An influx of young talent and venture capital funding drive creativity in the Pacific Northwest.
Last in, last out. That's how many describe the Northwest's entry and exit from a recession, and the most recent one seems to be no exception. But with the region now well on its way out of it, Portland's most interesting story is no longer that it had one of the highest unemployment rates. People seem to be more interested in talking about the re-emergence of VC funding and the influx of 25-to-35-year-olds.
In Seattle, the optimism is a little bit further along, with many agencies reporting that the market is healthy again, and future growth looks promising in numerous sectors, from technology and healthcare to public affairs.
In fact, public affairs and issues management now seem to be on the minds of everyone in the Northwest because, while some of the past year's biggest stories out of the region have been political, they reminded everyone of the importance of crisis communications.
"Issues management has been a major issue this past year," says Jeff Hasen, director of PR for search and mobile technology company InfoSpace, based in Bellevue, WA. He points to public and political opinion turning against a planned monorail in Seattle that saw its proposed cost spiral out of control; the Washington gubernatorial race, which was the closest in state history and took six months of lawsuits to settle; and embattled Spokane, WA, mayor Jim West, who admitted to offering gifts and a City Hall internship via e-mail to a man whom he believed was 18, but was actually a forensic computer expert working for a local newspaper.
While the news hasn't been as controversial in Oregon and Idaho, these political and public disputes have put the importance of public affairs on the front burner for many agencies and corporations throughout the region.
The agency view
"Innovation" is the key word for the region, says Wendy Lane, president of her own firm, Lane, which has offices in Portland and Seattle. She is one of several seeing an influx of young, creative people to the Northwest, which she attributes to the lifestyle and that it's less expensive to start a business in the area.
"We're seeing a lot of innovative companies, from technology to old economy," says Lane, who is particularly bullish about tech returning to Oregon, including nanotech, open-source software, and clean tech, the latter of which she attributes to the Northwest's "green" heritage. The Portland area is also a hotbed of sporting and outdoors companies, including Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, and Nautilus.
Innovation is also the focus of Waggener Edstrom, the region's largest PR agency, says VP Erica Beyer. The firm's focus on "innovation communications" speaks to its desire to work with innovative companies, she says, whether it's Microsoft or Connexion by Boeing (which offers in-flight internet access) or Starbucks.
"The increase in activity we've seen is pretty significant," says Beyer, who has also seen a rise in green companies, particularly when it comes to energy.
"Because of the globalization of our economy, more and more companies are looking to the Northwest as a jumping off point for Asia," Beyer adds.
Edelman, with offices in Portland and Seattle, has seen the increased demand for public affairs that Hasen spoke of. Melanie Wilhoite, EVP and GM of the Seattle office, says she is seeing more demand for creating synergy between consumer PR and public affairs.
"It goes back to Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley," she says of the increasing demand. "Companies are looking for a partner who can provide crisis counseling, and work across practices."
That is why it is important to find the right staff, which Wilhoite says is not always easy. Corporations tend to outspend agencies, she says, and with the likes of Microsoft, Nike, Amazon.com, and Starbucks in the region, there's stiff competition. Mid-level people are particularly hard to find, she says, as staffers "who start their career at agencies get to that mid-level and then start to wonder what else is out there."
But the Northwest is attracting a large number of those young "cultural creatives" who come for the quality of life, but also bring an entrepreneurial spirit and an influx of creative talent, says Jen Maxwell-Muir, founder of Maxwell PR in Portland. That leads to a lot of résumés from a lot of smart people, she says, which in turn can lead to a lot of new innovative companies.
"Seventy percent of the companies in Oregon are small companies, 20 people or less," she says. "And those companies want a direct relationship with their customers. So we're seeing more and more interest from small companies."
Idaho is also seeing that influx of new residents because of the quality of life, says David Compton, president of Compton Communications in Eagle, ID, and the Idaho PRSA. Whether it's because people see the state as a good place to raise a family or as an affordable place to start a business, the people are coming - and so is the business.
Traditional industries like manufacturing and agriculture remain strong, but the state is also seeing tourism grow, as well as technology. All seem to be tuned into the latest trends in PR.
"These companies want PR to offer the full gamut," says Compton. "They want to know about blogs and RSS, and want to work with someone who can help them with that.
The corporate side
That aforementioned need for public affairs was felt at Microsoft this year, when the company was criticized for withdrawing support for an anti-discrimination bill. After gay-rights groups and even many Microsoft employees criticized the company, Microsoft backed the legislation.
Larry Cohen, GM of corporate communications, says even for global companies like Microsoft, a good local image is important.
"We care a lot about our image in the community," says Cohen. "We are very active in the community, and we have more than 35,000 employees in the area. Community relations is just as much about what you do as it is [about] what you say. And community relations isn't driven by communications; it's vice versa. The motivation isn't positive press; it's having a positive impact."
One area that is having a positive impact on the region is tourism. For the same reasons that young entrepreneurs are drawn to the region, so are tourists.
The Washington Wine Commission has been working to showcase the state as the second-largest wine producer behind California. Regan O'Leary, communications MD for the commission, notes that the state is getting more attention from lifestyle, travel, and food press. "When we started, we did a lot of statewide programs," says O'Leary. "Now we're going national."
And as the program expands, many companies in the region grow. In turn, the demand for PR staff is high. But O'Leary says that Washington is lucky to have three universities - Washington State University, the University of Washington, and Western Washington University - with PR programs that provide the local industry community with fresh talent.
Portland is also seeing a resurgence in its tourism industry. The New York Times recently declared "The Rose City shows a surprising vigor in the arts, nightlife, and fashion, as well as a strong design sensibility."
"As the economy has come back, as consumer confidence has come back, we're seeing growth in tourism," says Deborah Hall Wakefield, director of communications and PR for the Portland Oregon Visitors Association.
The local media
Seattle remains one of the country's few two-newspaper towns, with the Times and Post-Intelligencer. And while their fight over a joint operating agreement makes the papers appear more competitive, they aren't the only games in town. If Seattle does become a one-newspaper town, companies and agencies can always rely on alternative weeklies, such as The Stranger or Seattle Weekly, to reach the locals. But agencies and companies also realize they are lucky to have journalists from two major metropolitan dailies writing about the local community and the global companies that call it home.
In Oregon, the state is served by The Oregonian. And although that's pretty much the only major daily in the state, the area has seen strong growth in lifestyle publications, from Northwest Homes to Portland Monthly. The latter is so popular that it is often the best selling magazine on newsstands, outselling national publications, and the publisher has decided to launch Seattle Monthly next year.
In Idaho, where The Idaho Statesman is the main paper, many local companies rely on broadcast media.
"There's more competition among the TV stations," says Compton. "So a lot of companies rely on event PR. A lot of businesses like to do things that are visual so they'll get coverage on TV."
Largest employment sector: Management, professional, and related occupations - 31.4%
Largest industry: Educational, health, and social services - 19.2%
Largest newspaper: The Idaho Statesman (circ.: 63,533 average weekday)
Selected PR firms:
Scott Peyron & Associates
Largest employment sector: Management, professional, and related occupations - 33.1%
Largest industry: Educational, health, and social services - 19.3%
Largest newspaper: The Oregonian (circ.: 333,515 average weekday)
Selected PR firms:
Conkling Fiskum & McCormick
McClenahan Bruer Communications
Largest employment sector: Management, professional, and related occupations - 35.6%
Largest industry: Educational, health, and social services - 19.4%
Largest newspapers: The Seattle Times (circ.: 215,502 average weekday); Seattle Post-Intelligencer (circ.: 132,694 average weekday)
Selected PR firms: