Historically an underdog among Southern coastal states, North
Carolina has pulled itself up by its educational and industrial
bootstraps to become an economic center attracting the attention of
national PR firms.
In colonial days, North Carolina's rocky shoreline smashed ships and
diverted settlement to the more welcoming beaches of South Carolina and
Virginia. Tobacco, textiles and furniture delivered the Tar Heel state
from obscurity, but as those industries lost ground to health concerns
and cheap foreign labor, technology, healthcare and banking took up the
More than half the 6.6 million residents live in the state's urban
Technology leads the economy in the Research Triangle Park (RTP) area,
which includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Bank of America and
First Union make Charlotte a financial powerhouse. Winston-Salem and
Greensboro hang on to the more traditional textile and tobacco
industries. Nearby High Point still reigns as the nation's furniture
capital, bringing the world to North Carolina for massive trade shows in
April and October.
Last year proved, however, that North Carolina has some economic hills
left to climb. The state lost about 20,000 manufacturing jobs last year
- more than any other state, according to the US Bureau of Labor
The statistics also show the technology and transportation sectors
On the up side, business and professional service segments provided a
few new jobs.
From the PR perspective, few firms admit taking hits from dot-coms, but
Price McNabb president Thomas Eppes reports that more resumes than usual
are crossing his desk these days.
Household names near NC's households
Hi-tech's biggest names are among the state's largest employers - IBM,
Nortel, Ericsson, Cisco and Motorola. But as is the case in relation to
many midsize markets, these behemoths make management and PR decisions
from distant corporate headquarters. Both Nortel and Motorola announced
massive national layoffs this year, but it remains unclear what impact
that will have on North Carolina.
Federal Express still plans to open a shipping hub at Piedmont Triad
International Airport near Winston-Salem in 2005, despite local
Winston-Salem's James A. Fyock & Associates is helping the Memphis-based
company with public affairs.
RTP focuses more on research and development and less on commercial
applications in telecoms, computers, biotechnology and
A host of dot-coms blossomed and wilted in North Carolina last year, but
as a hi-tech late bloomer, the state was not affected as badly as some
other regions by the industry's bitter harvest.
Tech and PR grown at home
The SAS Institute and Red Hat are the state's best-known homegrown
technology companies. Two of Red Hat's 700 employees handle PR; and the
open-source software developer relies heavily on assistance from
Schwartz Communications in Waltham, MA.
SAS has billed itself as the world's largest privately held software
company, but last year it indicated that it might make an IPO in
The company's 30-person corporate communications staff launched a major
branding campaign focused on globalization. After a national search, SAS
chose Raleigh's Howard Merrell & Partners for advertising and some PR
work. 'We realized we could do everything working with an agency that is
right here in our own back yard,' says spokesperson John Dornan.
Few old-economy companies share Dornan's view, but many turn to local
firms only for limited projects. Lowes Home Improvement Warehouse, based
in North Wilkesboro, has a long-term retainer relationship with
Golin/Harris in Chicago. But it works with Capital Strategies, a leading
PR and public affairs firm in Raleigh, on 'smart growth' issues, i.e.
the resistance of some communities to accept big-box retailers, says
Lowes' PR director Chris Ahearn.
Like several other big-name North Carolina companies, Lowes' 20-member
corporate communications division is large enough to constitute a small
agency. R.J. Reynold's Tobacco, SAS and First Union employ even larger
internal staffs. RJR doesn't have an agency of record but frequently
seeks strategic counsel from Shandwick's Washington, DC office and is
working with Greensboro's Quixote Group on a grant program sponsored by
the Doral brand, says RJR communications VP Maura Payne.
The apparel division of Sara Lee, based in Winston-Salem, oversees Bali,
Playtex, Leggs, Hanes, Champion and other brands. With 11 in-house
communicators, the company matches its brands with several New York
agencies, like Marina Maher, Fleishman-Hillard and Lippe Taylor. The
company is using a local firm, Ralph Simpson & Associates, to head a
national PR road trip for Just My Size, says product PR director Laura
On the agency side, four national firms have moved into North Carolina
with varying degrees of success, and one local agency, Richard French &
Associates, is burgeoning as a national player.
