In the fifth year of its Regional Forums, PRWeek is returning to cities it has previously visited, as well as adding a handful of new regions to the rotation.
For each event, leading PR pros from a variety of agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and other organizations take place in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers.
PRWeek's Erica Iacono and Michael Bush were in Chicago for this year's third Regional Forum.
Erica Iacono (PRWeek): How would you describe the PR climate in Chicago and how is the local economy affecting your business?
Ron Culp (Ketchum): The economy must be very strong because the agency business locally is very strong. We've had significant growth in the past year.
Cynthia Hardie (Fleishman-Hillard): I would echo that. I think it's very robust. What the industry thinks about what's happening is what clients are coming to us for and asking not just about media relations or certain things but what can we do to have an impact on business as well.
Iacono (PRWeek): Is business being driven strictly out of Chicago?
Culp (Ketchum): We're adding on Chicago clients but we're also finding that Chicago is bringing in clients from other major Midwestern cities compared to what we were seeing before. Corporations I talk to, they are being asked to do more than ever before with smaller staffs.
Bill Zucker (Burson Marsteller): We will also see the entrée of people who want to work with a major global PR firm but with Midwest roots and attitudes. And many of the people around this table can bring that combo.
Jon Harris (Sara Lee): As a Chicago-based global company we have agencies all over the world, but working with a Chicago-based company just makes things easier for us to do business, and by being close to the business and based in Chicago they are thereby closer to the business and [that] allows you to be more educated and have more of an impact. While our staffs are not getting bigger, our budgets are getting larger and because of that we're being called to do a lot of different things that we wouldn't have been doing in the past.
Kym White (Baxter International): We too work with agencies all over the world and I'm happy to work with Chicago agencies, but I'm really happiest to work with really smart people no matter where they live. It doesn't matter if we're in New York or Chicago or elsewhere because typically, my team is going to be based in multiple cities anyway. So someone has got to travel somewhere.
PJ Sinopoli (Quaker Tropicana Gatorade): The Chicago agencies are all realizing a bump here because you may very well have some of the best people and best ideas but I think from the point of view of global brands, we're looking for the best performance, insights, tactics, and strategies to support what we're trying to do and certainly it's easier to have them right outside your back door, but with today's technology it's not a requirement.
Culp (Ketchum): PJ raises a good point, because we might be brought in initially to work on an assignment but very often as we start saying, "Who do we put here?" we realize it's so easy to communicate now, and it's becoming far more of a team dynamic and there's a lot more of that going on than there used to be. A lot of the agencies can be pretty provincial and feel if they got the business in Chicago they're going to keep it here, and now they realize if the client is happy you're going to be putting the best team against the account.
Sinopoli (QTG): It also makes those teams very functional. If you're using talent from a variety of places it's trying to make certain that teams operates as efficiently as possible and that we clients are not always on the learning curve with different offices.
Kathleen Cantillon (Exelon): Those of us are that are less consumer driven and more regulated I think you have to have a Washington, DC [agency]component to your team.
Cindy Pino (Edelman): And from a multicultural standpoint at Edelman we have offices around the country that can do what's being asked or provide the expertise needed.
Jonathan Guerin (US Cellular): At US Cellular we have small agencies across the country doing work for us. We have a great Chicago agency who does great work for us and knows the city and market, but then we've also got a couple of these agencies to be our extension in the field. And we have seen tremendous success with that and it makes them feel like they are an associate of US Cellular and the work is phenomenal.
Mike Hatcliffe (Ogilvy): Having worked for two agencies in Chicago in the last eight years, basically the big Chicago agencies are serving as national agencies. The need to drive to do communications within the Chicago community is actually not a big deal with the clients larger agencies attract. So oddly enough we don't do an awful lot of work in our own city. It tends to be national work.
Iacono (PRWeek): Are you finding it easy to attract talent? Are you hiring right now?
Cantillon (Exelon): I personally find it hard to hire at the mid-level right now.
Hatcliffe (Ogilvy): The Chicago PR agencies suffered a lot from 2001 to 2003. There was a lot of letting go at that time and no one was hiring and that bubble is still passing through the system.
