The Hispanic PR players

Many different kinds of firms offer their own road maps to the Hispanic consumer.

Many different kinds of firms offer their own road maps to the Hispanic consumer.

Hispanic PR is a discipline that has grown from a nascent niche to an artful specialty in the past decade. Once a low-priority add-on for most companies, programs targeting this growing and lucrative market are now hot topics in marketing departments across the US. As more and more corporations turn their focus to America's Latino consumers, a diverse group of businesses from PR shops to communications consultants to ad firms has sprung up, or shaped up, to service their needs.

But while increased competition has helped elevate Hispanic PR from detour to discipline, it has also created confusion for companies searching for the best way to reach these consumers and complex choices for more sophisticated corporations looking to up their game.

With so many providers offering their own take on what best practices are for Hispanic PR, deciding what good service and counsel is can be hard. PRWeek asks players in each of the business models to explain what they offer.

Advertising and marketing firms

Meaningful outreach to Hispanic consumers began with advertising. When PR came into the mix, many companies asked their existing ad agency to take on those duties. So now, most Hispanic ad shops have at least an in-house PR person - if not an established department - giving clients what Aida Levitan, vice-chair and chief communications officer of Miami-based Bromley Communications, one of the top Hispanic ad agencies in the US, calls "a more 360-degree approach" to reaching Hispanic consumers. Her claim that integrating marketing disciplines is key to reaching this demographic is echoed across the industry, with many professionals both in advertising and PR adding that the multidisciplinary approach gives them a broader understanding of their target audiences, as well as more tools to reach them.

"I'm surrounded by marketing professionals in a variety of disciplines, so I stay abreast of everything and have so many experts I can go to," says Deborah Charnes Vallejo, MD of Bromley/ MS&L, a partnership between the sister agencies that is based out of Bromley's San Antonio office.

Levitan adds that her company's clout as a Hispanic advertiser gives her an inside track with Hispanic media, making editorial placements easier.

"We are very valued players in the Hispanic media," she says. "I am able to access key players in Hispanic media in a way that I very much doubt a mainstream PR firm could. Let's say that I call an SBS (Spanish Broadcasting System) radio station in Los Angeles and I can't get to the right person. I can call the chairman of SBS, who is a personal friend of mine through my advertising, and ask him to get the person in LA to get my call returned because he is the boss."

But John Echeveste, partner at Los Angeles-based Valencia, Perez & Echeveste, warns that leveraging advertising clout to gain editorial coverage might not be a best practice.

"I've got problems with that," he says. "We still believe in keeping a distinct wall between advertising and news."

One drawback to advertising- and marketing-centered firms is that PR isn't always a priority. Jorge Ortega, head of Burson-Marsteller's US Hispanic practice, points out that PR from an advertising firm may be shortsighted.

"The reality is that unless you have a team of people and you have the depth and the breadth, the PR activities created by these firms will only be PR activities that support an existing campaign," he argues. "They will not [provide] the full depth of what PR can offer."

Boutique agencies

"The good work will still end up coming out of specialized boutiques," claims Craig Binkley, managing principal consultant of The Zyman Group, a consulting firm that helps companies strategize Hispanic programs and conduct provider searches.

He makes a good case. Long before the big firms realized how important the Hispanic market promised to be, solo practitioners and boutiques were popping up to carve out lucrative pieces of an undiscovered pie. Some of those shops have been in business for decades, growing in ability and importance in their markets, and nurturing community relationships that are as much personal as business. Many still subcontract to the bigger players. Many more prefer to land their own national clients based on their strong track records. Ask any of these smaller shops why Hispanic PR is best done by a boutique, and they will tell you personal relationships are the key to unlocking this market.

"It's not so much an issue of the firm's size. It's more the approach. You have to start from the community up," explains Bobby Pena, owner of Sacramento-based BPcubed. "Smaller firms have an advantage because we have those relationships. We work in the Latin community every day. We have that history."

Dora Tovar, head of Arlington, TX-based Tovar PR, agrees, saying His-panic marketing is more closely tied to cause-related marketing than any other discipline.

However, some caution that while boutiques may know their communities, they may lack knowledge of truly high-level strategic PR planning.

