REGIONAL FOCUS: Heartland values

Although the heartland is home to some of America's most familiar names, PR is still finding its feet.

Although the heartland is home to some of America's most familiar names, PR is still finding its feet.

Folks in America's heartland put stock in family, stability, and hard work, and the region's PR reflects those values. You aren't going to find many cool-sounding, intercapped corporate names in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. You will, however, find companies you've known your whole life. Corporate communications dominates the PR scene. St. Louis promotes itself as the BioBelt, explains Cathy Dunkin, managing partner of local PR firm The Standing Partnership. A group of "maverick civic volunteers" came up with the brand on the strength of businesses like Monsanto and plant/life-science research at local universities. Other big businesses near the Gateway Arch include Emerson Electric, May Department Stores, and Anheuser-Busch. As in St. Louis, agriculture remains an economic force in Kansas City, MO, home to Farmland Industries. But hometown companies also include AMC Entertainment, H&R Block, and Hallmark. Since the riverboat days, transportation fueled the region's economy. Its central location makes it conveniently accessible to both coasts by air and land. Mid-America boasts major trucking and transport companies like Yellow Freight and J.B. Hunt. Energy and telecom companies also dot the landscape. Sprint, based in Overland Park, KS, remains one of the regions' largest employers of communications professionals, despite recession-related staff cuts of 15% to 20%. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City nurtures biotech start-ups, boasts the Sonic Drive-In and Braum's fast-food chains, and is home to Six Flags' corporate office. The chamber of commerce recently established the Oklahoma City News Bureau, a website connecting local PR people and filtering national media requests to the right companies, explains Brenda Jones, president of the Jones Public Relations Group. Wal-Mart leads regional PR growth Northwest Arkansas, where Sam Walton grew his five-and-dime store into the nation's largest company, has emerged as the region's growth center. Many Wal-Mart suppliers set up outposts in an area Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt also call home. Wal-Mart employs about 40 people in PR, government affairs, and community affairs, and another 20 or so support its philanthropic foundation, says Tom Williams, the company's senior manager for US media relations. Topping the corporate food chain makes Wal-Mart a common target for reporters. "If Wal-Mart can be worked into a story, it might bolster the story a bit," Williams says, adding that call volume has increased in the past couple of years since the discount chain capped the Fortune 500. Wal-Mart's corporate PR highlights employee volunteerism and charitable contributions. The corporate affairs department supports the company's "Good Works" ad campaign, and publicized efforts to help the families of soldiers serving in Iraq, Williams says. Tyson also maintains a sizeable staff, with more than 30 communicators working in different disciplines, says media and community relations director Ed Nicholson. Tyson ended its relationship with Golin/Harris International last year in favor of working with a network of smaller, more specialized agencies, including Quinn Gillespie in Washington, DC, Abernathy MacGregor Group in New York, and Lopez Negrete in Houston. While business booms in Northwest Arkansas, PR firms haven't rushed to its green hills. "I would describe it as beginning to mature," Nicholson says of the local PR scene. "At this point, it's still very young." Mitchell Communications Group does project work for the area's big three companies - Wal-Mart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt. Founder Elise Mitchell moved to Arkansas eight years ago. She counts herself as the firm's only full-time employee, but subcontracts with about 10 freelancers. Previously a PRSA president in Memphis, Mitchell helped found Northwest Arkansas' fledgling chapter. Fleishman-Hillard dominates the heartland's agency landscape, employing about 380 people at its St. Louis home office, and another 100 or so in Kansas City. Its competitors admit the global giant keeps PR on the map in Mid-America. It serves as agency of record for Wal-Mart, Hallmark, and Emerson Electric, but 70% to 80% of Fleishman's work in St. Louis and Kansas City serves clients outside the heartland, says regional president Dave Senay. The agency has a couple of people on the ground in Northwest Arkansas to serve Wal-Mart, and is currently mulling the idea of opening an office there, Senay says. Also this year, Fleishman hired public affairs representatives in Little Rock, AR and Oklahoma City, and plans to explore opportunities with former Congressman J.C. Watts, who recently launched a communications group with offices in Washington, DC and Oklahoma. Weber Shandwick is the only other multinational with an office in the region. Its St. Louis outpost serves mostly national clients, although it does project work for locally based Aurora