Surviving in the backyard of a giant requires being nimble. Just ask the PR firms based in St. Louis, hometown of PR giant Fleishman-Hillard International Communications. Fleishman’s income dwarfs that of other PR firms in this Mississippi River city. Its nearest competitor, Shandwick, can only manage about a tenth of F-H’s St. Louis billings.
Surviving in the backyard of a giant requires being nimble. Just
ask the PR firms based in St. Louis, hometown of PR giant
Fleishman-Hillard International Communications. Fleishman’s income
dwarfs that of other PR firms in this Mississippi River city. Its
nearest competitor, Shandwick, can only manage about a tenth of F-H’s
St. Louis billings.
But PR in St. Louis is about more than just Fleishman. A variety of
other firms are prospering by going after niche business - especially in
the emerging agricultural sciences, health care and Internet sectors.
’Unless you have a niche, you get overwhelmed by F-H,’ explains Katie
Burckhalter, president of the local PRSA chapter.
PR firms occasionally win business from some of the same corporate
giants that work with Fleishman, as those companies farm out more and
Agencies are also looking outside the city for clients.
’There’s very healthy competition here,’ says Cathy Dunkin, a principal
with The Standing Partnership, a St. Louis PR firm. ’There’s enough work
There is also a ready supply of new talent, with three local
universities pumping out PR or communications majors and other schools -
such as Southern Illinois University - nearby. Salaries for entry-level
PR people are in the dollars 20,000 to dollars 25,000 range, with as
much as a dollars 10,000 premium for people with Web experience,
according to Kit Jenkins, an associate professor and head of the PR
program at Webster University in St. Louis. Salaries in the three- to
five-year experience range are around dollars 40,000 and account
supervisors earn dollars 60,000.
While PR internships in the city were scarce a decade ago, today
students often work for two or three before graduating, says Leise
Hutchison, a professor in the department of communications at St Louis
Fleishman alone takes on 45 interns each year.
St. Louis is a major corporate headquarters town, ranking fourth on the
Fortune 500 list in terms of companies based there. Many of those majors
have been Fleishman clients. But today they’re doing more PR outsourcing
and tapping a variety of firms to work on different projects.
Corporate residents like Monsanto and Ralston Purina have also served as
training grounds for PR people who have gone on to start their own
agencies. Interestingly, St. Louis has a high proportion of PR
operations run by women, often started by those trying to balance work
and family who felt there was little chance for advancement in
conservative St. Louis.
There are an increasing number of new technology companies - offshoots
of the agricultural and aerospace industries that long have dominated
the local economy. McDonnell Douglas, now owned by Boeing but once a St.
Louis corporate mainstay, nurtured the city’s aerospace base, while
Monsanto and the Missouri Botanical Gardens trained agricultural and
biotech experts who have gone on to make the city a hub for new
businesses in those sectors.
After a relatively slow year in 1998 (with the top five firms growing by
only 5.7% against a national average of 24%), local experts see PR
revenues growing in the 10% to 20% range this year. Income for St. Louis
PR firms grew 6.5% in 1998 to around dollars 49.45 million compared with
1997’s dollars 46.43 million. The St. Louis Business Journal, which also
looks at PR revenues at ad agencies, puts the market at more than
dollars 56 million in annual revenues for the 10 largest firms.
Still, St. Louis is a relative latecomer to the PR boom sweeping the
rest of the country. Blame that on the conservative Midwest nature of
many of its corporations, says Jon Sloane, general manager at the
six-person St. Louis office of Cushman/Amberg.
’They would gather the wagons in a circle and just hope the media
wouldn’t come,’ he says of St. Louis corporate thinking a decade or so
Ron O’Connor, a 25-year veteran of the St. Louis PR scene who now runs
his own local firm, O’Connor & Partners, agrees. He says that 10 years
ago, when PR firms started to multiply in cities like Minneapolis,
Cleveland and even Kansas City, St. Louis was still largely a Fleishman
town. But in recent years, as businesses have consolidated and new
enterprises have emerged, attitudes towards PR have changed and new
firms have sprung up.
’The appreciation of PR is slowly growing in the corporate world,’ says
Ann Tretter, president of the Tretter Group. Middle market companies are
searching for more PR help, spurred by the speed with which the Internet
spreads information - and misinformation - about a company.
Tretter is also experiencing demand in the area of marketing
’Everyone in St. Louis does marketing PR,’ she says. Her firm normally
goes after business below the Fortune 500 level and has made a push in
the service sector, handling accounts such as the Visiting Nurses
The Standing Partnership’s Cathy Dunkin started her firm in 1991 after
working for such local corporations as Monsanto and Ralston Purina, as
well as Golin/Harris and Hill & Knowlton. With dollars 1.3 million in PR
fees and 15 people, she sees her organization as a midsize firm that can
compete for a variety of business.
