In the fourth 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 part in a roundtable discussion about the issues affecting them and their peers. PRWeek's Julia Hood, Celeste Altus, and Gideon Fidelzeid were in Seattle for this year's sixth Regional Forum.
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What is the local talent situation like?
Julia Hood (PRWeek): Is anybody hiring now? [Most of the hands go up].
Tracey Fitzgerald (Text 100): We've had a really hard time finding senior-level talent in this market. It's very competitive. Candidates are doing their homework. They know they have much to offer, so they are shopping themselves around and being really selective.
Hood (PRWeek): What kind of benefits?
Fitzgerald (Text 100): We have a very robust four-week-plus vacation plan the day you start, with vacation days where you can call in and say, "I don't feel like coming in to work today," and you don't have to lie. You're allowed to go shopping and not be afraid you're going to be seen. You get two of those per year. Flexible work schedules, that sort of thing. It gained some interest. But a lot of the companies around this table are doing similar things.
Randy Pepple (Hill & Knowlton): With junior- and entry-level staffers, I've found that expectations don't meet reality too often.
Melanie Wilhoite (Edelman): That mid-level group always presents a challenge because it seems to be the time people go start a family. We're seeing mid-level people, those with five to 10 years' experience, putting pressure on us for higher salaries and more benefits.
Jim Olson (Waggener Edstrom Worldwide): We're trying to look at non-traditional hires: people with engineering or science degrees; people with MBAs. We recently hired a woman with an international relations degree from Tufts. We want to expand the scope and pool of talent beyond traditional communications pros. I think our clients like that because it gives a diversity of thinking.
Wilhoite (Edelman): We're also looking at ways to be more flexible with people. We have had several women come to us and say, "I'd really love to work with you, but I just had a baby," or "I want to work three days a week." And if they have the skillset and can be of value, we are absolutely willing to accommodate people if they have got the talent that we need.
Hood (PRWeek): What about the non-agency side of the world?
Lou Gellos (Microsoft): The ability to find people who can simply write at a corporate level is hard. Big thinkers and project managers - [there's] no shortage of those. People who can put things on pages that executives can respond to, those are hard to find.
Rebecca Hale Seattle Mariners): We want people who can understand strategic thinking as it relates to sports. We're challenged because people who want to work for a baseball team think all you do is watch baseball and talk about it. That's only part of the job.
Hood (PRWeek): What about the brands people are very familiar with? You must get a lot of interest. Does that make it any easier?
Valerie O'Neil (Starbucks): "Generalist" is the term we use right now because of the growth phase we're in. We'll have growth opportunity in various areas. So while they may come in and focus on the coffee PR side of things, they can build expertise and focus on many PR areas. At that manager level, it is really difficult. That five- to seven-year range.
Gellos (Microsoft): Six years ago, we had less than 30,000 people. Today, we have over 70,000. And this year will be one of our busiest ever. There's the Vista, the new Office system, and the music player Zune all coming out. You're trying to find people who can look ahead and see the future. It's challenging, but very fun, too.
Fitzgerald (Text 100): We also strongly consider people-management skills. There are people with strong PR skills, but they may not be able to coach others. It's an interesting dilemma of how you home in on that in an interview.
Hood (PRWeek): Are standards higher now than they were five years ago when there was another mass of hiring?
Steve Bryant (Publicis Dialog): I think so. We became fairly desperate at that point. We've had several hires from outside the market. We have several people of late who've come in with a Microsoft spouse who has PR experience or skills. When we see one of those candidates, we get them in immediately.
Hood (PRWeek): What kind of skillsets are you looking for?
Craig Berman (Amazon): We want someone who can dig into Amazon's way of doing PR, which is putting the customer first. In fact, PR is really the biggest way, outside of our Web site, we communicate with customers. We don't do advertising or a lot of marketing.
Hood (PRWeek): The needs of PR are changing. Are you attracting the kind of talent that is keeping pace?
Gellos (Microsoft): Frankly, it's not getting better as we become more computer-dependent. People are good at typing on a BlackBerry, but they can't write a sentence. That's a problem! I also think a lot of folks coming out of college today take pride in knowing new media, but they don't read a newspaper. You should read a couple a day to have a perspective. If you get everything online, somebody else is aggregating that content for you, so you're only reading what you like to read. If so, you won't have a background that benefits the client.