Zucker (BM): The best way to keep good mid-level people is to develop junior people. It's so much more difficult to go out and try to find the right person when you have the ability to take junior folks and give them a reason to stay and help them grow and train them.
Sinopoli (QTG): From a corporate perspective, I don't know that we're ever really out there trying to grow our staff; we are trying to operate more efficiently. But I think at the mid-level the question becomes, whether it's in-house or agency, are the junior experiences broad enough? Because our jobs are much broader than they were when we were junior people years ago. You're looking for a mid-level person who has much more depth and scope than we might have been looking for 10 to 15 years ago.
Shannelle Armstrong (McDonald's): I have been with McDonald's three years and every last [agency] team we had turned over three times. All of our agency teams. Our multicultural teams can't keep their talent. There has to be a stronger commitment on the agency side to do more mentorship with those junior level people moving up to those mid-levels.
White (Baxter Healthcare): But the agencies have to stop penalizing people for staying. They bring in outside people and pay them better and the people that you value get wise to that and there's always some excuse about the system only allowing for this type of increase and those kinds of things, and I think it's really shortsighted and I believe that we created a lot of our own problems that way. We made it easier for people to be poached.
Zucker (BM): Money is part of the equation and I think the client can be a part of the equation too. Liking your client relationship is one of the things that keeps you satisfied in your job. We need to help our clients understand that.
White (Baxter Healthcare): Agency people work so much harder for clients they like and respect.
Harris (Sara Lee): We see it in corporations as well. We're losing talent because a lot of times you don't show them the love. We say it, but actions speak louder than words. It's true to the corporations as well.
Sinopoli (QTG): I don't think it's a systemic problem only for our industry. Talent development is a focus for all industries.
Cantillon (Exelon): Shouldn't it be more of a focus for PR because the product is actually the people? You don't operate machines and plants.
Hatcliffe (Ogilvy): What's baffled me to this day is how hard it is to get into PR in the first place. It's this completely random process with no structure to it. Why did we make it so hard? And we all know it and I don't see any great effort to change that.
Iacono (PRWeek): What kind of skills and experience are you looking for in employees?
White (Baxter Healthcare): I want people who are curious. That crosses all major boundaries.
Hardie (Fleishman):One of the things that amazes me in the interview process in our office, is I'm usually the last one to speak to someone and when I ask them what questions do you have for me and they say, "None" I think uh-oh. Curiosity is everything.
Harris (Sara Lee): PR is a wonderful course of study in college, but when I went to an agency that's when I learned everything. Agency experience above all is tremendous.
Cantillon (Exelon): Someone with a PR degree may have a head start at understanding what PR is, but that's really a short term thing. Writing for me is very important and it's harder and harder to find good writers.
Harris (Sara Lee): A lot of times what's happening is a lot of people from other parts of the business-sales, promotions or marketing-they're being called in some of the smaller companies to do PR as part of their job.
Zucker (BM): I laid it out to our interns in the beginning of the summer and said there are only two things that you need to be able to prove: One, that you know how to write, and two, that you can speak. Those are basic skills but that's how we communicate with our clients.
Hatcliffe (Ogilvy): Younger people also have an instinctive connectiveness and an ability to build networks and relationships, which will actually be hugely important in PR. And a younger set of clients will also value that.
Iacono (PRWeek): Is the type of person you're looking for changing? Perhaps someone with more of a digital background?
Hardie (Fleishman): In the digital world, we're still trying to do the same thing: deliver a message to a targeted audience. It's in a different venue but we're not really changing what we're doing so the basic skills still have to be there.
Cantillon (Exelon): We want people who know the Web and know how to use blogs, the basic skills aren't different but its how we're getting the message across that's different. And I don't know the ins and outs of that like a 21-year-old does so I'm really hungry to get those people in my organization.
Armstrong (McDonald's): You just want to make sure it makes sense. People say we should put something up on YouTube or FaceBook...And I say Why? Or we should text message, Why? We're asking people to be more edgy but they have no way to apply that tactically or from a strategic perspective.