RF&A brought in about dollars 4 million last year with 37 employees at
its Raleigh headquarters and another 13 in New York, Nashville and
Tampa. French founded the agency in 1997 after heading the PR practice
at ad firm Rockett, Burkhead, Lewis and Winslow. A few clients migrated
to the new agency with French, including Greensboro's Wrangler, which
remains his biggest account. Other clients include Goodmark Foods and
Jack Daniels. French says he has resisted acquisition inquiries by
Aside from RF&A, Capital Strategies and Epley Associates rank among the
state's largest independent firms. Founded in 1968, Epley is a founding
partner in the Worldcom PR group. With offices in Charlotte and Raleigh,
Epley serves companies with manufacturing interests in the state such as
John Deere, Corning Fiber Optics and Philip Morris, as well as Carolinas
Healthcare System, the state's largest hospital chain.
Based in the state capital, Capital Strategies is a full-service firm of
about 50 employees, 30 of whom work in PR or in the strong public
affairs practice. Clients include the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes and
North Carolina's Food Lion grocery chain.
Brodeur followed mega-client IBM to Raleigh nearly six years ago and now
employs 26 people there. The company serves four IBM divisions and other
technology clients such as Internet Security Systems.
Sister agency Porter Novelli opened a technology-focused Convergence
Group office in Raleigh in February 2000 and plans to expand into
biotechnology, healthcare and patient recruitment for clinical trials.
VP John Bornstein moved to North Carolina for personal reasons and
telecommuted to Boston for a few years before formally founding the
office. PN's five employees brought in more than dollars 500,000 last
year with clients such as MindLever, Nitronex, Intellon and Pliant
Gibbs & Soell cut its staff from 25 to 10 last year after losing most of
its cornerstone Aventis Crop Science account to Rhea & Kaiser, an
integrated PR and advertising firm in Chicago, says client services
manager Ann Camden.
G&S is hanging on in Raleigh with clients Reichhold Chemical, Cargill
Dow and Marathon Innovations.
The 15-person Raleigh office of Ruder Finn (RF) earned dollars 1.5
million last year, up from dollars 1.1 million in 1999, says president
Clients include Thomasville Furniture and several museums. The staff is
working on a new retail project for Sara Lee and expects to assist RF's
New York office with its relatively new IR account for Bank of
RF also has done project work for IBM and for pharmaceutical company
Glaxo Wellcome, until it merged with SmithKline Beecham in December.
PepperCom may be wedging its foot in the door of North Carolina PR
through a recently announced partnership with the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Although no
money will change hands, PepperCom is partnering with the school on
conferences, research studies, and articles about business supply chains
Regional advertising agencies with large PR staffs include Trone and
Price McNabb, each with about 25 PR people. Trone's integrated campaigns
for UniRoyal, Michelin and Novartis include significant PR elements,
says Joe Gallehugh, who is moving from Houston to High Point as Trone's
new SVP and PR director.
Charlotte's Price McNabb handles the Starbucks account in the Southeast
and Midwest and works for Nucor Steel and Drexel Heritage Furniture,
among other clients. Eppes holds the unusual distinction of rising up
from the PR side to lead the integrated firm and says North Carolina has
a lot in common with other midsize markets.
'There's really not a great deal of difference between the midsize
agencies that you would see in regional markets anywhere,' Eppes says.
'I think midsize market agencies can compete in other markets against
midsize national firms, but it's hard to compete in New York or
SELECT NC AGENCIES
PR firms with offices in North Carolina, ranked by number of PR
employees in the state:
Richard French & Associates 37
Epley Associates 32
Capital Strategies 30
Price McNabb 25
Ruder Finn 15
James A. Fyock & Associates 10
Gibbs & Soell 10
PR Street 7
Porter Novelli Convergence Group 5