Wilhoite (Edelman): Our firm has hired a couple of well-known bloggers. They don't necessarily have a PR history, but they really get the online space and have an interest in communicating. We bring those people into the mix, and it's one way to bring that expertise to our clients. We can come up with integrated plans, but still continue to bring that strategic PR thinking.
Hood (PRWeek): Do fundamentals start lacking as the industry attracts people who raise its profile in the new-media world?
Gellos (Microsoft): There was a story written about us in a local paper where the headline was [really] big. The reporter finds out that what he said was not right. So today, it's in the paper, and the whole article is the size of a business card. The headline [was] smaller than the little titles on our cards. But if you read that piece online, both yesterday and today, they look exactly the same. The presentation differs greatly, and that impacts how we work as PR pros. We are in the middle of a major shift right now. Five or 10 years from now, we might not have this discussion, but we'll have been in the midst of it. That's exciting.
Bryant (Publicis Dialog): Senior professionals tend to have the old fundamentals, but they are old and they are not particularly relevant now. A particular writing style has become so truncated and compressed that I am constantly cautioning our more senior staff to take a look at the media: in any magazine a long story is one page. If you are not communicating in that style, you are communicating for the old world.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Are the local universities producing PR talent?
Pepple (H&K): I think Washington State University (WSU) does a much better job than the University of Washington (UW). The latter wrote off PR as a profession and stopped teaching about it in the late 1970s or 1980s. The whole communications department is not good. That is my alma mater, so as much as I hate to say that, UW is not producing. But Gonzaga is, as is WSU.
Wilhoite (Edelman): Or my favorite, University of Oregon.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Traffic is a really big problem in this city and it certainly plays a part in work-life balance concerns. How does this impact your staff?
Fitzgerald (Text 100): It has to do with being flexible and communicating with your staff. You need to set the expectation that "I'll be in by XYZ time, and I'll be working until XYZ time. I'm always accessible." I've got quite a few people that commute by ferry. I pretty much know that they are ruled by the ferry schedule. It's never been a problem.
Eric Trott (Safeco): It is interesting as we move ahead with technology. Safeco's headquarters is based in the U District. It is only about five miles away from where we are right now, but it took me a half-hour to get down here at 3:30 in the afternoon.
Earlier this year we announced we were selling the building and the employees' first question was: Where would we be? It is amazing how loud that was and how very passionate people got. The said they would quit if we move to the East side. "That doesn't work for me," or "There's no way I am going downtown." Despite all the improvements in technology, access, or what have you, that is still an extreme issue.
O'Neil (Starbucks): One thing changing in our profession, too, is the 24-hour media. PR people are 24/7. That is the nature of the beast. So I think there is a growing understanding that no matter where you are, you will be working when I need you to be working. So there is a lot of flexibility in that.
Hood (PRWeek): Is there an East Coast/West Coast factor you have to compensate for?
Berman (Amazon): East Coasters aren't as challenged by time zones as we are. With deadlines, we only issue things before the market opens or after it closes. You've got quirky deadlines when The Wall Street Journal is posting at midnight and it's only 9pm here. So we have a lot of people who are still awake and checking for coverage at 9:04. Being on the West Coast certainly extends our day.
Gellos (Microsoft): It's anywhere, anytime now. It's the coolest thing. The new wave of PR pros who have grown up in this atmosphere, you won't hear them talk about 9 to 5 because they've never had it.
Hood (PRWeek): What about the broadcast business media? Can you influence before things get on the air?
Gellos (Microsoft): Yes (laughter). We are unusual in that we're big enough and we have a lot of people looking at a lot of things. There isn't too much that gets by us without someone realizing what is going on. If it is something that's negative that is going on and we can't influence it in the way it should be, in the olden days, you had to wait until tomorrow.
Trott (Safeco): In the olden days the curse was, you had one shot. Whereas now, The Wall Street Journal is updating constantly. If the Journal decides not to take your call, you've now got six dozen other options you can run with. You're not just stuck with that.
