It is easy to overlook Canada's PR market, sitting as it does in the shadow of a much bigger neighbour. To do so would, however, miss a thriving industry that has grown a strong reputation for supplying talent and innovation to the PR world at large.
Recent months have seen Canada grapple with a variety of typically unique issues. An ongoing minority parliament has dominated the political agenda, while Canada's economy has weathered the global financial crisis relatively well.
The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, meanwhile, thrust Canada into the global spotlight, a situation that will likely repeat itself when the country hosts the G20 Summit later this year.
Accurate estimates of the size of Canada's PR market are hard to come by. National PR managing partner John Crean suggests that the industry is worth approximately ten per cent of the US market, which would put it at around $500m.
Hill & Knowlton Canada president and CEO Mike Coates notes that the industry ‘took a pause' last year because of economic factors but expects growth to return to double-digit levels: ‘Early indications are that the marketplace has stabilised.'
‘Canada is a very advanced PR market where the budgets allow a wide range of innovation,' says Burson-Marsteller Asia CEO Bob Pickard, who cut his teeth in the country. ‘Its degree of sophistication and proximity to the US gives it an international look and feel.'
Comms innovation is reflected in the growth of digital analytics companies such as DNA13 and Radian6 and, of course, Research in Motion – makers of the ubiquitous BlackBerry.
Canada's diversity also stands out. ‘There's a large French-speaking population that necessitates translation and customisation of activities, and other cultural groups are also sizeable, representing opportunities for PR,' says Bite Communications Canada GM Will Willis.
The country's two major national newspapers are The Globe and Mail, and the National Post. ‘The Globe and Mail is the national paper of record for politics and business,' says Environics Communications president and CEO Bruce MacLellan. ‘It is the essential paper to influence elites and key influencers.'
Public service broadcaster CBC is also influential across both TV and radio. Canada also plays host to a large, but shrinking, regional and local media landscape.
‘In the past year, the biggest consolidation has been in broadcast media, and there's currently an ongoing battle between struggling local broadcasters and cable companies about paying for local content, a cost that's being passed on to consumers,' explains Willis.
‘We are seeing huge media consolidation in terms of ownership,' adds Hill & Knowlton SVP Kadi Kaljuste. ‘It can sometimes create an all or nothing moment.'
The adoption of social media in Canada, aided by a well-developed high-speed internet infrastructure, has been rapid. Key commercial hub Toronto, for example, can boast the most Facebook users of any city in the world.
A recent Environics survey, meanwhile, reveals that 68 per cent of Canadians are registered Facebook users, with 50 per cent reporting daily use.
Proximity to the US means that localised digital content is less noticeable. Accordingly, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr continue to hold sway.
‘A lot of the social media and digital trends come from the US,' says Kaljuste. ‘I don't know that there really has emerged a rock star [in Canada] yet.'
Research in Motion has become an important tech success story for Canadian brands, while domestic player Bell Canada impresses with its use of traditional and new media.
‘Canada has a healthy list of iconic local brands that market themselves in nationalistic ways even if they are often owned by American parents,' notes Argyle Communications president Dan Tisch, pointing to such names as coffee chain Tim Hortons and beer brands Molson and Labatt.
Coates points to food major Maple Leaf Foods as an example of a company that has ‘set the standard' in terms of crisis comms. A listeriosis outbreak led to a major product recall, but Coates believes that the company, and its president Michael McCain, handled the situation well.
‘He took responsibility and as a consequence was able to avoid a lot of punitive action from government and was able to reinforce his reputation,' says Coates. ‘From a bottom line standpoint - he was able to settle the outstanding claims from the families of victims far sooner.'
Canada's massive natural resources sector means that environmental issues are never far from the surface where PR is concerned. Crean points out that the mining industry - which is centered on Toronto - has had to work hard to ‘accommodate the interests of local communities'.
The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, has faced significant environmental opposition to its exploitation of oil sand reserves. ‘These large Canadian companies are dealing with complex reputation problems,' adds Crean. ‘They have to work hard to explain their actual impact on the environment.'
Canada's banking brands, adds MacLellan, are also ‘very respected'.
The market is evenly split between multinational networks and independent players. A recent survey by the Canadian Council of PR Firms indicates that its 21 member firms employ approximately 1,200 professionals.
National PR, in which Burson-Marsteller owns a minority interest, is the country's biggest agency, with a particularly strong corporate comms offering that spans the pharmaceutical and natural resource industries.
National is worth approximately $50m, with Hill & Knowlton commonly considered its closest contender, thanks to a diversified offering that includes a very strong public affairs practice.
H&K's Coates makes the prediction that, by the end of this year, his agency will have overtaken National.
Other important local players include Environics Communications, Optimum Public Relations, and Apex PR. Multinationals with a substantial presence include Edelman and Fleishman-Hillard.
Extensive government regulation at both a national and local level means that public affairs is a mature and sophisticated practice area in the country. It is also one of the world's most tightly regulated and transparent lobbying markets, with many firms centred around the capital city Ottawa and Toronto.
‘There are two types of PA consultants emerging,' says Coates. ‘Registered lobbyists and unregistered consultants/strategists.'
‘Government spending on PR has dropped with the deficits caused by stimulus spending,' adds MacLellan. ‘Right now, it is more attractive for consultants to lobby government than represent government.'