, they worry about where they are going to park

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