Southeast strategies

North Carolina is a vital growth market in the region

North Carolina is a vital growth market in the region

North Carolina is undergoing an economic transformation. The erosion over the past two decades of its historically robust textile, furniture, and tobacco industries - and the subsequent loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs - has been balanced by a plethora of tech and financial services companies taking root in the state. Many of the firms, including telecommunications, software, and pharmaceutical companies, are situated in the Research Triangle, an area near the center of the state that has become the Southeast's version of Silicon Valley. And with two of the nation's largest financial institutions, Bank of America and Wachovia, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina is continuing to attract highly educated workers with ample disposable incomes. The agency world From a PR standpoint, however, the state still retains its historical roots. The most active firms are homegrown players with headquarters in the region. Unlike some of the PR industry's largest companies that left the state after failing to achieve a foothold, many locally based agencies are prospering by attracting clients from North Carolina and the Southeast. "We've had just about every major agency holding company try to acquire us, and one of the reasons was because of our geographic presence in Raleigh," says Rick French, president and CEO of French/West/Vaughan. "There are not many large national agencies in the area. They have a tough time breaking in and being successful across the state." French notes that many North Carolina companies have "more traditional Southern values" and only want to do business with firms that are familiar. "A big agency coming in and announcing 'we're here' doesn't work," he adds. Generating business throughout North Carolina, meanwhile, can even be difficult for firms that are established in the state. Many Charlotte-based companies, for instance, retain large in-house PR staffs and rarely leverage local agencies, PR executives say. Other organizations will only hire PR firms with nearby headquarters. Most agencies are situated within three distinct regions: the Charlotte area; Research Triangle, which comprises state capital Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill and contains the Research Triangle Park, an 8,000-acre hi-tech business community that employs about 60,000 workers; and the Triad, which includes Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. "The state has its own little enclaves and it's difficult for PR firms to cross over," French says. Many smaller firms in the Raleigh area specialize in public and government affairs and tech communications. Indeed, because local agencies generate much of their activity from companies situated in the Research Triangle and Triad, relatively few are located in Charlotte, the state's largest city. But some still see value in maintaining a presence in that region. Monty Hagler, president of High Point-based Trone Public Relations, says his company is opening a five-person Charlotte office in order to attract younger talent. "We just hired two account executives who are in their mid 20s and while they like Trone, they were not going to move to High Point," he notes. "The Triad is a great area in which to raise a family, but Charlotte is a more dynamic market for a young person's lifestyle." It is also common for North Carolina-based firms to service clients headquartered or active outside the state. Trone, for instance, does national PR for Greenville, SC-based Uniroyal and recently began supporting the University of Tennessee's College of Business. Epley Associates, with offices in Raleigh and Charlotte, handles communications for a North Carolina division of Moline, IL-based equipment manufacturer Deere & Co. And Raleigh-based Capstrat's clients include Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services and Columbia, MD-based Amerix, a developer of technology and processing for credit- counseling agencies. "The small number of corporations with headquarters in North Carolina makes it challenging for agencies because the decision-makers for PR engagements are often located else- where," says Ken Eudy, Capstrat CEO. But with more businesses moving into the state, a proliferation of smaller firms are sprouting to service a growing client base, says Joe Epley, chairman and CEO of Epley Associates, which has been operating in North Carolina for 35 years. "The biggest problem our company initially faced was that no companies in North Carolina knew what we did or what PR was," he notes. "But there is a greater awareness by corporate executives of PR's value, and over the past decade, the market has become increasingly crowded with quality PR people." The corporate story As North Carolina-based PR firms face the challenge of winning new business in a more competitive landscape, some corporations are finding it tougher to garner media coverage as additional companies locate to the state. That can be especially problematic for companies situated in the Research Triangle Park, who must vie for attention with a large concentration of major tech companies, including IBM and Nortel, says Mike Tindal, senior corporate communications director for SAS, a Cary, NC-based developer of business intelligence and analytics software. Many multinationals are drawn to the Triangle because of the lower cost of living and operating in the region compared to the Northeast and West Coast, as well as its large educated workforce. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University in Raleigh and Duke University in Durham all are situated nearby. SAS, which was founded in North Carolina in 1977, sits in the Triangle and employs 4,000 persons in Cary and 9,500 worldwide. Attracting important media members to the region in order to generate national and international coverage can also be difficult, Tindal says. "Many of the key technology journalists are based in such cities as New York, San Francisco, and Boston," he notes. "Companies have to be creative in finding ways to get them to travel here." Electricity provider Duke Power, which has more than 2 million customers in the Carolinas, was able to generate media attention for itself and the region's business challenges by sponsoring two economic meetings that featured elected officials, corporate and nonprofit leaders, academics, and economic developers discussing methods to spur the economy, says Tom Williams, public affairs manager. About 300 people attended April's Carolinas Competitiveness Forum in Charlotte, and 200 were at November's South Carolina Competitiveness Forum in Spartanburg. "The region's manufacturing base is eroding rapidly due to foreign imports," says Williams. "That's very challenging to us because we sell power to companies in the area. Reviving growth and the manufacturing sector has been a big focus. We want to generate media coverage and help the economic community." Fostering economic development is also a key aim of Raleigh-based Progress Energy, which has a three-person PR staff in North Carolina. The company, which has 2.9 million customers in the Carolinas and Florida, partners with state agencies to recruit businesses to the region and also sponsors exhibits at the North Carolina Museum of Art, says Keith Poston, director of PR and employee communications. "Investments in the state equals jobs which equals new customers," he notes. Getting on the media's radar Poston says companies situated outside of major markets must work "at least twice as hard" to stay on the radar of the major business press. As a result, he notes that Progress Energy executives often meet with key media outlets when visiting New York for analyst meetings in order to "stay in circulation." "Even with the growth in Charlotte and at the Research Triangle Park, a lot of the financial media doesn't really see much business existing between DC and Atlanta," he says. North Carolina PR practitioners say the techniques required for generating coverage locally from television and print outlets are the same as in most other markets throughout the country. "The North Carolina media is extremely sophisticated," says Bill Norton, Corder Philips Wilson PR director. "They expect you to know your stuff. They don't let the relationships with PR firms get in the way of what they'll report. But they are not antagonistic." Comprehensive listings of Southeast PR firms can be found in PRWeek Contact, or at www.contact-directory.com.

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