Hood (PRWeek): Does the fact that things can be fixed quickly and constantly lead to sloppy journalism?
Trott (Safeco): We struggle with that. The insurance industry is a weird business, especially when it comes to earnings time and deadlines with Wall Street. The wires will move very quickly. The story will go through five generations online before the facts are right.
Hood (PRweek): How do you counsel clients on [yellow journalism]?
Olson (WE): Before I was at Waggener Edstrom, I was at a company called Overture that was acquired by Yahoo. We worked really hard to know who the journalists were - who was friendly, and who wasn't - to establish relationships. But it's really about understanding. If you take the time to have those relationships and make sure journalists understand your business, and what the issue is, you can talk to them before they jump the gun and write the story.
Hood (PRWeek): What is the character of Seattle's media market?
Hale (Mariners): This town is really in transition right now with the newspapers. We've gone from two really strong competitive papers, to maybe just ending up with one. It's tricky.
Hood (PRWeek): Has it been a great tradition of being a two-newspaper town?
Hale (Seattle Mariners): You used to be able to play them off each other. Especially because there was a morning paper and an afternoon paper. That had a good side and a bad side. You could feed it to the PI [Post Intelligencer] and scoop the [Seattle] Times, and they're going to be hacked off and in your face. Now they are both morning papers and it is all about the online edition, so they almost have broadcast deadlines, which are constant. So you don't really have old-paper roulette any more.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What about the presence of national or international media here?
Olson (WE): The AP is here. Nick Wingfield of the Journal lives here. MSNBC, too.
Berman (Amazon): But [Wingfield] covers really narrow stuff. He doesn't cover everything here for the Journal, because we get covered out of San Francisco.
Gellos (Microsoft):You've got AP, Reuters, The New York Times, LA Times - people who may not necessarily cover us, but they are here. On occasion, when something big happens, they send someone over to Microsoft.
Berman (Amazon): We just deal with beat reporters who we have been assigned.
Bryant (Publicis Dialog): There is more lifestyle reporting coming out of Seattle. This town is seen as a trendsetter. For example, there was a real-estate piece in the New York Times about Mercer Island.
Elisa Murray (Sightline Institute): We certainly know some of the environmental reporters. We also work in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia, so it's interesting because I also think about Canadian media, which is a lot more of a monopoly than down here. The coverage seems to have thinned out in recent years and there used to be seemed to be more environmental reporters that covered out beat. They will assign some of the really good ones to long, investigative series now. So you can't reach them because they are busy on something else. To develop that relationship gets a little bit tough.
Gellos (Microsoft): I think there is something else interesting, and that is the number of international reporters who are based here. Outlets come here a lot from Asia. That is an interesting focus area for PR people - to have resources to deal with people who don't come from here. Our office in China knows how to deal with the Chinese media, but they are begging for advice on dealing with the American media who go there. It's a fascinating education process.
Take when President Hu Jintao was here in Seattle. The media of China, which is the government, dealt with that differently than we did. Do you have the PR experience through the agencies or within your own staff to deal with what the differences are?
I think the Pacific Northwest as a whole almost deals with that because of how close we are to Asia, how the agriculture and the tech industry has a real connection with that part of the world.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What challenges are you facing in staffing a more diverse work force?
Hale (Mariners): We place a high premium on language skills. We need people to translate for certain players during interviews. Our team has two very high-profile Japanese players, one who speaks excellent English, but won't.
Fitzgerald (Text 100): Our group in Seattle is heavily female. When I get strong résumés from men, I put them on top of the pile. I want my group to be more diverse that way.
Wilhoite (Edelman): Here in Puget Sound, we are 89% Caucasian. It's been very top-of-mind for us, but we simply do not get résumés from diversity candidates.
Olson (WE): I think if you are a global company or a global agency it all cycles back to Seattle. In our Singapore office, we have a German running things. In our Hong Kong office, we have someone from New Zealand leading it. In San Francisco, we have a Brit in charge. These people rotate through the agency. One of the advantages in recruiting is we encourage people to go abroad to work, so we have short-term cross pollination. When you work with global clients like Microsoft and Starbucks, it really helps us understand their global marketplace.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): What about on the corporate side?