Sinopoli (QTG): I would agree from a relevancy perspective. Don't just come up with a channel and no relevance to the strategy that you're trying to drive. I think that's where the youthful perspective can help us understand how YouTube connects to this and to this and to this.
Zucker (BM): One of the biggest things clients are coming to us for right now is digital strategy and like I said earlier the ability to be able to write and communicate with a client is just as important there. The trend I find fascinating is clients appointing digital AORs to plan a whole strategy out.
Iacono (PRWeek): PR agencies should be most equipped to do these types of things but they are not the first choice?
Sinopoli (QTG): It's tradition. Traditionally the biggest chunk of money will always go the ad agency so they will always be the hub of the wheel. If the ad agency is best equipped to do it then great, but with us its 360 degree marketing. I don't want a digital strategy for the sake of a digital strategy, I need the brand strategy and all of the tactics that play into achieving that.
Armstrong (McDonald's): The other concern we have at McDonald's is when you splinter so badly you start to add so many layers that this person is not talking to that one. You start to have a little bit of in-bickering. You have to bring everyone to the table and say, "Let's play well together." The PR teams traditionally do not engage in the social networking because it's a pay-to-play forum, and it's always been a pay-to-play forum. Because it's pay-to-play, it's better managed in my opinion from the ad side as long as marketing is working with communications and you're working on the same strategy.
Harris (Sara Lee): I know companies that have ad agencies that claim they can do everything. They're the jack of all trades. I've seen that before in certain companies.
White (Baxter Healthcare): The bottom line is that the media environment is definitely changing and we all need to be smart about the tactics that are available to us at any point in time, but because a tactic is trendy doesn't make it right. Agencies in particular feel the pressure to sell the trendy thing to differentiate themselves and show they are on the cutting edge of what's going on.
Armstrong (McDonald's): It's like skeet shooting. You see the plate going and once you hit that trend, it's till continuing to move. We're trying to help our agencies understand we want to be in the beginning part of that trend, we don't always take it and move with it. We just want to know, what we're missing out on. I'm a results driven company and every tactic has to sell a hamburger or a fry, or a salad. People have to challenge themselves to get away from media impressions and buzz. We try position our launches with PR two weeks before advertising hits, so we can see if PR really is affecting. When people start to focus on the wrong tactic and no strategy you start to get a lot of one-offs that look really great but they didn't deliver anything.
Harris (Sara Lee): With budget comes great responsibility. As PR [departments], we are going to start taking or getting more [money] from marketing than we have in the past. Sara Lee is the same way. I have to sell a cheesecake or a sausage. If you're not moving that bottom line then you won't have that budget next year.
Iacono (PRWeek): How have blogs/social media affected your jobs as PR people?
Cantillon (Exelon): It's very risky strategy. If you're representing yourself forthright, then you're just written off as a hack. If you're being deceptive, obviously there's risk there and some think that by engaging it, you're giving it a credibility it doesn't deserve. I don't think this industry has really figured out how to react to blogs. They can do a lot of damage but how you manage that damage has yet to be determined.
Harris (Sara Lee): Blogs are very good for internal communications. That's the most powerful [way]I've seen it used at our corporation.
Sinopoli (QTG): When coming up with a blog strategy or not coming up with one really comes down to a couple of things-we are dealing in a media environment of incredible transparency. It feeds to the odd nuanced interests of the variety of our consumers and that can be a great thing or a very dangerous thing. The strategies and tactics are no good if they're not authentic. If they're authentic then they'll work, if they are not, our consumers are way too savvy and will call us on it.
Harris (Sara Lee): Everyone has a voice nowadays. That's the issue and why it becomes even more important for us to stay on top of technology. It's up to us and our partners to figure out what works and never ever force it. There may be people on blogs who write things that are incorrect about the company and I hate to give it credence by going to them, but if they have an audience it does run the risk of becoming a much bigger issue. I think you have to tackle them.
