Market Focus Nevada: Viva Las Vegas PR - Nevada isn’t known as a PR hotbed, but with a booming population - and Las Vegas’ newer casinos - that’s beginning to change. John G. Edwards reports

Nevada public relations has certainly changed since 1953, when Las Vegas’ Sands Hotel - in a bid to attract tourists - sent out to the wire services photos of a floating craps game in its swimming pool. Like Vegas itself, it was very basic.

Nevada public relations has certainly changed since 1953, when Las Vegas’ Sands Hotel - in a bid to attract tourists - sent out to the wire services photos of a floating craps game in its swimming pool. Like Vegas itself, it was very basic.

Nevada public relations has certainly changed since 1953, when Las

Vegas’ Sands Hotel - in a bid to attract tourists - sent out to the wire

services photos of a floating craps game in its swimming pool. Like

Vegas itself, it was very basic.

Las Vegas has had its PR blunders over the past decade, including a

Catholic altar in a bar (see sidebar), but all indicators are that

communications in Fun City are becoming more sophisticated as it


And prospers wildly.

PR here has made great strides in the late 1980s and 1990s, as

successive waves of new resorts shook the economy like rolling thunder.

That, in turn, has brought thousands of new workers. Between 1990 and

1998, the Las Vegas metropolitan area led the nation in population

growth, increasing 55% to 1.3 million, according to Census Bureau

estimates. Over the last five years, the Las Vegas chapter of the PRSA

approximately doubled its membership to 120, says Susie Black, chapter


In addition, in 1997 the local chapter of the International Association

of Business Communicators was named International Chapter of the Year,

according to Keith Sheldon, an adjunct public relations instructor at

the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As evidence of the increasing

professionalism of the city’s PR, Sheldon points to accreditation

courses offered by the IABC and the PRSA, as well as a continuing

education certification course at the university.

’It’s a perfect example of the free market system, because as you get

bigger you attract more (public relations) individuals. It requires you

to get better,’ explains Vince Alberta, public information manager for

the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Fertile ground in the desert

The latest casino resorts set new standards for dollars invested and

attention to detail. Bellagio, an Italian-style casino-hotel, cost

dollars 1.6 billion to build, not counting its dollars 285 million

collection of Picassos, Monets and Van Goghs. Mandalay Bay opened in

March with a South Seas theme and a price tag of dollars 950 million.

The dollars 1.5 billion Venetian brought visitors and conventioneers an

opportunity to glide along a canal. And finally, the dollars 785 million

Paris resort gave the casino capital its own Eiffel Tower.

’You pretty much have to be a total incompetent not to prosper,’ says

Ira Sternberg, former public relations manager for the Tropicana. His

firm, IDS Creative Communications, does publicity for Michael Flatley’s

Lord of the Dance show at casino New York-New York and Titanic the

Exhibit at the Rio Suite Hotel.

The 800-pound gorilla of PR in Las Vegas is R&R Partners, which last

year racked up dollars 3 million in public relations billings and

another dollars 105 million in ad billings.

Billy Vassiliadis, R&R’s CEO, is one of the most powerful men in Nevada;

some call him the ’shadow governor’ because of his influence with the

previous governor, Democrat Bob Miller, says Ande Engleman, assignment

editor for KOLO-TV, Channel 8, in Reno.

R&R has held the golden plum of PR and advertising accounts in Nevada -

the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority - for 20 years, long

before Vassiliadis and his partners bought out Sig Rogich, a former

counselor to President Reagan, in 1994. Rogich now operates Rogich

Communications Group.

PR people were stunned in November 1998 when they learned R&R was

promised a dollars 500,000 performance-based bonus by two clients,

Sierra Pacific Resources and Nevada Power Co., which wanted to merge.

State regulators approved the deal and the two utilities completed the

transaction in July (and the agency got its bonus). The merged company,

Sierra Pacific Resources, is his biggest PR client, Vassiliadis says.

R&R also serves as the PR arm of the Nevada Resort Association, a trade

group of large casino operators.

A new competitor for R&R is Faiss Foley Merica Public Relations and

Government Affairs, which formed in May 1998 and had dollars 1.8 million

in PR billings its first year in operation.

Former newspaper editor Linda Faiss and former state senator Helen Foley

formed the agency when they left DRGM Advertising & Public


Joe Merica of the Merica Agency, an ad shop, is a partner. Clients

include Washington Mutual, St. Rose Dominican Hospital and the Howard

Hughes Corp.