O'Neil (Starbucks): Diversity is inherent in who we are, from a Starbucks perspective. It is a focus of ours, but it is viewed differently than just the cultural side of it. It is about background and experience.
Trott (Safeco): Most of our competitors are on the East Coast, and Seattle is still a long way from that. That becomes very clear when we try to recruit people of African-American descent from New York, Atlanta, or DC, where there is a robust culture. You're asking them to hop on a plane for five hours to get out here in a culture that is un-diverse by comparison.
Pepple (H&K): What is ironic about that on the political level, given that this is a very Caucasian community, is that we have had an African-American mayor and the highest percentage of women elected officials in the US. Frankly, diversity of thought is more rare in Seattle. It is at a 90% democratic level within city limits. It is interesting to hear the women-dominated firms. That is not the case with my firm, but our Portland office is all women. The Seattle office is mostly men.
Bryant (Publicis Dialog): We lead in multiracial couples in the nation. Our staff very closely matches the ratio of the community as a whole. I really expect cultural fluency of everyone. It has helped the rise of specialty firms targeting African Americans and Hispanics. In 10 to 15 years, you will see many more multiracial individuals.
Wilhoite (Edelman): One of the ways non-Caucasian people will be drawn to PR is as corporations continue to target multi-ethnic communities. Organizations are realizing how big of a consumer base there is in, particularly the Hispanic community. Some of the bigger companies are realizing those are folks that aren't responding to messages we are putting out here. We need to tailor our messages more to speak to the things they are interested in. At Edelman we do have a large multicultural diversity practice, based in Los Angeles. As our clients continue to see the need for that, we will continue to see the population of other ethnicities enter our profession.
Hood (PRWeek): What are the key policy issues driving local discussion?
Olson (WE): Education. We are not turning out a population strong in math and science. In terms of bachelor's degrees per capita, I think we're 42nd or 43rd in the US. We are even worse at turning out engineers and computer scientists. In terms of math, science, and reading proficiency, only 20% of 8th graders are proficient. We have the good fortune of [Bill] Gates and [Craig] McCaw being born here. Absent that, it would be a different competitive landscape. As a city that prides itself on being one of the smartest in the US, there is a big reality gap.
Hale (Mariners): I'm not confident we'll do anything about it. We talk, talk, and talk. We've been talking transportation to death. Then we vote, vote, and vote. It's gridlock and paralysis. No one will make a decision. Elected officials are petrified to do their job. I worry that attitude pervades everything here.
Olson (WE): We also have a crisis going on in K-12 education. Of all the states in the union, we have a dropout rate of 30%. Only about 70% graduate. At the 8th grade level, in terms of proficiency in math, science, and reading, only 20% of 8th graders are proficient. As a city that is all about math and science, one that prides itself on being one of the smartest cities in the nation, I think there is a reality gap. In terms of populations with the highest percentage of people with bachelor's and master's degrees, we do have a high level of people over 25. But there is a lot of importing of talent. We have an obligation to help solve this.
Bryant (Publicist Dialog): This is the dark side of living in the "capital of nice."
Pepple (H&K): On education, Microsoft does not get to go out and build roads, but they can give to schools. There are definitive ways to get involved. Transportation can't be solved that way. Government has to do that. The education question will be much more of a defining issue. We'll always complain about transportation, even if we build the roads.
Hood (PRWeek): On education what is happening proactively? Are there initiatives under way beyond writing checks? What is the PR community doing about this?
Olson (WE): I think it's organizations like Washington State Technology Alliance, which was sparked by Bill Gates Sr. All the people on the board care about keeping Washington state at the heart of technology in the world. They are trying to be a voice in raising and changing the dialogue at a political level. Healthcare is the dominant issue politicians like to talk about, but it's about trying to insert education into that broader political dialogue.
Hood (PRWeek): Tell me more about "the capitol of nice."
Bryant (Publicis Dialog): It's just the local culture. Seattle is known to be a very nice, civil community. It probably relates to its heritage. Its founders were Scandinavians. There is a culture of cooperation. It is a good thing, but it does involve a lot of talking and a lot of voting.