"While they may know the market very well, they [may not] know all the [PR] disciplines very well," cautions Denise Blaya, Ketchum's supervisor of multicultural marketing.

Boutiques also have size limitations, with fewer staff to implement programs. Many sidestep that issue with freelancers, but critics say relying on transitory employees could impact quality.

Large agencies

Why go to the big firms? Because they have big resources. Many large agencies have spent the past few years building impressive in-house Hispanic practices, often through purchasing or hiring from boutiques. In high-profile markets like Miami and LA, offices don't only have senior-level strategists, but also cultural insiders who can tell you why soccer-based initiatives won't work for Cuban communities and who the latest cross-over pop star is for inner-city Angelino kids. For large brands that don't have the patience or desire to manage multiple boutiques, large firms promise the same community-oriented approach with the simplicity of one contract.

"There are clients that have sort of a national footprint," notes Rissig Licha, EVP of Fleishman-Hillard Hispania. "Those clients are better served by the larger firms because they need to have representation and execution in multiple markets at the same time."

Euro RSCG Magnet client Deborah Lutz, brand manager for Lactaid milk allergy products, says those large-scale capabilities are one of the reasons her firm chose the agency.

"We wanted a firm that specializes in Hispanic PR and could bring us a combination of not just traditional media outreach, but also community outreach. They really offered that capability."

Blaya adds that sheer people power also enters the equation. "A larger firm gives you the arms and legs to really get into the community," she explains.

In addition to Hispanic PR, Chris Perez, Euro RSCG Magnet's SVP and Hispanic practice leader, points out that large firms offer clients the resources of all their PR skills.

"We are a robust PR firm and that means that we have IR capabilities and multiple practices within the PR spectrum," says Perez. "So right off the bat, integrated to us means we're able to view the Hispanic outreach needs within the context of the general market.

However, Tovar says big firms can have drawbacks, most notably a lack of true connection to the communities they claim to know. That can be caused by disconnect between large staffs where senior-level people craft the idea, but lesser-qualified junior staff implement it. Echeveste backs her view.

"The difficulty they face is the lack of connection to the market," he claims. "It's not enough to speak the language. You need people who live the culture."

While clearly each competitor in this growing market has reason to tout their own take on Hispanic PR, "there might be different fits for different clients," concedes Licha.

"It's important to remember that one is still targeting an audience," adds David Henry, president of electronic publicity and broadcast services provider Telenoticias/NovoMedia. "Different tools produce different results and accomplish different goals. The only way to determine which is the best way to reach the consumer is to look at the needs of the client and determine from that who can best fulfill them."

Targeting the urban culture

As recently as 50 years ago, talk of ethnic America would have been as likely to focus on Irish and Italian immigrants as it would on newer transplants from countries like India and Mexico, who began to migrate in larger numbers by mid-century. Today, those first waves of European immigrants, and their subsequent US-born children, may still cherish their cultures of origin, but are seen by most as part of mainstream culture. Why shouldn't the future hold the same fate for other immigrants?

Many marketers, like Ava DuVernay of California-based The DuVernay Agency, are betting it does, and are targeting a mixed "urban" culture rather than taking single-ethnicity approaches.

"The challenge is marketing to a Mexican kid in Texas who watches BET, but wants to see Without A Paddle," she says, pointing out that ethnic kids are often "very much a hodgepodge of cultures."

Her firm has a three-film deal with DreamWorks that included urban campaigns for The Terminal, Collateral, and Shark Tale. Departing from typical movie-marketing efforts, DuVernay convinced the studio to cross Collateral star Tom Cruise over to urban media outlets like BET. That initiative's success helped the film open in the number-one box-office spot this summer.

"Clearly, trends in pop culture are being created, defined, and driven by an urban mindset," confirms Armando Azarloza, head of Weber Shandwick's Hispanic division. "The impact is undeniable across groups."

But other marketers fear that the one-shoe-fits-all approach isn't a PR panacea and could cause companies to miss their target demographics.

"Each group is different," points out Kim Hunter, principal of LA-based LaGrant Communications. "Though there are commonalities, each group has its own cultural nuances that must be taken into consideration."

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