The magazine that launched on November 16, 1998 has evolved into a full-fledged brand. And much like the profession that it covers, PRWeek has grown significantly in its 10 years in the US.
Amazed at what PRWeek had accomplished in the UK, John Graham, then-CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, asked Stephen Farish, then-editor of PRWeek UK, in 1997, “Why don't we have anything like this in the US?” This query, posed on October 29 at the PRWeek UK Awards, would not stay unanswered long.
Farish recalls January 1998, when then-PRSA COO Ray Gaulke visited him and plainly stated that a title such as PRWeek was needed in the US. Farish subsequently crossed the pond on a fact-finding mission that March, holding conversations with industry heavyweights. The Rt. Hon the Lord Heseltine, founder and chairman of Haymarket Media Group, made his own Stateside trip in July.
One of those industry leaders, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman, recalls a 1998 meeting with Lord Heseltine in London.
“I remember sitting there with Lord Heseltine. He looked me right in the eye and asked, ‘Can we make a business of this in the States?' I said, ‘You've done very well in a smaller market. [The US] is four times the size of the UK market, at least, and doesn't have a leadership publication. You should go for it.' Then he asked me if I'd be the first advertiser. I said, ‘Yeah, we're in.'”
“We were very pleased with the response,” says Farish, now MD at Haymarket Professional Media. “[Eventually, Lord Heseltine] said, ‘Well, I think we should give it a go.'”
With support from both within the company and the US industry, Farish, who was publisher; editor-in-chief Adam Leyland; ad director Julie Moore; and ad manager Rupert Heseltine, came to New York in September 1998 to launch PRWeek US. The title debuted on November 16, 1998.
“It was very exciting, but somewhat terrifying. We were starting from scratch,” admits Farish. “It was a start-up company, not just a start-up magazine.”
Leyland, who held his post until September 2001 and is now editor of The Grocer, notes some early concerns. “We didn't have bank accounts set up when we started,” he says. “We basically launched the magazine on Rupert's gold card.”
There were logistical challenges, but the timing could not have been better. “When we arrived, it was just when President Clinton apologized for the Lewinsky affair,” recalls Leyland. “Clinton's actions had everyone thinking of PR. And with the dot-com boom, there was a sense of awareness about PR like there never had been before. There was a realization of the industry's potential.”
In its first three years in the US, PRWeek established itself as a peerless industry title in terms of mass information and high production value. Matt Boyle, one of the first reporters PRWeek hired and now deputy corporations editor at BusinessWeek, recalls widespread enthusiasm.
“Sure, I'd come across people who were surprised anyone even wanted to talk to [us],” he explains, “but there were just as many people pitching us endlessly. Some firms even took a stance of assigning publicists to specifically work with us.”
“PRWeek brought a feeling that this was a definable industry with a lot of very professional practitioners,” says Jonah Bloom, who took over from Leyland in September 2001. “But PRWeek was also prepared to be critical. We would point to the bad practices, as well as the good ones.”
Of course, conveying that message was sometimes difficult for a title still staffed by a few Brits.
“We tried to ‘Americanize' the magazine,” notes Bloom, now editor at Ad Age. “I would look to write a baseball metaphor, but it didn't work because we didn't get baseball. Going from a UK import to a US publication was a challenge.”
That obstacle, however, paled in comparison to an event that shook the world to its foundation 10 days after Bloom took over – 9/11. “The world fell down around us,” he recalls. “Boom turned into bust.”
PRWeek, like other publications, was not immune. As the industry suffered, sales fell. The title was also intently trying to determine the direction it needed to go. Bloom wanted to concentrate more on corporate communications. That focus began to take shape in the year Bloom was at the helm. The strongest inroads, however, may have come under Julia Hood, his successor.
Hood, who had been the Bay Area bureau chief, took over as editor-in-chief in September 2002. (A once-skeptical Lou Capozzi, then-CEO of MS&L and now chairman emeritus of the Publicis Public Relations and Corporate Communications Group, deemed her ascension a “turning point” for the title.)
“The corporate communicator was... not used to seeking the spotlight,” says Hood, who was promoted to publishing director in 2008. “PRWeek provided a platform by which that role was elevated.”
