MARKET FOCUS COLORADO - Rocky Mountains on a PR high - Colorado’s economy has diversified beyond natural resources and cable-TV companies As Lynn Bronikowski reports, that means a secure PR environment.

Not since the 1850s gold rush or the 1970s oil boom has Colorado seen such prosperity. The Centennial State ranks third in the US in population growth, houses five of the nation’s fastest-growing counties and has legislators scratching their heads over growth issues.

Not since the 1850s gold rush or the 1970s oil boom has Colorado seen such prosperity. The Centennial State ranks third in the US in population growth, houses five of the nation’s fastest-growing counties and has legislators scratching their heads over growth issues.

Not since the 1850s gold rush or the 1970s oil boom has Colorado

seen such prosperity. The Centennial State ranks third in the US in

population growth, houses five of the nation’s fastest-growing counties

and has legislators scratching their heads over growth issues.

Today’s economic climate is a far cry from the late 1980s when

resource-rich Colorado saw crude prices drop, triggering an oil bust

that sent housing prices plummeting and geologists back to school for

their MBAs.

It also saw regional PR firms laying off staff and national public

relations firms such as Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller packing

their bags.

Housing prices now break records each month, with dollars 199,246 being

the median price of a home in the Denver-metro area, up 11.6% from a

year ago. To lure workers, companies dangle everything from indoor bike

racks to season ski passes. And budgets for PR are making a


’We’re seeing bigger budgets than we’ve ever seen before,’ says Gwin

Johnston, a 28-year PR veteran and president of JohnstonWells Public

Relations, a Denver firm with 1999 billings of dollars 2.4 million.

’It’s an exciting time to be in the public relations business in


Johnston says that besides the many dot-coms, dominant industries

include telecommunications, healthcare and financial services. There are

also big public works projects such as a light rail system and the

redevelopment of the old Stapleton Airport.

Once-starved regional PR firms are working at breakneck speeds, wooing

talent from both coasts and even turning away business. PR professionals

who leave agency work for self-employment are just as busy - without

even hanging out a shingle. And national firms such as Ogilvy PR

Worldwide have set up shop in Denver to have a presence in the Rocky

Mountain West.

’Colorado has the best quality of life of anywhere around, and that

attracts the knowledge worker,’ says Bob Schenkein, a 27-year veteran of

Denver’s PR scene. ’We find scientists, venture capitalists and

entrepreneurs moving here. People are creating spin-offs of cable and

telecommunications companies.’Schenkein’s eponymous firm had 1999

billings of dollars 2.1 million and projects 2000 billings of dollars

2.6 million.

Growing pains

The frenzy stems from small and mid-size companies relocating to

Colorado or setting up operations along Colorado’s Front Range - a

populous corridor that extends 135 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado

Springs, with Denver at its heart.

’Denver’s gotten more of the Baby Boomer generation over the last 10

years than anywhere else, and those are the people that everybody wants

to hire,’ says Schenkein.

What’s more, Colorado’s economy is diversified this time around - not

dependent on a single industry like the gold rush or oil boom that could

go bust and send the state’s economy and PR budgets into a tailspin.

’Colorado has a history of being beaten up by one industry’s doings and

then failing,’ says John Metzger, president of 10-year-old Metzger

Associates, a Boulder firm specializing in hi-tech public relations that

puts its 1999 billings at dollars 2 million.

And though mountain towns are reeling from a two-year snow drought that

has sent the number of skiers plummeting 11% at the state’s 25 ski

resorts, Colorado’s overall economy is diverse enough to weather the


The state is home to few Fortune 500 companies, so with the exception of

cable giant Telecommunications Inc. merging with AT&T and telephone

operator USWest in talks with Qwest, merger mania has primarily affected

small and mid-size outfits.

’Mergers and acquisitions creates special opportunities for consultation

and strategic planning,’ says Sandra Laws, president of Laws

Communications, an 850,000 shop in suburban Aurora. ’We counsel

companies on how to convey the information to a bunch of different

audiences, and that’s an intensive process and a growing area.’

Laws, who serves as president of the Denver PRSA chapter, adds, ’We’re

all enjoying where the industry is - strong, regional independent firms

that find there’s no barriers to doing national work out of Denver.’

