Tennessee’s economy is in its eighth year of unprecedented growth, job creation is strong, unemployment is less than 4% and confidence among consumers is at an all-time high. Companies are moving into the state instead of out. Gibson Guitar is opening a plant in Memphis, and Dell Computer is opening one in Nashville.
Tennessee’s economy is in its eighth year of unprecedented growth,
job creation is strong, unemployment is less than 4% and confidence
among consumers is at an all-time high. Companies are moving into the
state instead of out. Gibson Guitar is opening a plant in Memphis, and
Dell Computer is opening one in Nashville.
Music, entertainment and sports - especially with a new hockey team, a
new baseball stadium and a new Super-Bowl-playing football team - are
the main PR drivers here. While PR firms always say they could use more
business, most - from freelancers to the larger agencies - say there is
more than enough work to go around.
To understand Tennessee, one must first understand that it is really
three states rolled into one. There is West Tennessee, the area closest
to the Mississippi River (main city: Memphis); Middle Tennessee (main
city: Nashville) and East Tennessee, which is hill country and still
fights a ’goober’ image (main city: Knoxville).
Hank Dye, president of Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence PR, claims that Nashville
has always been ahead of the rest of the state when it comes to PR. The
state capital has 35 full-time firms - more than Memphis, Knoxville and
Chattanooga combined - but there are not many major firms among them,
According to the PRWeek 200 survey, Dye Van Mol’s 1998 income was
dollars 5.9 million (up from dollars 5.6 million in 1997) and McNeely
Piggot & Fox PR’s 1998 income increased from dollars 3.4 million in 1997
to dollars 4 million in 1998.
Dye credits new media for some agencies’ growth, plus the fact that
Nashville is now a ’major league’ city. ’Our affiliation with (hockey
team) the Predators has been great for us,’ he says.
Beth Seigenthaler, president of Seigenthaler PR in Nashville, says she
is seeing growth in her city because of its location. ’We are in the
midst of the Sun Belt and are able to attract vibrant businesses,’ she
says. ’And with that comes sophisticated understandings of what PR is
and its importance.’
Nashville has seen major relocations in the last decade, the latest
being Dell Computer, which has not yet tapped a Nashville PR firm.
Interestingly, not many of the bigger firms work for Nashville music
companies, leaving that to freelancers and one- and two-person shops (in
Tennessee, some pros who work full-time are known to do freelance
projects on the side). Experts say most major agencies shy away from the
music business because of its volatility. ’That industry is in a major
downturn now and I think that is one reason why major shops don’t have
any (music companies) on their list,’ Seigenthaler says.
Memphis is the home of Elvis and barbecue - both of which get plenty of
publicity on their own - and Federal Express, which gets help from
FedEx has had a couple of banner years, even though it went through
several crises and a corporate image change. The company garnered
several national PR awards following a job action by its pilots union
and the 1998 United Parcel Service strike.
Locally, FedEx is known to be able to respond better to a crisis than
any company in the state. ’We feel every smart company, regardless of
its size, prepares for crisis PR,’ says PR director Shirlee Clark.
Archer/Malmo PR, part of a larger communications firm, has been helping
to promote FedEx’s new campus and technological center in Collerville;
the agency is also working on the opening event.
Cynthia Ham, president of Archer/Malmo PR, believes Memphis PR is held
back because many companies don’t understand the value of it or how to
work with PR firms. ’They have to focus on themselves and they don’t
know how to do that,’ she says. ’They also are not quite sure of the
difference between PR and advertising.’ (Ham says Archer/Malmo PR is
expected to reach the dollars 1 million billings mark for the first time
Freelancers are enjoying a lot of work in West Tennessee, and they say
it is due to companies being rate-shy when dealing with the larger
’Some don’t have the budget for a megabucks campaign at dollars 175 an
hour, so they turn to us,’ says Stinson Lyles, a Memphis-based
freelancer and owner of The Stinson Lyles Group.
