Regional Roundtable: Atlanta

In this third year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek focuses on seven top markets: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Texas.

In this third year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek focuses on seven top markets: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and Texas.

For each of these regions, leading PR pros from a variety of  agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and other organizations take part in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers. PRWeek's Eleanor Trickett and Kimberly Krautter were in Atlanta for this year's sixth Regional Forum.

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THE ECONOMY
Eleanor Trickett (PRWeek): How is business on the agency side? How is the new business pipeline?

Karen Kaplan (Fleishman-Hillard): The media is very fractured. As a result,companies look more to the kind of work that we do to create credibility for their products. The lines have also blurred  between advertising, marketing, and PR. I think what we bring to the table can serve as the golden thread for the integrated approach that more and more companies are focusing on.

Rob Baskin (MS&L): Karen is right.I think there is a greater reverence for what we do compared to,say,10 or 15 years ago. Companies are a little more willing to engage in some one-off  experiments now. It's a pretty fluid market, which I think is probably good. It means you have to be pretty aggressive, and that pipeline must be continually filled. Bill Marks (GCI): I think we're starting to get a little more respect for the ability of PR to deliver true ROI in the marketing mix. We've had some situations this year when there was no advertising, and the client was able to track several million dollars of sales against what was simply a media relations project.

Alicia Thompson (Popeye's): I agree from acorporate standpoint. Since our new president came on board, we've really honed in on PR. Popeye's ad budget is significantly smaller than that of our larger competitors, so we rely heavily on PR and local marketing. This year, we were asked to come up with a new brand positioning campaign, which we presented to both our strategic communications agency and the ad team.My PR group came back with the winning positioning for the entire brand. Those types of things are making the people in my company realize that the communications team is strong and adds tremendous value to the organization.

Judy Wicks (Checkfree): Years ago, we wondered how we would get to the table. Well, we're at the table now.

Ana Toro (A. Toro): The Atlanta market is changing a lot right now from a Hispanic point of view.We have over 13,000 businesses owned by Hispanics. We represent 7.5% of the metro Atlanta population. There is a huge market available for PR firms as well.The Hispanic buying power is about $11 billion in this market. That represents a big chunk for PR firms to attract.

Brian Farley (AMB Group): One thing about the local economy that you must look at is our very strong mayor, Shirley Franklin. It's worth noting that she has forged a strong relationship with the business community. That's a major development in this market. There is a much stronger public-private partnership than there was in years past.

Bo Spalding (Jackson Spalding): The Brand Atlanta campaign is all about us being proud of the city again and then telling the rest of country.What's really exciting to me is the influx coming into Atlanta. It's going to make us a real city. Until now, it has just been a collection of suburbs without a lot going on downtown. That's changing.

Kathy Bremer (Porter Novelli): The national image of Atlanta has to catch up to our self-image. I think the South is the last bastion of politically correct stereotyping. It's quite unjustified.This campaign will help us find new ways to talk about the city and put forward its true identity and culture.

Beverly Isom (City of Atlanta): For a lot of African Americans, Atlanta has always been known for culture. I think African Americans look to Atlanta for that. It even earned the designation by Black Enterprise as a best place for African Americans to live, work, and play.

Baskin (MS&L): This city is 50% larger today than it was 15 years ago, yet the main paper in town has a significantly smaller circulation. In effect, this tells clients that they must find different ways to touch everybody. Mayor Franklin has done a great job of getting the business community to interact with the city. The Brand Atlanta campaign is designed, I think,to get everyone who lives in town to be a true believer. If that happens, there's a chance that people in other parts of the country will start to care.

Trickett (PRWeek): Is there anyone else here who is personally involved in the Brand Atlanta initiative and actually working with it in any capacity?

Joselyn Baker (MARTA): We're providing some support, but we're kind of on the sidelines. MARTA has a lot of challenges with the community. Much like the city itself,we're tying to find ways to help people understand why they need to care about what we've got out there. It's not just buses and trains. It's how people get to work, to school, to the hospital, and it's about the after-effects if they can't get to the places they need to go.It's the same with creating a  rallying cry for the city.Atlanta had no worries for so long that people began to take for granted what was here. We're reminding people that this is something you need to care about and be a part of.

