After a down period of several years, the Boston area's tech PR community is beginning to rebound.
The new offices along Route 128 in Boston tell the story of a region getting back on its feet after weathering heavy turbulence during the tech slump.
After stagnating for a few years, the sector in Boston is heating up again, and the rebound has created new opportunities for the agencies doing business there.
Boston has long been an emerging market of startup companies and the boutiques that service them. But now tech leaders like Sun Microsystems and IBM are taking an interest in the area, and M&A activity is alive and well.
M&A activity has also affected other industries. Procter & Gamble recently acquired Gillette, while Bank of America established its first corporate and PR presence in the region by purchasing FleetBoston.
The agency picture
"The New England economy continues to lag behind the national economy... but we have seen dramatic growth in 2005," says Monique da Silva, MD of MS&L Boston.
For MS&L, and many other agencies in the region, growth has been particularly strong in technology, as well as in medical devices, health information technology, and biotechnology.
The agency is also seeing new demand for traditional corporate PR and issues management.
"The opportunity for firms is that now we're talking about national and global brands," says da Silva.
Not only do boutique shops have an opportunity to work with Fortune 500 companies, but they also have an opportunity to share ideas with global agencies, she adds.
Although M&A activity can sometimes threaten the relationship between client and agency, Tony Sapienza, CEO of Topaz Partners, notes that the region's smaller firms are commonly retained to work with these internationally recognized brands.
"In many cases, we are working with smaller companies acquired by larger ones," he says. "We made a point to make ourselves visible [during the acquisition process]."
He also notes that about 50% of the agency's clients are national or international, and many were interested in Topaz precisely because of its experience working with Boston's tech startups.
Micho Spring, the Boston-based chairwoman of the US corporate practice at Weber Shandwick, also notes that the current environment has put new pressure on entities in the life sciences - from academic institutions to biotechs - to communicate with the public.
"Their need for articulating their vision and mission has grown significantly," she says, adding that WS' crisis group has grown rapidly.
WS also houses its corporate, biotech, and Web relations specialties in its New England office because of the strengths of those markets in the Boston region.
MS&L, meanwhile, has expanded its staff by about one-third, da Silva estimates. Boston is a vibrant college town, which aids in the recruitment of entry-level staffers. But the mid-level ranks still remain a challenge to fill because of the thinning of the work force during the recession, she notes.
Corporate budgets up
On the corporate side, PR and marketing budgets are also growing, notes Donna Parent, communications director at tech company StreamBase, which makes software that can analyze and respond to real-time streaming data.
"There's been a nice pickup in tech," she says, adding that companies have learned a lesson from the wild dot-com heydays and are spending more strategically and less on flashy gimmicks.
"It is an exciting time to be an emerging company," Parent says. "We're certainly being monitored by the larger companies. They're looking at press traction, as well. They're looking at companies that are paving the way and deciding if they want to enter the space."
"Boston is its usual hotbed of innovation," agrees Jim Nail, chief strategy and marketing officer at Cymfony. "What's changed the most has been the target audience. The target audience has started to come to [our clients]."
Cymfony is currently engaged in educating marketers about new tools for reaching consumers. "These technologies are not just cutting-edge technologies for the cutting-edge elite," Nail says.
As national attention turns to Boston's emerging companies, in-house teams are working to make sure their stories are told alongside those of the tech behemoths.
"Our space has become pretty trendy," says Mike Lewis, director of marketing at Salesnet, maker of customer-relationship management software. "We're a pioneer in the industry, [so] we're kind of looked at as a thought leader."
More reporters are covering service-oriented software again, fueled by interest from industry stalwarts Microsoft and SAP. But Lewis notes that Salesnet's challenge is retaining its place in that coverage, whether it's discussing new wins or authoring Op-Eds.
Among the tech expertise cultivated in Boston is buzz marketing, and the region has a concentration of new-media companies, notes Sapienza. "Boston is clearly a leader... in buzz media," he says.
Many local media outlets are also boosting their tech coverage, but competition - and downsizing that has affected the entire newspaper industry - has made placement a challenge.
"It's always been a tough media market - it's tough to gain coverage," da Silva says. "The Globe and the Herald had layoffs in 2005."
Fewer reporters now are experts in any particular area; most are spread thinner and cover numerous beats, notes Chris Perkett, president and founder of Perkett PR, a boutique that operates a virtual-agency model. Therefore, the firm tries to position clients as thought leaders that can comment on trends and current issues. "Reporters want resources even if it's not about your company," she says.
Though many tech reporters are still Boston-based, the West Coast remains a key media market. In turn, East Coast companies must develop media strategies accordingly, Parent notes. "You need a firm that understands the sensitive nature of pitching," she says.
Selected PR firms
Morrissey and Co.
The Rasky Baerlein Group
O'Neill and Associates
Feinstein Kean Healthcare
Fortune 1,000 in Massachusetts
Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance
Liberty Mutual Insurance Group
BJ's Wholesale Club
State Street Corp.