Business as usual

Last year's hurricane season hasn't tempered PR in Florida.

Last year's hurricane season hasn't tempered PR in Florida.

Florida has always been a place that evenly balances its pleasures with its perils. Inviting tropical waters are prowled by thousands of sharks. Condos and theme parks teeter on reclaimed swamp land. Cities turn themselves into tourist meccas while maintaining some of the worst school systems in the nation.

Still, people of all origins flock to the state in ever-increasing numbers, whether blowing a few bucks at the gates of Disney World or journeying precariously across national borders in search of paying jobs. It is a wildly diverse mishmash of country and cosmopolitan, Latin and American, New South and Old South, all joined together in a jutting peninsula that prays annually that it doesn't get wiped off the map by a killer storm.

And, oh, the storms. Florida has been struck by 110 hurricanes in the past century and a half, including three in rapid-fire succession last summer. The state's PR community, which ranges from public affairs shops nestled in Tallahassee to pan-American specialists in Miami, has been forced to bone up on its crisis communications work over the past year while getting on with its constant mandate of connecting US companies to Latin America and keeping the tourism pipeline flowing.

The agency view

At Ron Sachs Communications in Tallahassee, the storms have brought more than trouble - they have also brought work. Art Carlson, executive producer of the firm's video production unit, headed up last year's production of the agency's annual 30-minute Hurricane Safety Special. The VNR, featuring tips on how to survive a catastrophic storm, has been picked up by TV stations "from Delaware to Texas, anywhere that is hurricane-prone," says Carlson.
The firm partners with groups like the Salvation Army for the piece, but puts it together on its own.

"The whole thrust behind it is simply to get the word out there in a fast-paced, multiple-choice visual," he says. "[We're] trying to raise that consciousness somewhat."
Agency founder and president Ron Sachs says the state's economy has been "very resilient" and that "we're enjoying growth in our company that reflects the growth in Florida."

The full-service independent firm has been established in the state capital for a decade. That longevity is important to clients looking to influence the state legislature. Sachs says that issue-related work continues year-round, particularly as the state moves closer to a gubernatorial election next year.

Major agencies like Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton have moved into Tallahassee because of its critical importance in the state. However, Sachs says, it takes more than a big name to establish a beachhead in the area, though he doesn't expect the agencies to stop trying.

"Every major newspaper in the state has a presence here," Sachs points out. "It is the single best place in this very large state from which to make statewide news."

In Orlando, Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell (YPB&R) has been working to ensure that hurricanes don't put a damper on Florida's tourism industry. The travel- and tourism-focused agency has maintained last year's strong level of business, says EVP of PR Rod Caborn, an indication that the communications work surrounding the storms has been a success.

"If you measure it on quantifiable evidence like bed-tax revenues ... there's more heads in beds," he says. For Panama City Beach, a town heavily dependent on tourism, YPB&R organized an SMT throughout the Southeast to remind people that the destination spot was still active. "You've got to react quickly to reassure people ... that the place is still standing," says Caborn. That goes for Orlando, as well, where he says that an active PR program following last year's storms has brought skittish convention business back to the city this year.

Jane Grant, president and co-founder of Fort Lauderdale-based Pierson Grant, says simply, "[The PR business in] Florida is growing in almost every sector that's related to population growth," including real estate, restaurants, and even charter school companies.

Pierson Grant is addressing the increasing importance of the Hispanic market in Florida by offering its services in Spanish, as well as English. In this, it is hardly alone. South Florida has long been the US' springboard into Latin America, and the preferred platform for clients seeking to target Hispanics throughout Florida, the US, and the rest of the world.

Jeffrey Sharlach, chairman and CEO of The Jeffrey Group in Miami, says his agency's newly launched US Hispanic division, Axeso, has been the fastest-growing part of its business over the past year. The Jeffrey Group has also picked up more Hispanic-targeted business specific to Florida over the past two years, as its traditional role of helping US companies reach Latin America has evolved.