Zucker (BM): Where PR can really add value is knowing where the influence is. Intuitively, if I see it on my computer screen it must be a bad thing, but that doesn't mean it was influential. And one of the things that we as agencies can bring is the research to show what's influential and who are the influencers online and that's what we take to clients to help them determine what they should be paying attention to.
Sinopoli (QTG): Institutionalizing those kinds of processes on a frequent enough basis for your clients is in invaluable service to a corporate communications department. To have the resources of an agency flagging for us what we should be worried about.
Hardie (Fleishman): One of the other things we do is get all the clips, but then we have somebody whose sole job is to identify all the issues and to respond to those.
Iacono (PRWeek): The PR industry gets a lot of criticism for not being diverse enough. What are your thoughts on that?
Armstrong (McDonald's): Diversity is a very interesting word for corporations and even more interesting on the agency side. When I talk to a lot of our agencies and people I work with, we can not keep anyone of color on staff to even talk to [multicultural] audiences because they are not making it at general market agencies. I will tell you what they tell me. I ask them why they want to leave and they often tell me they don't feel welcome at a big agency. So they don't stay, and if they can get a couple of brands on their resume they're off on the corporate side or they go into marketing.
Hatcliffe (Ogilvy): It does go back to the randomness of the initial entry point. I agree with everything you're saying. We're most interested in getting the best talent possible to serve client needs and yet it's so unstructured and it's so lacking any process, how could we possibly tackle something like that?
Armstrong (McDonald's): I empathize to a degree.
Hardie (Fleishman): The key is going to where the people are and the talent is. But if people haven't made a decision for PR people that can be more challenging.
Pino (Edelman): Speaking internally, it's my responsibility to work that much more closely with HR because they do need specific direction or suggestion. And before we go outside to where people are you have to have upper management be internal champions, and have that support coming from the top.
Culp (Ketchum): PR in general-corporate and agency-has been under such pressure to perform and get jobs done that there really hasn't been a strategy to how do we really make this work as it should because of how diverse the audiences are that we are supposed to be communicating with. And inside of the agency I think lack of role models has been a problem. We hired someone at SVP level and the last five or six hires have been African American at all ranges. It takes time and a lot of effort.
Sinopoli (QTG): It should make it easier with the discipline expanding. It's a really exciting industry to enter right now because it's so multidimensional. We want to be the hub of that 360 degree marketing wheel, and we're fully capable of doing so.
Guerin (US Cellular): I was at Home Depot before US Cellular and an agency before that and what drew me to those places was not the names of the companies, but the culture and who the people are. If I'm able to express myself openly and honestly as a communicator in all of these companies then that's perfect.
Cantillon (Exelon): I worked in government earlier in my career and this is one area where they do a better job than the private sector. There's a real emphasis on people that work for the government representing people that pay the taxes. There's a real emphasis on hiring diverse people and it permeates every aspect of the hiring process.
Armstrong (McDonald's): We do well but we could do better. I challenge my team and tell them don't just shop at your comfort level. In our own department in US communications, every single person we hired as intern was not of color. But three quarters of the interns hired in the marketing department were, and some of them spoke two languages. And they don't just want to work on multicultural assignments and be niched. They don't want to be pigeonholed.
Iacono (PRWeek): Is there room for them to start working on multicultural assignments and then switch over to general market work?
Pino (Edelman): We're starting to see that, and that's always a personal choice.
Hardie (Fleishman): I ask that question of people. I never make any assumption and the person who leads up our Hispanic practice in Chicago, also leads business outside of Hispanic too.
Armstrong (McDonald's): No matter what area you are in or how good you are at it, you don't want to be pigeonholed. You don't want to be known just for that.
Sinopoli (QTG): That doesn't help their career advancement any either. It's great to have mastery in one area and hopefully become masterful in many areas. Whether it's a diverse population or not you are going to want to grow people.
Hatcliffe (Ogilvy): Everyone will say they want to change and we will go away and have another one of these meetings in three years and we'll be having the exact same conversation. For the agencies who don't have any systematic structural approach to this, it will be when we don't look like our clients any longer and the clients are looking at the agencies and thinking, "what's going on, on your end, you don't look like the rest of the world looks." Then that will become our burning platform and it will become commercial. Then there will be some structural change more and some serious process behind it rather than just nice warm words.