That newfound focus, while vital to key industry figures, also took the magazine to a new level and won it much broader respect. Hood notes that one of the more prominent in-house figures to first develop a relationship with the title was Bill Margaritis, SVP of worldwide communications and IR at FedEx.
“Bill provided us thought leadership and insight into his philosophies of running his team and a communications strategy,” she explains. “It set a precedent for us to engage corporate communicators in a high-level discussion about what their role is and what they do in these organizations.”
Margaritis believes the relationship remains mutually beneficial. “PRWeek has the most comprehensive coverage of issues,” he says. “Others act more as newsletters. PRWeek has credibility and is very transparent in its reporting. I challenge my team to stay up on current events in the profession. PRWeek is a powerful instrument to do that.
“As it has grown,” Margaritis continues, “it has become more substantive in capturing issues that are increasingly vital to the profession. It has also become more provocative in challenging some legacy points of view.”
Porter Novelli chairman Helen Ostrowski concurs, citing the magazine's increasingly thought-provoking opinion pieces.
“Some of the editorials have been spot on in getting us to examine ourselves,” she says. “The critical nature of the editorials has become very much what we need to be asking ourselves as an industry. The focus on accountability has been great in the editorials. That's a great service PRWeek gives us.”
“We transformed over time from being an industry publication to being a business publication about the industry,” says Hood. And in her tenure, PRWeek had ample opportunity to prove that it was a hard-hitting news outlet unafraid to tackle controversial issues.
One such issue arose in 2005. It involved Armstrong Williams, a conservative political commentator who, it was revealed, accepted money to promote the No Child Left Behind Act on his TV and radio programs. The contract with Williams was part of a $1 million contract between the US Department of Education and Ketchum. That controversy then became rolled up with the VNR/Medicare issue, where a video produced to promote a new Medicare law was found to have violated federal statutes by neglecting to identify itself as a government production.
“This story might have been dismissed as another case of flackery or spin,” notes Hood, “but we were able to... show the individual issues at hand. We had to take a bold stand because the mainstream media was looking at this and dismissing it as a typical case of PR. We had to note that there was an individual bad practice, but this is not the way to view the industry as a whole... Anything less than the most credible reporting would be a disservice to what we always maintain are the tenets of great PR.”
While the principles of good PR remain a foundation for the industry, the discipline's evolution relies on fresh ideas. And much like the sector it covers, PRWeek has long embodied this innovative spirit through various channels, such as various standalone supplements; to events such as Target Green and the Next Conference; to a certain annual gathering.
Following in the footsteps of its UK sister title, the PRWeek Awards, which will be held in the US for the tenth time in 2009, has become a signature event, one that everyone in the industry looks forward to on the first Thursday of every March.
Another momentous occasion in PRWeek's continued development took place on January 30, 2006, with the title's print relaunch. PRWeek held numerous focus groups and researched reader opinions, finding that there was a desire for the publication to showcase “PR in action.”
PRWeek altered its cover to highlight an anchor feature that primarily focused on one blue-chip company or organization and its work with agency partners. The first issue focused on The Gap, and subsequent ones have tackled such illustrious companies as Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Google, GE, and others.
It's hard to fathom in 2008, but the Internet was a “new idea” not that long ago. PRWeek certainly covered the industry's digital awakening, but it wasn't practicing what it was preaching. The magazine had a Web site, but it primarily mirrored the print issue. Through multiple relaunches, the Web site has made strides in becoming its own stand-alone entity.
“At first, we thought of the Web as a place for stories that didn't get [into print],” says Keith O'Brien, PRWeek's current editor-in-chief, who started as editor of PRWeek.com in 2004. “We now see it as more than just an extension of the print publication. It allows us to engage in more of a dialogue with our readers.”
O'Brien says the value-add of trade media outlets, in addition to their thought-leadership and access to the key industry actors, is that they can help readers find the most relevant information to their jobs.
“We feel this great pressure to distill all the information out there into what is important,” he adds. “We look to deliver to their desktop a promise that these are the most important stories, opinions, campaigns, and analyses that affect a PR pro's job.”
Lord Heseltine is as bullish as ever at both the industry's and US' prospects.
“The US is the home of the PR industry,” he notes. “With all the recurring crises in the US and the world – and the rising demand for professionalism to deal with that – the PR industry and, in turn, PRWeek, is in a very prominent position.”