Corporate PR

Most of the casinos rely on internal public relations staff for the bulk

of their work and contract out only for special events. (They usually

retain large international PR agencies, rather than local firms, to

promote billion-dollar resort openings.) PR professionals complain that

many casinos have no public relations person at individual locations -

or else they promote secretaries to the position.

Mandalay Resort Group, formerly known as Circus Circus Enterprises, has

PR workers at all of its major hotel-casinos, says Sarah Ralston,

corporate director of public relations. But it’s a relatively new deal,

Ralston and Rob Stillwell, vice president of public relations for Boyd

Gaming Corp., became the first corporate PR pros at their respective

companies when they were appointed in the mid 1990s.

In October, Harrah’s Entertainment named Jan Jones, a former mayor of

Las Vegas and unsuccessful nominee for governor in 1998, to vice

president of public relations and government affairs. As her title

implies, she responds to inquiries from the news media, and also works

with elected officials in states where Harrah’s operates casinos.

Not everyone in Nevada PR is in gaming. Las Vegas-based Ballard

Communications has dollars 704,000 in PR billings for 1999 from clients

in real estate, professional services such as accounting, Las Vegas’

tiny hi-tech industry and crisis management. Owner Mike Ballard doesn’t

accept casino clients because a member of his family is a compulsive


In Las Vegas, the film and television production industry is growing and

offers some economic diversification. Laura Herolvich of PR Plus says

most of the studios rely on their own publicists. She sometimes does

work for independent producers.

And then there’s Northern Nevada. In Reno is growing but not at the

supersonic rates Las Vegas enjoys. The north is the reason the state is

the largest producer of gold in the nation, but the mining economy has

faltered because of depressed prices. Rose/Glenn Group, which reports

dollars 4 million in PR billings for last year, emphasizes the

importance of gold in everyday life in press releases for the Nevada

Mining Association. Rose/Glenn also represents the Reno-Sparks

Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has struggled to compete with Las

Vegas tourist attractions. ’Reno-Lake Tahoe as a destination is really

turning the corner,’ says Rose/Glenn spokesperson Julie Ardito.

Northern Nevada is trying to sell itself as an ’all-season destination’

for skiing, golfing, rafting and, of course, gambling. Some casino

operators worry that the outdoor focus will detract from their gambling

product, says Stephanie Kruse of Reno-based Kruse & Parker


In addition, northern Nevada is working to diversify its economic

base. has a distribution center outside of Reno and Barnes & Noble

is building one in Reno itself. Microsoft set up a software licensing

operation in Reno about three years ago.

But it will take a lot more book distributors, technology, industry and

films to significantly offset the state’s dependence on gold and



Fun City has had its share of not-so-fun PR mishaps.

- In 1993, the Treasure Island casino managed to offend African

Americans with the moniker it picked for a British frigate used in a

mock pirate battle. It was named after Sir Francis Drake, who, in

addition to being a famous English seaman, was also apparently a slave

trader. When the objections arose, Steve Wynn, chairman and CEO of

Mirage Resorts, operator of Treasure Island, had the name immediately

changed to HMS Britannia.

- In 1995, another casino operator removed a Catholic altar from the bar

of the trendy Hard Rock Hotel - but only after eight months of

complaints from the Catholic bishop in Nevada.

- Timothy Chanaud, a public relations executive at the Las Vegas Hilton,

lost his job in December 1997 after he allowed a television crew to film

Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt with a dollars 1 million jackpot.

The hotel was embarrassed when the tape of the porno king in its casino

appeared on CBS’s 48 Hours.

- Last fall, gambling opponents criticized slot machine makers for using

cartoon, television and movie characters that could appeal to


The characters range from 1930s icon Betty Boop to modern television

characters from South Park. The Nevada Gaming Commission has proposed a

regulation to allow slot machine makers to use child-oriented movies,

video games and books only if the theme existed for more than 21


’The (gaming) industry is an entertainment vehicle basically, and the

people who are developing the marketing plan are at the cutting edge,’

says Jack Leone, a former top PR executive for Caesars World, the MGM

Grand and Mandalay Bay Resort, now a member of Sitrick & Co. in Los


Leone adds: ’Sometimes, you reach too far.’

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