Kupper Parker Communications has set itself up as a ’super-regional,’
says Mary Scholz Barber, director of KPC PR. With offices in Kansas
City, Columbus, OH, Louisville, Nashville and New Orleans, it realized
PR income of roughly dollars 3.1 million in its last fiscal year,
compared to dollars 2.5 million in its fiscal 1997. Kupper Parker offers
a full range of communications services, including direct marketing and
advertising. Barber also sees the healthcare market as a major growth
area in St. Louis PR.
Donna Vandiver, founder of the Vandiver Group, says she’s built her
business by providing corporate value statements and helping companies
define their corporate cultures. She works with a broad range of
clients, but finds many in the dollars 1 billion to dollars 5 billion
sales category. St. Louis PR business has picked up considerably the
past three years, she says, with her firm realizing growth of 57% from
1996 to 1998.
Fleishman still thrives
So what about Fleishman? Its St. Louis office - which is also its
corporate HQ - has 34 people at either partner or senior partner level,
with an average tenure of 13 years. ’That enables us to go out and win
and serve new business,’ says Bill Anderson, general manager of the St.
Louis office and regional president. ’We can bring the whole spectrum of
service,’ adds Dave Senay, an EVP and senior partner.
The firm’s 1998 performance was modest, with income up 7%, against
nationwide growth of 18% for FH. The St. Louis office now accounts for
30% of the business.
As the St. Louis business environment has changed, so has Fleishman.
It has taken on more small-to-midsize clients and has a thriving
interactive operation aimed at Internet activities. It has also reached
beyond St. Louis, handling such accounts as Wal-Mart of Arkansas and
Texas-based Dell Computers. ’Our size gives us a lot of depth and
diversity,’ Anderson says of the St. Louis office. Indeed, it can
provide any of Fleishman’s specialties, which include corporate and
financial PR, marketing communications, internal communications and
Fleishman has 365 employees in St. Louis. About 100 of those are
strictly PR people, with roughly 155 considered account staff, including
designers and research people. It’s a formidable array of talent - and
the agency offers perks such as paid daily parking and weekly massages
to keep its turnover down to a lower than industry average of 14% a
Other national firms which tried to compete in St. Louis, notably
Edelman and Hill & Knowlton, have since pulled out. They failed because
they never became part of the St. Louis business world, believes PR
’It was out-of- town folks trying to change the St. Louis way of doing
business,’ he says. Webster University’s Kit Jenkins agrees. ’It’s a
conservative town. It’s an old-boys network and Fleishman is very tied
Today, Shandwick is the only other major national with a presence. It
bought a local firm several years ago, a strategy which may have helped
it avoid the pitfalls other out-of-towners faced. Shandwick’s office
ranks second to Fleishman in St Louis, with roughly dollars 4 million in
PR income last year.
Dan Harrison, St. Louis managing director for Shandwick, says he’s
stressing the strategic approach to PR. Shandwick also has an
interactive operation in St. Louis, seeing it as a growth opportunity
for its 50-person office.
’There are a lot of opportunities out there,’ he says.
That’s what most PR people in St. Louis are saying. They’re not
boasting, mind you - that would run counter to their Midwest character.
Missouri, after all, is called the ’Show-Me’ state.
St. Louis’ Fortune
COMPANY Fortune Ranking
Emerson Electric 118
May Department Stores 120
Ralston Purina 293
Graybar Electric 404
Clark USA 414
TransWorld Airlines 454
ARCH DELUXE: THE TOP FIVE PR FIRMS IN ST. LOUIS
98 Company St Louis Income %
Rank 1998 1997 Change
1 Fleishman-Hillard 40,349,000 37,713,000 7
2 Shandwick International 4,045,000 4,357,000 -7
3 Kupper Parker Communications 2,557,531 2,338,508 9
4 The Standing Partnership* 1,276,774 1,325,355 -4
5 The Vandiver Group 874,518 694,372 26
98 Company 1998 St 1997 St
Rank US income Louis US Income Louis
1 Fleishman-Hillard 136,272,000 30 115,193,000 33
2 Shandwick International 91,485,000 4 80,292,000 5
3 Kupper Parker Communications 3,100,261 82 2,481,007 94
4 The Standing Partnership* 1,276,774 100 1,325,355 100
5 The Vandiver Group 874,518 100 694,372 100
* figures supplied by the Council of Public Relations Firms.