Hood (PRWeek): There is a huge disparity between cities in the amount their communities expect corporations to be giving back.
Fitzgerald (Text 100): The Puget Sound Business Journal's book of lists just came out, and if you look at the list of foundations, it's astonishing. I don't know how we compare with other cities, but it seems there are a lot affluent individuals and companies putting money into this community.
Hood (PRWeek): In what way? Through soup kitchens? Other programs?
Murray (Sightline Institute): There are some wonderful matching programs.
Gellos (Microsoft): We match donations of employees up to $12,000 per year. A new program for matching: employees who are volunteering, the company will match, per hour, $17 to the agency. That was well over $1 million last year. I think the community as a whole has a tremendous history of giving back.
Berman (Amazon): We are in the unique position of being able to empower 59 million customer accounts when something happens. So when the tsunami struck, we set up a very easy way for customers to donate. With two clicks of the mouse you can make a very simple donation using your Amazon account to the American Red Cross. That generated an unbelievable response. What you saw spin out of that whole thing was that people are excited to give and how technology is empowering that. You saw lots of organizations who had set up some kind of infrastructure for online donations just collapsed under the weight of people wanting to help. Their sites went down and that is something they were not prepared for, but that is something we do every day. We are built to handle a mass amount of traffic at one time.
Hood (PRWeek): How about environmental issues for this community?
Murray (Sightline Institute): Certain companies have raised the bar in terms of ways to give back. We have benefited from that. A lot of nonprofits suffered after 9/11, but a lot have bounced back. "Quality of life" is a term we like to use rather than the "environment" because "quality of life" is very connected.
Bryant (Publicis Dialog): Being a green city starts at the top. We were at the forefront, recognized the by Sierra Club. Mayor Greg Nickels is the only mayor of any major city to be recognized by the Sierra Club. When it comes to business partnerships Seattle is the largest major city in the world that has the most buildings that are certified. That is more than LA, New York, Beijing, and San Francisco combined. As much as we talk about education, being a green city is a very positive message to be getting out there. It seems to me that we might be a leader in accountability. I'd like to think that if we gave business support, we could be a leader on that front.
Murray (Sightline Institute): I agree. We have several Microsoft employees on our board and those types of business-focused people really think about business accountability and measurement. I have not had experience with other nonprofits in other cities, but it seems Seattle nonprofits are focused on that.
Bryant (Publicis Dialog): King County has more millionaires than any other county in the country. They have been very generous.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): If you could identify one goal for the next year, what would it be?
Pepple (H&K): From our standpoint, we're very fortunate. We were acquired by Hill & Knowlton in 2000, but our founder, Jay Rockey, is known and well-respected here. He was the PR director for the World's Fair in 1962, then hung up his shingle. Several of the agencies around town are headed up by alumni of the Rockey company and learned from Jay. PRSA's lifetime achievement award is the Rockey Award. The scholarship at Washington State University is the Jay Rockey because he is a graduate. We have a connection through that PRSA because he was a president nationally in 1976.
Frankly, with the new hires we have, getting them networking is one of the keys that I push. My background is nontraditional. I worked in politics. One of the things I tell people is go join the PRSA. Go. If you don't like it, fine, but go. You will meet people and learn more about the profession there. I encourage that.
Olson (WE): One organization getting traction here is the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Starbucks is on the board of the IABC. You don't hear a lot of it in other markets, but we've got a lot of members on the board, including REI and Starbucks.
Hood (PRWeek): Thinking about Seattle and the WTO conference, which seems like a long time ago now, a lot has changed with globalization. How is Seattle perceived internationally?
Pepple (H&K): We are dependent on trade. We are the most dependent on trade as a port city, in the state and in the US. Part of that is Boeing sells a lot of airplanes and they tend to sell them internationally. We are day away from LA if you're coming from Asia, if you are thinking about ports. That is something we need to think about.
Hood (PRWeek): Do you think WTO will have some lingering effects for a while?
Pepple (H&K): I'm biased because I was very involved in it for several clients. It certainly scared the heck out of the elected officials. For a long time, they were very skittish about doing anything. For the business community it was a complete aberration. The slang is the "Battle of Seattle," where WTO is outside of Seattle, this anti-global city.
