Industry prepares for post-Castro Cuba

As dictator's illness casts doubt on his reign, many agencies see opportunity in untapped PR market

As dictator's illness casts doubt on his reign, many agencies see opportunity in untapped PR market

Fidel Castro's failing health, and the subsequent handover of power in Cuba to his brother Raul, has set the Cuban exile world buzzing about the country's future. Solid information has been hard to come by, but many suspect that the aging Castro may not be able to continue his duties at the helm of the island nation much longer. The latest, unverified news to come out of Cuba described Castro as recovering from his undisclosed illness (Castro's health is a state secret).

In Miami, the reaction has largely been one of hopeful glee. For the Cuban Americans who fled the country after Castro took power, the revolutionary's death would be a cause for celebration, and for businesses, the conventional wisdom holds that his passing could be the first step toward ending the decades-long US embargo and opening the country to US corporate interests.

The PR industry plans to be ready for a new Cuba, as well. Miami also serves as the gateway to both Latin America and to Latino Americans for most agencies, and those active in the field say they are poised for the moment when Cuba's future is determined.

Manny Ruiz, a Cuban American who is president of Hispanic PR Wire, is passionate on the subject. He calls Castro "the glue that holds the repression together" in Cuba and says that his step back from power is "a very positive step."

Still, Ruiz notes that the system that Castro has assembled for more than 50 years is built to perpetuate itself - Castro is a leader who carefully plotted a transition - meaning that even Castro's death would not necessarily lead directly and immediately to full social and economic change. But, Ruiz asserts: "It will be the beginning of the end. His brother can't sustain what Fidel did."

Many, if not most PR firms interested in the Cuban market already have an idea of what they will do when Castro is out of the picture. Because Cuba is relatively untapped by US clients, agencies are willing to invest the effort when and if the time comes.

"No doubt the ramp-up time will be one of the biggest challenges we'll face as the country moves toward a free-market society," says Santiago Hinojosa, president and CEO of Latin America for Burson-Marsteller, via e-mail. "But the opportunity is there."

However, because the homegrown Cuban PR industry appears to be underdeveloped, the usually available strategy of acquiring a local firm as an outpost may not prove practical for some agencies. Firms may be forced to move into the market organically by opening their own offices - a strategy that will surely reward those who have been paying close attention to Cuba long before now - or find other ways to service clients that wish to enter the country when and if the embargo is lifted.

Jorge Ortega, president of The Jeffrey Group in Miami, says his firm is prepared to do business in Cuba on short notice by partnering with locals who have the necessary expertise.

"Should our clients need our support at any point in time in those markets, it's very easy for us to add capability there," he says.

The Jeffrey Group's model, called "local service partners," is usually used to handle accounts in far-flung markets via one-off contracts with local providers. In Cuba, agencies may have to get creative in order to find qualified talent, but Ortega is confident that the talent is there.

Despite the uncertainty, Cuban Americans in the industry find that their passion for the nation's future is a personal, as well as professional, affair. Tony Lima, an account group supervisor for GolinHarris in Miami, predicts that Cuba's tourism market will explode when the country opens its doors.

"Cuba is by far the prettiest, most picturesque place I've ever been to," says Lima, a Cuban American, "even in its decrepit state."

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