"The number of Latin American headquarters that are being set up in South Florida, I would say, has declined over the past two years," Sharlach says. He attributes that not only to new technology for easy communication, but a desire by clients to centralize their own PR functions. "What's really uniting the people much more than where they're located is the Spanish language," he says. "People in Los Angeles and Mexico City are watching the same Spanish-language news program."

Fleishman-Hillard, which stepped up its commitment to Hispanic PR with the opening of its Hispania practice, is seeing its investment pay off, thanks to strong economies in both Florida and Latin America. Rissig Licha, who heads the Hispania practice out of Miami, says the US Hispanic business is "growing by leaps and bounds," as multicultural marketing and PR loses its perception as a niche market and enters clients' mainstream consciousness.

"In some parts of the nation, one of them being Miami, the general market is really Hispanic," Licha points out. "[Clients are] seeing the incremental number of dollars going into those markets to support the need to communicate to the Hispanic community."
As business picks up, many agencies say that a talent crunch is on in South Florida, as firms scramble to hire bilingual Latin Americans living in Florida who can easily relate to both North and Central American audiences.

Fleishman in Miami is not only picking up new clients looking for bilingual expertise, but existing clients like Procter & Gamble are expanding the scope of their work with the office. The same is true at Miami-based Samcor, which was acquired by Hill & Knowlton in 2002 as a bulkhead in the Hispanic market. Cori Zywotow Rice, founder and president of H&K/Samcor, says that business in Miami is getting stronger as clients realize that they can achieve the "pan-regional approach" they seek without ever leaving Florida.

"Clients are learning that there's that crossover benefit because there's US Hispanic, and there's pan-regional Latin America, and there is a core there that crosses over," says Rice.

The corporate side

Florida's corporate communicators are dealing with the same issues that agencies in the state are facing. Office Depot, founded and based in South Florida, put its crisis plans to the test last year, when hurricanes were sweeping through the area.

"We have very strong crisis communication, disaster recovery, and business continuity programs," says PR director Brian Levine. "Not just for our corporate headquarters in Delray Beach, but ... around the country."

Perhaps no company is affected by the storms as much as energy company Florida Power & Light. It has a storm-specific crisis plan, which is constantly being tweaked to maximize its effectiveness. "We have a drill that we do companywide every year, and it gives us a chance to implement any lessons learned," says Pat Davis, senior media relations specialist.
For Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets, hurricanes provide not only a business rush, but an organizational challenge. Maria Brous, director of media and community relations, says Publix "learned a lot" after summer 2004's storms about how to deploy its own internal "emergency response teams." The company keeps additional stocks of necessities throughout hurricane season and closely tracks all developing storms in order to give itself as much time to prepare as possible.

Spherion, a national temporary-staffing corporation whose headquarters are in Fort Lauderdale, was forced to relocate its communications team during last year's storms to an office north of Atlanta, where the company's backup operations are based.

"Each hurricane is different; each situation is different," says PR director Kip Havel, "but we have a pretty strong continuity team in place."

Almost every corporation in Florida also has bilingual communications staff in place to communicate with Spanish-speaking customers and media. Companies with more specific multicultural communications initiatives targeted within the state tend to be those who draw most of their customers locally, rather than those who simply use Florida for corporate headquarters.

The local media

As the state has become increasingly Hispanic, so has its media. Caborn of YPB&R points out that even in central Florida, Spanish-language publications are popping up, and AM radio is dominated by Spanish speakers. Miami is home to not only local Spanish papers and magazines, but also international brands like Vogue and Glamour's Espa?ol editions, lending the city a reputation as a one-stop shop for media targeted to Latin Americans.

The Miami Herald is Florida's largest paper, but reaching a statewide audience means targeting papers in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee, as well. Florida Trend magazine is the state's bible for the business class, and TV and radio stations abound in most midsize and major markets.

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