Trickett (PRWeek): What is the public perception of MARTA in terms of its usage? The transportation system in, say, Houston, is different than in San Francisco.

Baker (MARTA): People in Atlanta assume that MARTA is used by two main groups ? those who have no choice and those who need to go to the airport or a concert downtown. The perception is that there is not a large core of people who choose to use public transportation. I also don't think people understand the contribution beyond transportation that MARTA makes. Whether or not you're going to use the system, it has an impact on your life. I don't think that message has been carried out.

Trickett (PRWeek): What sectors are driving PR business now?

Wicks (Checkfree): Atlanta is a national and international market. Almost every account I've ever worked on, except local transit, was a local or international account with an agency in Atlanta.

Kaplan (Fleishman-Hillard): I think healthcare is definitely a huge growth driver. We have to remind ourselves that one of the biggest federal agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is in our backyard, and we're seeing a lot of work on the government side.

Spalding (Jackson Spalding): Atlanta and all of Georgia are trying to attract more tech and biotech through the Georgia Research Alliance. We are having some success by attracting eminent scholars to our many universities. Atlanta is a big college town.There's Emory, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, the Atlanta University Center ? so some eminent scholars are being attracted to our research  universities,and they are being encouraged to commercialize their work.

Marks (GCI): Venture capital is just starting to emerge again. People are starting to put funds back into our area.

TALENT AND DIVERSITY

Trickett (PRWeek): What is your take on the talent crunch in PR? Is there one?

Wicks (Checkfree): The local PR community is very competitive, but we're all friends, too. When we seek somebody with a certain level of experience,we call each other. When a New York-based agency sends someone here,they struggle to assimilate because we are so close. Also, when they bring someone in from New York, the people in Atlanta have been overlooked when they should have promoted from within. I think promoting from within breeds success.

Kaplan (Fleishman-Hillard): Many of us, including myself, started off as journalists. When I began in the business, if you'd been a reporter, you could easily jump to PR. Today, you don't see that as much. It's just as important for our employees to be good at the fundamentals, the writing, as it is to be subject-matter experts. You need both. You can't serve a banking client if you've never had experience in financial services.

Mark Scott (HomeBanc): When college students ask for advice on getting into PR, I always say their first job ? or at least an internship ? should be with a news organization or a TV station. Without that, you'll never understand how to work on a day-to-day deadline. I would not look at anybody who didn't have newsroom experience at some level.

Baskin (MS&L): You can find people who are good, but the excellent ones are hard to find. It all depends on your standards. I also think that we're asking eight-to 10-year PR veterans to be a whole lot smarter today. We're asking people to master things they didn't have to in the past. Still, at the end of the day, you must know how to speak, write, assimilate information, and connect the dots. I'm not sure journalism is necessarily the best place for people to study. Maybe you have somebody who majors in chemistry who wants to be involved in a marketing or communications capacity. We can teach them our business.You have to work pretty hard to  succeed, but I don't think it's all that complicated.

Toro (A. Toro): I think Hispanics in PR, especially in Atlanta, are under-represented. I've been chairing the PRSA's diversity special-interest group for the past two years, and you'd be amazed by the calls I get every month from people asking for candidates who speak Spanish. For people targeting Hispanics and seeking Hispanic professionals, we need to move them to Atlanta from major Hispanic markets like Miami, Los Angeles, or New York. We also have so many Fortune 500 companies here,many of which have PR firms that manage their Hispanic marketing from this market. We need to attract more Hispanics here.


Trickett (PRWeek): What makes a candidate right or wrong for a job?

Scott (HomeBanc): R?sum?s should include ROI.Many note how an applicant "put together a press kit"or "coordinated an event." That's great, but what happened because of it? Did business go up? Did more people go to the event? When I look at a r?sum?, I need to see what happened as a result of their efforts.

Baker (MARTA): Excellent writers are just few and far between.

Spalding (Jackson Spalding): We look as hard at a cover letter as we do at a r?sum?. It's amazing how many get thrown out because of the cover letter.

Bremer (Porter Novelli): My best hires come from staff. We pay them a little bonus each time they get someone in the door. I do think the bar is a little higher, but frankly it's about understanding the client's business, the goals, and the audience.There's such a narrow aperture to reach people. You must have people who will be resourceful in finding ways into that aperture.