Foods, Nestl? Purina PetCare, and Energizer. Once 35-people strong, staff size fell to 20 after merger-related service spin-offs and the loss of the Compaq account, says VP Marc Abel. Smaller shops dominate PR scene The balance of agency PR in the heartland is practiced by small divisions of ad firms, sole proprietors, and a few small-to-midsize PR and marketing agencies like Morningstar Communications in Kansas City, MO, The Standing Partnership in St. Louis, and Schnake Turnbo Frank in Tulsa, OK. Leading integrated agencies include Barkley Evergreen and NKH&W in Kansas City, MO, along with St. Louis' Kupper Parker Communications. Among Barkley's biggest heartland clients is Sonic. The agency recently helped launch the chain's breakfast menu and publicize its 50th birthday with a reunion of former carhops. NKH&W posts one PR person each in the Tulsa, Little Rock, and Fort Smith, AR offices it opened within the past two years, but expects to add more PR practitioners. "We anticipate our PR to grow at a faster rate than we do our other traditional services," says president and CEO Pete Kovac. Large agencies like Fleishman and WS see advantages beyond cost savings in funneling work to their heartland offices. The region supports family lifestyles, and journalism schools at the University of Missouri and Northwestern provide a strong employment pool, notes Denise Heintz, SVP and principal at The Standing Partnership. But the heartland's work ethic may be its biggest boon. "People here are used to working hard," summarizes Mike Swenson, president of Barkley Evergreen PR. "I think that companies around the country are now starting to recognize that." A substance-over-style culture pervades, and family values spill over into the workplace. "It's often the top priority of employers in this area to communicate to their corporate families on a regular basis," observes Andrew Naugher, president of Tulsa's H2PR, a national affiliate network. That openness doesn't always carry over to external audiences, however. Some Mid-American companies may seem too close-knit and tight-lipped. "Our company's culture is not one that is marketing-based," explains Greg Smith, corporate marketing director for J.B. Hunt, which employs only three full-time communicators. Individuals from humble backgrounds founded many of the region's companies, he notes. "Mr. Hunt had an eighth-grade education and literally drove the first truck," Smith says. "He's a handshake-and-a-smile kind of guy." "I'd say [PR] is undervalued by many companies," agrees Judy Steele, communications manager of Oklahoma City's Express Personnel Services. "A lot of companies are sales-based, and focus on building their sales teams." Corporate moves challenge local PR The heartland grows strong businesses with roots that don't always hold them in place. Mergers and headquarter moves hurt PR pros looking for work in the region. Southwestern Bell (now SBC) once called St. Louis home, but moved to San Antonio years ago. ERA Real Estate also left, TWA's presence waned after its merger with American Airlines, and national conglomerates gobbled up local banks. "Twenty years ago, Tulsa had a lot of headquarters. Now we've become more of a branch city, and that poses all kinds of challenges," says Steve Turnbo, president of Schnake Turnbo Frank. Phillips Petroleum, for example, pulled all but two of its communications staffers out of nearby Bartlesville when it merged with Houston's Conoco. Regional firms must content themselves with product projects and crisis training, as opposed to providing high-level counsel, Turnbo says. "Branches, as opposed to corporate headquarters, don't hire lawyers, CPAs, and PR firms." ----- Energy trading demise The downfall of energy trading sent shockwaves far beyond its Houston and California epicenters. Two of the business' largest companies - Aquila and Williams - grew out of the heartland. Both are returning to their roots after abandoning energy trading last summer, and both cut their PR staffs by about two-thirds. Kansas City's Aquila started out as Missouri Public Service. Once the number-two energy trader, it's now divesting international properties to focus on domestic utilities, says corporate communications vice president Al Butkus. Aquila dropped from 33rd in the 2001 Fortune 500 to 477th last year. Williams started in natural gas, and diversified into everything from convenience stores to a moving company. Its spin-off, WilTel Communications, once employed a sizeable PR staff, but has clammed up in bankruptcy. "Over the course of the past year, we've sold almost 20 businesses," says Williams' media relations manager Kelly Swan. The surviving business will deal in the production, processing, and pipeline of natural gas. Swan says former staffers have gotten internal communications jobs out of state at companies like Limited Brands and Kimberly-Clark. "Williams has definitely seen some talent," he boasts. Meanwhile, Aquila still works with Edelman on financial communications, but Butkus says the business may shrink even more. "You don't need a lot of big-time media work when you are a seven-state utility," he notes.

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