Memphis is also the lightning rod for expansion, by two Nashville PR
firms at least. The Ingram Group announced early this month it is
opening a Memphis office, and McNeely Piggot & Fox moved in late last
year. Senior partner Mark McNeely says he branched out into West
Tennessee because there is a lot of commerce there; the office has the
FedEx pilots group, Jackson Madison County General Hospital and Nordgear
Equipment Manufacturing as clients. It has also done project work for
International Paper Co.
East Tennessee is defined by its country, down-home image. The area’s
most important assets are the University of Tennessee (especially its
football team), Oak Ridge National Lab and the Great Smoky Mountains
National Park. But they don’t offer much in the way of PR work except
for occasional projects.
The major agencies in Knoxville are Ackermann PR and Akins Public
Relations & Strategies.
Ackermann PR president Cathy Ackerman says PR is no different in
Knoxville than anywhere else. ’It’s a rifle-shot approach,’ she says.
’Budgets are low on the corporate side.’ She adds: ’A lot of technical
businesses are cropping up, and this is an easier market to work in
compared to Nashville.’
Ackermann has established a Nashville branch and hired a music industry
expert to tackle that business. It is also probably the only PR outfit
in the state to branch out into Dallas.
According to the PRWeek Top 200 survey, Ackermann PR had dollars 2.1
million in income in 1998 (up from dollars 2 million in 1997). Ackermann
says her fee billings in 1999 more than doubled to dollars 4.5
But it’s the state’s sports scene that has PR pros most excited. The
recent Super Bowl appearance by the Tennessee Titans might go a long way
in helping its once-bankrupt PR image (see sidebar). Nashville has a
particularly warm feeling for the Predators hockey team, which is, by
all accounts, expert at PR and generous with giveaways at games.
Even though Seigenthaler doesn’t have any business from the Titans or
Preds, she agrees sports has brought a new PR spectrum to Nashville.
’We are seeing newer, more interesting and bolder PR here being spurred
by our sports,’ she says. ’We are seeing celebrity endorsements, Times
Square-type billboards, ads in consumer publications and promo
You feel alive at a Predators game when you see Nashville companies
using publicity and corporate promos to do things they have never done
And in Memphis, the PR department of hometown ad agency Thompson & Co.
represents minor league baseball team the Memphis Redbirds, which has a
new downtown stadium.
The agency is busy preparing for several events coming before the April
1 opening game. A media tour will be held Valentine’s Day. Other media
opportunities include tryouts for the Redbirds dancers, the first
turning on of the lights and a ’Public Superflush’ day - when media and
other local dignitaries will simultaneously flush every toilet in the
stadium to make sure everything goes down properly.
TENNESSEE TITANS PR: NO LONGER IN THE TANK
There’s nothing like making it into the Super Bowl to change a
community’s attitude toward its football team.
When the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee three years ago, the team
didn’t exactly go out of its way to endear itself to the citizens of the
At first the team was playing in Memphis and owner K.S. ’Bud’ Adams Jr.
tried unsuccessfully to get the city to pay for the team’s
transportation to and from games. Adams did virtually no promotion and
the players would often stiff groups they promised to appear before.
Attendance at the games was terrible and things weren’t much better when
the team moved to Nashville, though changing its name to the Titans
helped a bit.
Then the once-woeful Tennessee Titans started to win.
All of a sudden the team became PR mavens, making all the right moves,
with the Nashville PR firm of McNeely Piggot & Fox helping out the
in-house PR department. Even a faux pas at the victory celebration after
the Titans beat Jacksonville to make it to the Super Bowl didn’t damage
its reputation: despite the cold, 10,000 fans showed up for an impromptu
welcome-home ceremony at Adelphia Coliseum - despite Adams charging them
dollars 5 to park their cars.
’Last year they would have stoned him,’ says Hank Dye, president of
Nashville-based Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, the state’s largest and
probably most successful PR firm. ’This year, no one cared.’
Says Bob Phillips, account supervisor for the PR department of Memphis
ad agency Thompson & Co.: ’Winning takes care of a lot of PR glitches.’