Farley (AMB Group): What I see is a lack of critical thinking.We're pushing people at a younger age into roles where they're being asked to do critical thinking, strategic thinking. We're asking them to work directly with clients when they don't have the experience. You need to teach students how to become critical and strategic thinkers.

Isom (City of Atlanta): We're neither a corporation nor an agency. We choose people who have a passion for the work,who are willing to almost opt out of a life. We sometimes refer to it as the Peace Corps because when you have that amount of time vested, it is not just a job. We find people who are maybe pre-law or who have a political degree. Maybe they aren't trained, but they are good writers who can do the critical thinking. It is much more difficult to produce that than good writing.

Trickett (PRWeek): In a lot of regions, we hear that it is difficult to find diverse candidates because it doesn't seem like a logical career for them. Is that something you've encountered here?

Wicks (Checkfree): Some of the best PR pros have left the big agencies to start their own ethnic marketing agencies.

Kaplan (Fleishman-Hillard): There just isn't enough diversity, particularly at big firms. That is disheartening. It's a big challenge for us because those audiences are critical to what we do.

Toro (A. Toro): The Hispanic market speaks a different language, as well as English. The few PR firms that are effective at grabbing that market go with both Spanish and English. Over the next five to 10 years, a lot of work must be done on this front.

Trickett (PRWeek): How will it get better?

Toro (A. Toro): When more Hispanic pros get into agencies, when more firms develop diversity practices. Firms must decide whether they want to develop accounts and then get the people, or develop the practice and then get the accounts.

Bremer (Porter Novelli): I think you hire the whole person.You bring in somebody who has many talents. They might have an affinity or knowledge for a specific market, but maybe they also know healthcare, are great writers, or are very good at producing ideas. We look for people who have different skills and can make different contributions.

Isom (City of Atlanta): I serve on the executive board of black PR organizations. Our discussions are no longer about target marketing to African Americans. We discuss how we can get young African Americans to be received by a major organization. What we constantly hear is that they are not able to get in the door because to do so, you must know somebody at the particular shop.

Thompson (Popeye's): There's an aversion when they do go to a major agency and hear, "and hear, "Oh, you can work in the multicultural division." That makes them back off. That's why you see so many of us in the corporate arena ? it's a national market. That's a main reason why people won't go to an agency.

Kimberly Krautter (PRWeek): As a corporation, would you look to a big agency to come up with a solution for that, or would you go to a niche agency that comes from andworks with that culture?

Wicks (Checkfree): I would hire someone in-house who has that experience and understands the culture.

Trickett (PRWeek): What are you doing collectively to achieve that? Is the PR community in Atlanta working in unison to figure out a way to get all local agencies to reflect the audiences that you're trying to reach?

Spalding (Jackson Spalding): In some ways, Atlanta is still a small town. Our hiring decisions are largely referral. We don't do a whole lot of outreach. We probably need to do a lot more of that so we can be more diverse.

Thompson (Popeye's): I think most of the agencies at this table work with the Black Public Relations Society. I think that is a great first step for tapping into our leadership and membership.

THE MEDIA

Trickett (PRWeek):
How are you and your clients getting involved with the new media environment, and how is it affecting your business? Does anybody here have a blog or have clients with a blog?

Scott (HomeBanc): You have Yahoo chat rooms. Every public company in the world has Yahoo chat rooms where anyone can say anything they want about you. Your job is to pay attention to it, but as a public company you can't respond.

Baker (MARTA): We're in a bit of a different situation.We're not trying to get media ? we're trying to stay out of the media. Everything we do gets covered, which can be good and bad. I'm in the position where I can use mainstream media more easily. If we get word of a rumor about us, I do have an easier time using more broad-based media to set the record straight. At the same time, we do a lot of community outreach. In that area, we know some of the bloggers, and we get information out to them. We try to keep them in the loop as best we can.

Baskin (MS&L): There's a dialogue going on, a public debate. Our clients want to enter that debate, but they must do so using the right judgment. Whether or not they do it using podcasts or blogs is not the issue. They need to determine the best vehicle to ensure that their message has some weight. The last thing we or our clients can afford is to waste time.

Trickett (PRWeek): What about traditional media in this market? What kinds of media opportunities are available to you not only with local media, but also with the national bureaus located here?