Zucker (BM): You talk about something that's important for younger folks in PR and something that's easier for us to do on the agency end, and that's to provide a variety of experiences. There's this concept of wherever you enter the agency is where you'll stay. We do better for ourselves and for our clients and definitely for our junior folks if we encourage them to try something different and new.
Iacono (PRWeek): What's the situation with the local media?
Cantillon (Exelon): The newspapers have financial challenges and they are cutting back on staff so it's fewer reporters covering more beats and they don't have as many beat reporters who understand your industry. It makes it much harder to do your job because you spend a lot of time educating them on your industry and the stories don't go as in depth and there's a lot of things that aren't clearly communicated.
Sinopoli (QTG): We have national consumer brands so we don't benefit immensely from local business ink. We want it for our brands.
Cantillon (Exelon): Utilities is a complicated business and it takes a while to get someone up to speed on how electricity works and then it's switched off to someone else, so it can be challenging.
Armstrong (McDonald's): For us the Chicago-based media can be helpful, but the place where it has been difficult is when they have people who have been in the business too long. They don't really look at where the brand is now. And every five seconds it's the same three subjects-minimum wage, obesity and healthcare. We're much more that and moving past that.
Zucker (BM): Despite those financials challenges, reporters are being asked to do things much differently as part of their jobs. You have reporters coming to you no who used to carry a notepad but are now also carrying a video camera. You have reporters either by choice or because it's part of their job, adding to their stories online so they're doing a lot more, which makes their jobs more difficult but on the other hand it's giving them the chance to dig deeper and do other things and Chicago companies can use that as an opportunity to say there are some reporters out there looking for more content than ever before, and we can help them with that.
Iacono (PRWeek): Any new niche publications that have popped up?
Armstrong (McDonald's): I like the Red Eye because we tend to see a lot more success with our campaigns and it's a younger demographic.
Iacono (PRWeek): What are the influential blogs you're reaching out to?
Culp (Ketchum): The TV stations locally have really improved on their online presence. The Tribune is trying to stay current through the day but there is a lot of competition on that front from the other news services. I think most people in Chicago are getting their information online and the print newspaper is just validating the stories they read the day before.
Zucker (BM): The Sun Times is doing something very interesting. In recognition of the combination of commuting life and online life they were printing an afternoon edition online you could print out to take with you.
Cantillon (Exelon): They are also partnering with the network news shows. So they'll say the headlines in tomorrow's Daily Herald are this.
Culp (Ketchum): And they are all trying to get their reporters as talking heads on TV news and radio.
Cantillon (Exelon): I think that's interesting because these stations will go to these reporters instead of coming to us and it's all being filtered through the reporter.
Culp (Ketchum): Or every corporation in town. They're speaking on behalf of what corporations should, but part of that is because corporations will not easily provide people.
Zucker (BM): They are purposely avoiding the corporate people sometimes because they know with a reporter on they're going to get objectivity or what they believe to be objectivity. News organizations are skeptical to give corporations that live air time but they'll give it to reporters in a heartbeat as the expert who covers the company.
Culp (Ketchum): The journalist is going to push the story along further than a corporate spokesperson. They are going to have some edgy sound bites because they are not encumbered.
Jon Harris, SVP, global communications, Sara Lee
Shannelle Armstrong, manager, US communications, McDonald's
Kathleen Cantillon, director, external relations Exelon
Jonathan Guerin, communications manager, US Cellular
PJ (Patti Jo) Sinopoli, VP, public affairs, QTG (Quaker Tropicana Gatorade)
Kym White, VP, corporate communications, Baxter International
Cindy Pino, senior account supervisor, Edelman Multicultural
Bill Zucker, MD, Midwest market leader, Burson Marsteller
Ron Culp, MD, Ketchum Midwest
Cynthia Hardie, SVP and GM, Fleishman-Hillard
Mike Hatcliffe, MD-Chicago, Ogilvy