Gellos (Microsoft): It wasn't the "Battle of Seattle." It was a battle in two blocks. I was on the third block. I got calls from friends asking, ‘How are you doing?'
But in terms of business, does it linger? Do we think about it? Do we have a scab on the city? I don't think so.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): It seems Microsoft and Starbucks seem to dominate this town. What about Boeing? Has the fact that it moved its headquarters to Chicago changed its impact on the city in general?
Pepple (H&K): The majority of employees are here and make airplanes here. I think it had a psychological effect on elected leaders. But they only moved 110 employees.
Fitzgerald (Text 100): This is still very much a Boeing town.
Hale (Mariners): Boeing made a smart, conscious effort to say, "We are still here. We are still connected in this community. Boeing still exists here, we are rooted in this community, and we're not going to pull up and leave." Boeing is doing very well - hiring like crazy. It adds to the population of Puget Sound and the housing market. Things that happen at Boeing affect the Puget Sound economy to a great degree.
Fidelzeid (PRWeek): Think ahead to the next 12 months. If there is one goal you have for your agency, company, or industry what would it be?
Wilhoite (Edelman): There are specific things pertaining to our agency, but going back to our earlier conversation, I want to keep attracting really talented PR people. As communications become more fractionalized, as audiences have much greater ability to have selective media habits, it makes PR people much more niche-focused. A wish would be continue to find PR pros trained in technology, public affairs, corporate reputation, and consumer branding. I am curious as to how a lot of things will play out in the next 12 months.
Berman (Amazon): Measurement is really important, especially to tech companies. That standard will be held to PR.
Fitzgerald (Text 100): I want to continue maneuvering with some new-media outlets, but still stay true to the core of strategic insight we can provide.
Bryant (Dialog): I'd like to see PR as the number-one stop for word-of-mouth marketing. There is a big scramble to become the logical heir to that throne.
O'Neil (Starbucks): We're in such a huge growth phase. On the communication side of things, we just need great talented partners. I hope in a year we have added to the talent pool internally. I also want us to be more savvy on the technology side. How do we get our arms around the blogosphere? It is becoming so influential. How do we use that media and pick it up as a source?
Olson (WE): We are in the idea business. Our job is to advance whatever cause or problem we're trying to solve. My vision for our firm is to bring those ideas to life.
Murray (Sightline): My organization is experimenting with more consumer-generated content. We have an active blog. We are putting together an interesting daily news service. I hope these efforts help us shape some of the really important policies in the Northwest.
Pepple (H&K): I hope we become more actively engaged by clients to impact policy debates from a progress, not a process, standpoint.
Hale (Mariners): Technology is the key for us as we talk about delivery of our product directly to the consumer without the filter, generally the news media. Video on demand and Internet blogging. I'm not even talking about breaking news. Blogging is the new talk radio in sports. The CEO who used to be listening to talk radio now reads a blog. How we get our arms around that nontraditional communication vehicle will be crucial.
Hale (Mariners): We talk about video on demand, cell phones, new media. How will we take advantage of those opportunities? There is this tiny piece of the pie that we must be flexible and nimble enough to get.
Trott (Safeco): It wasn't that long ago, five to ten years perhaps, when we as communicators were spending a lot of time at the C- suite arguing that communications was part of the business. It's exciting that executives now are telling us that communications is the business, not just part of it. I find it very exciting to see more and more people in all different parts of the corporate arena coming to us with ideas and asking us how we can push things forward in any number of directions, when it was not that long ago that we had to bang on the door to get attention.
Gellos (Microsoft): This may sound weird coming from Microsoft, but I'd like us to get better at embracing technology in a meaningful way. We are at the leading edge of it, but it's new for us, just like it is for everyone else.
Selected PR firm
APCO Worldwide Seattle
Cole & Weber/RedCell
DDB Public Relations
Gogerty Stark Marriott
Hill & Knowlton
Maloney & Fox
Porter Novelli International
Waggener Edstrom Worldwide
Weber Shandwick Worldwide
Fortune 1,000 Companies
Expeditors Intl. of Washington
Alaska Air Group
Plum Creek Timber