At the same time, agencies are finding themselves focusing on integrated

marketing and communications plans that go beyond PR. ’Prospective

clients are requesting more than just traditional public relations

services,’ says Al Somers, PR manager at CMI/Barhart. ’That is why we

can compete with the larger public relations-specific firms. We offer

marketing, advertising and interactive services all under one roof.’

Several PR executives say without exaggeration that they get up to three

calls a day from Internet, e-commerce and technology companies with

healthy budgets seeking to retain a PR firm.

’One of the most significant things we’re seeing is the number of

companies that want publicity - publicity is now the darling of their

marketing and communications programs,’ says Jeff Julin, president of

MGA Communications, which reached 1999 billings of dollars 3.1 million.

’With the technology companies and the dot-coms, publicity creates the

buzz in the investment community which is so critical to their


MGA is so convinced the technology wave is the one to ride that earlier

this month the Denver firm formed MGA Digital to deal specifically with

tech and Web-based companies.

At Clarus Public Relations, where 1999 billings were dollars 1.5

million, president Steve Silvers sees many technology companies

abandoning their Silicon Valley or New York agencies in favor of Denver,

where technology talent has migrated and agency fees are lower. ’It

doesn’t matter where you’re sitting anymore,’ says Silvers. ’We have

relationships with firms overseas and we’re having no problem being

their agency.’

Sharon Linhart, president of Linhart McClain Finlon Public Relations,

built her Denver firm, with 1999 billings of dollars 1 million, on

telecommunications and dot-com business - what she calls ’the foundation

for the economy of Colorado.’

Linhart says that telecom clients such as Level 3 Communications and ICG

happily turn to local agencies to help build a name and reputation and

quickly integrate into the community: ’They’re interested in starting

smaller and growing PR budgets as their business grows.’

Beyond the tech industry

Hi-tech and Internet companies are indeed taking off with a flourish,

but other industries are as well. United Airlines is adding 21 gates to

five-year-old Denver International Airport, creating the Chicago-based

airline’s second-biggest hub. The airport, once maligned as a

boondoggle, is now hailed as a success story. ’There are 300 acres of

developable land out there,’ says Schenkein, whose client list includes

United Airlines and the DIA Business Partnership. ’Very few cities have

the luxury of that kind of opportunity around their airport.’

In the financial world, Denver is regaining its stature as Wall Street

West. Banking giant KeyBank shifted its regional hub from Seattle to

Denver while Merrill Lynch moved its district operations from San Diego

to Denver and plans to open six new offices in the state. Merrill Lynch

is working with Denver’s Thomas & Perkins for PR.

Invesco Funds Group, Berger Associates and Janus Capital Corp., the

fastest-growing mutual fund company in the nation, all plan to expand

their staffs to handle record volume, such as the remarkable dollars 8

billion in new investments that flooded into Janus during February

alone. For PR firms, that means branching out. MGA, JohnstonWells and

Metzger have all added investor relations groups. ’A lot of these

start-ups want to know that you have this expertise,’ says MGA’s


The Denver-metro area’s retail scene is popping too, with restaurants

and shopping venues seeking PR counsel amid fierce competition.

’We went after REI because my staff wanted to work on it - it’s fun,’

says Linhart, about the giant outdoor-equipment and sporting-goods


’At the same time, these specialty retailers want a smaller agency in

their community and want to do fun things that do not always make the

big agencies’ threshold.’

But with stupendous growth comes growing pains - clogged highways, labor

shortages, out-of-control housing construction and the Colorado Public

Utility Commission’s scrutiny of USWest’s inability to keep up with

demand for new phone service. For PR firms, such problems represent


Peter Webb Public Relations, a 12-year-old firm located in the suburban

Denver Tech Center, cites the Colorado Department of Transportation

among its biggest clients.

’We’re seeing more and more infrastructure being built because of the

growth,’ says president Peter Webb, whose firm billed dollars 1.4

million in 1999. ’We also do public safety and education programs such

as The Chill, which addresses aggressive driving.’

Adds Webb: ’Aggressive driving is an outgrowth of growth.’

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