PR's place in the sun

With a wide breadth of work to choose from, Florida PR has made a robust return after a few lean years.

With a wide breadth of work to choose from, Florida PR has made a robust return after a few lean years.

The state of Florida has long ridden to prominence on the back of tourism, real estate, and their assorted hangers-on. But as the economy evolves, the Sunshine State's PR industry is becoming an increasingly key player on the national scene.

Although the strong hurricanes of the past two years shook Florida business as a whole, agency executives say the state has rebounded and that clients have simply bolstered their hurricane-safety plans and continued plugging away. But a suddenly sagging real-estate market is making some question what the next big industry will be.

The agency mix

Different parts of Florida offer different emphases for firms. In Tallahassee, the state capitol, home- grown public affairs firms dominate. Ron Sachs, CEO of Ron Sachs Communications, says that a strong market has enabled his firm to expand to other cities, but Tallahassee is his main steady source of issues-based work.

"There's probably just a handful of firms that are thought of highly and bank most of the [public affairs work]," he says. "It's a competitive market, though a small one. The work is very significant."

Florida's legislative session only lasts about two months, Sachs notes, but the issues campaigns themselves can last much longer. With a new governor set to take office this fall, corporate clients are closely eyeing the upcoming legislative agenda. "Property insurance reform [will] be a big mantra," predicts Sachs, "and there will probably be a lot of work on both sides of that issue."

The state's most diverse market may be the central part surrounding the Orlando metropolitan area. Home to Disney World, Epcot, and a thriving homegrown PR scene, the city is one of the US' most active tourism sites.

Rod Caborn, EVP of PR at travel and tourism specialist YPB&R, says the sector has made a strong comeback this year. "It's booming after four challenging years," he says. Conventioneers have responded with money-back guarantees for bad weather. Business clients have started spending more with their agencies to prepare staff and customers for hurricanes.

Caborn also says that multicultural communications is not just a key element of Florida agencies' offerings; it is indispensable. "We either have to speak Spanish or be able to get by in Spanish," he says. "And we must have a better insight into the Latin culture to be able to interact with our clients."

Orlando is also seeing a rise in the life-science and biotech industries, notes Roy Reid, partner with Consensus Communications. Spurred by a new college of medicine and more investment by out-of-state companies, local firms are picking up clients in that arena without having to battle big national agencies.

"It's a marketplace [where] reputation is very important coming in," says Reid. "[Florida markets] are very local in a lot of ways, and it reflects in the success that locally owned and operated firms have had here for [some] time."

Indeed, south Florida, Miami in particular, is the state's only area in which the holding company-owned major firms have a notable presence. Natalia Flores, president-elect of the Miami chapter of PRSA and an SAE with Porter Novelli, says that the growth in the south Florida PR industry, spurred by multinational investment in real estate and Latin-American enterprises, has created a situation in which talent is a seller's market.

Most major firms use Miami as their gateway office for central and South America, as well as the hub of their multicultural communications practices. Business appears to be thriving for local and national firms, as well as solo practitioners.

"The market is very saturated," says Flores. "Florida-based and regional agencies have truly grown and developed...and can cater to those same [large] clients."

Even with a shaky real-estate market and a shortage of qualified Spanish-speaking personnel, Florida firms say they are rapidly winning not only in-state work, but more national and global tasks.

"Geography matters less and less," says Christine Barney, CEO of Coral Gables, FL-based RBB PR. "It's actually a rarity that we compete against Florida firms."

The corporate story

Florida is home to an array of Fortune 500 companies, from regional retailers like Publix Super Markets to more evenly distributed national brands. Tourism and real-estate-related business also make up a vital part of the state economy, so hotels, attractions, and developers are some of the most active corporate communicators, as well as public affairs movers and shakers. Florida's climate and business-friendly government are two of its main attractions to corporations.

Even the most broadly national companies based in Florida tend to have active community relations programs. Spherion, a nationwide staffing company based in Fort Lauderdale for almost 40 years, conducts quarterly community outreach campaigns. It even hosts public events like hurricane preparedness fairs in its headquarters.

Gail Blount, Spherion's PR manager, notes that the company's outside agencies are "generally New York-based," but it does use some in-state firms for creative services.

Brian Levine, corporate communications VP for Delray Beach-based Office Depot, says the company has significantly invested in the state through community relations programs, but that hasn't translated into the hiring of independent local PR firms. The company works with Edelman, Stan- ton Crenshaw, and Burson-Marsteller, all mainly out-of-state firms.

"There aren't many large PR firms with a presence in Florida," Levine says, noting that Office Depot's huge size and scope draw interest from not only state media, but national and global outlets.

Media

State news coverage belongs first to large regional papers, including The Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg Times, the Orlando Sentinel, the Jacksonville Times-Union, and the Tallahassee Democrat. Most large wire services also run major news bureaus in the Miami area.

The major TV news networks all have affiliates in Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville, and a broad range of Spanish and English radio networks operate all over the state. In addition, Spanish-language periodicals abound throughout South Florida, with Florida Trend being the most closely-followed business title.

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