Spalding (Jackson Spalding): I think the profession has suffered with so many cities being one-paper towns. When I was at the Atlanta Journal, there was the Journal and The Constitution. We really competed with each other, which was good. Now it's one entity ? the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I think too many reporters don't feel the competitive pressure now. As such, the reporting isn't as aggressive as it could be.

Kaplan (Fleishman-Hillard): The AJC's focus really is the suburbs. We are spreading out so quickly, it really looks to speak to readers outside the city. As a result, it's a lot harder to get their attention on metro Atlanta stories. Beats also seem to be always changing.

Farley (AMB Group): I sense a shift. Where the printed paper was once the main product and the online edition was an appendage, now it feels like you read the paper as a lead-in to get you online.

Isom (City of Atlanta): I think papers in other big cities are taking it as an opportunity to redefine how they deliver news. I still think we're at a disadvantage being in a city that has CNN, which is 24/7 news,and just one paper. Our challenge is that we have a really small department as it relates to a city of this size with a mayor who's popular. We've had a different relationship with reporters. I can have eight reporters cover city hall on a single day on eight different topics. Bureau chiefs in LA, Chicago, or New York are as much a part of our news relationship as an AJC reporter. We don't only talk to local media.

Bremer (Porter Novelli): I think it's very interesting that The New York Times has merged its online and offline reporters. At the AJC, they compete with each other. Talk about dysfunction.

Scott (HomeBanc): CNN is moving most of its news operations up to New York. That was a huge asset here in terms of a corporation or agency getting national publicity. It's getting harder to crack them from Atlanta. They'll send a crew if they're interested, but you can't drop by the studio for an interview anymore.

Wicks (Checkfree): It's hard for any small company. If you're not a Delta or UPS, you're not going to get in the AJC.

Toro (A. Toro): They clearly say that all of their business reporters are assigned to a Fortune 500 company. So what about independent pros who don't have those accounts? You have to be so creative.

Farley (AMB Group): It's very interesting if you look at Atlanta's population. There is a ton of small business in this market, but we have no coverage.To walk away from that editorially is suspect.

Scott (HomeBanc): Scott (HomeBanc): It's our job to find the right reporter to go after and the right story to get their attention. HomeBanc has never been an enormous company. We've always gotten a lot of good press because we find out who is covering topics similar to what we do, and I go out and make a relationship with them. So the fact that we've gotten front-page stories in the AJC and the Business Chronicle is not so much about them finding us. It's that I've found them.

PRWeek Regional Forum

Total population:423,019
White: 33.2%
African American: 61.4%
Hispanic or Latino: 4.5%
Asian: 1.9%
Native American: 0.2%
Other: 2%

Top 10 industries by employment
? Professional, scientific, management, administrative, and waste
management services: 17.2%
? Educational, health, and social services: 16.8%
? Arts, ent., recreation, accommodation, and food services: 10.4%
? Retail trade: 9.4%
? Finance, insurance, real estate, and rental and leasing: 8.4%
? Manufacturing: 7.7%
? Transportation, warehousing, and utilities: 5.9%
? Information: 5.7%
? Construction: 5.2%
? Public administration: 4.9%
Source: 2000 US Census Bureau, 2005 estimate

Fortune 500 companies
Beazer Homes USA
BellSouth
Coca-Cola/Coca-Cola Enterprises
Cox Communications
Delta Air Lines
Genuine Parts
Georgia-Pacific
The Home Depot
Mirant
Newell Rubbermaid
Southern Company
SunTrust Banks
United Parcel Service
Source: 2005 Fortune 500

THE PARTICIPANTS

Bo Spalding
Principal, Jackson Spalding

Bill Marks
President, GCI-Atlanta

Alicia Thompson
Director of communications, Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits

Mark Scott
VP of marketing, HomeBanc

Ana Toro
Independent consultant, A.Toro Business Relations

Judy Wicks
VP of corporate communications, Checkfree Corp.

Brian Farley
Director of communications, AMB Group

Karen Kaplan
Partner and GM, Fleishman-Hillard Atlanta

Kathy Bremer
Partner, MD, Porter-Novelli Atlanta

Joselyn Baker
Director of communications, MARTA

Rob Baskin
Managing director, MS&L-Atlanta

Beverly Isom
Director of communications, City of Atlanta

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