How Pittsburgh transformed its reputation

Shannon Baker, partner and EVP of PR and social media at Gatesman+Dave, discusses how Pittsburgh shook off its reputation as a steel mill city.

As recently as the 1940s, Pittsburgh was known as the "two-shirt"city, thanks to emissions from steel mills that would make workers’ clothing so filthy, they would have to change mid-day to remain presentable.

Today, few steel mills remain. Much of the local industry is now centered on advanced healthcare, technology, and a growing energy sector, with Pittsburgh’s close proximity to the Marcellus Shale range, the largest natural gas field in the US.

Not to mention the impending merger of Kraft Foods and HJ Heinz, which will create the fifth-biggest food and drinks company in the world and third largest in North America. The company will be co-headquartered in Pittsburgh and Chicago when the deal closes later this year.

"Pittsburghers are hard on themselves; we have suffered from an identity crisis, being a Rust Belt city," explains Shannon Baker, partner and EVP of Gatesman+Dave’s PR and social media practice. "But more and more people have started coming – and staying – here in the past 10 years."

Home to well-respected educational institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, the city has been injected with a younger population that appears to be staying put and starting businesses, according to Baker.

At the start of the financial crisis in 2008, employees who were let go from the area’s major communications agencies such as Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, and Havas PR bounced back to start their own independent agencies. But Baker says that is no longer the case.

"We are seeing some stability with the big three, as well as a huge push on midsize agencies such as Gatesman," she continues. "You don’t see too many five-man shops opening up in the city anymore."

Baker, who grew up in Pittsburgh, left the region for positions in Montana and New York, but returned to her native city 12 years ago.

"People in the PR industry feel they have to go to New York and get that experience, but a lot of the time, they miss home and boomerang back," she says.

For in-house PR professionals in the region, there is not a lot of turnover, but on the agency side, younger staffers move on quickly, Baker adds.

Because of the magnetism larger cities might have with employees, companies in Pittsburgh often have to get creative in order to retain talent.

"Being able to stand out for the work we are doing and the culture we have as a company is really critical," she notes. For instance, perks that attract staff to Gatesman include unlimited paid time off and 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

"If you are a hustler contributing to the success of the business, you will succeed at a rapid pace," Baker advises. 

Fast Facts

1. Eight companies in the area are on the 2014 Fortune 500 list: US Steel Corp. (#166), PNC Financial Services Group (#172), PPG Industries (#190), Mylan (#377), HJ Heinz (#239), Wesco International (#349), Dick’s Sporting Goods (#421), and Consol Energy (#434). 

2. Pittsburgh’s population is 305,841, according to the US Census Bureau in 2014.

3. Pittsburgh was rated the most liveable city in the US by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s global liveability ranking.

4. Grit & Grace, located on Liberty Avenue is a popular bar scene and power lunch destination. And Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh’s restaurant The Commoner is "the place to see and be seen for those on the up and up," Baker says.

5. The median sales price for homes is $130,000, according to

6. Its unemployment rate last December was 4.6%, compared with the national rate of 5.6% in the same time period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Reach Out

Pittsburgh PRSA
P.O. Box 2502
Pittsburgh PA 15230
(412) 335-0636

International Association of Business Communicators Pittsburgh
(724) 327-3345

Pittsburgh City Hall
414 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 255-2621

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