Focus On...The US

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Washington DC: political gridlock
Washington DC: political gridlock

In most respects, the US continues to set the agenda where the PR industry is concerned. And recent months have only reinforced that impression, given the importance attached to the country's shifting economic and political landscapes.

Boiling down so much change, across the world's biggest media market, is a tricky proposition. But it appears that three key factors have influenced the US communications environment over the past year.

The first, says Fleishman-Hillard CEO Dave Senay, is the political gridlock facing the Obama administration. Despite ascending to office with a resounding public mandate, helped in part by a remarkable comms campaign, President Obama contines to face a 'challenging political climate around pressing issues like healthcare, financial regulatory reform and economic recovery'.

A country that is equally obsessed with celebrity and sports culture saw the two collide spectacularly in the ongoing Tiger Woods scandal. 'It certainly affected how brands view sponsorship,' says Hill & Knowlton US chairman MaryLee Sachs.

Finally, says Senay, special attention should be paid to Pepsi's decision to skip advertising on the showpiece event of the marketing calendar, the Superbowl. Instead, the company invested its resources in a dynamic social media campaign.

The lowdown

Accurate estimates are hard to come by, but most informed sources place the size of the US PR market at $5-$6bn. Disappointingly, the country's Council of PR Firms (CPRF) did not respond to request for comment. 

2009, undoubtedly, was a difficult year for an economy that was badly buffeted by the economic crisis. Automotive, financial and real estate were particularly hard-hit, with consequent effects on the PR industry. Despite this, many observers are positive about the industry's prospects – noting that advertising revenues continue to migrate into PR.

Specific factors have supported the importance of PR-led engagement and dialogue. The Obama campaign's superb use of digital comms, says Sachs, was a 'tipping point' for how organisations view social media.

The administration's subsequent travails in Washington have, though, presented organisations with a slew of policy challenges and opportunities. 'When business feels threatened, in particular, public policy spending increases,' says Senay. 'That will continue to be the case.'

In such a febrile environment, reputation challenges have rarely been far from the surface. Financial institutions like AIG caught plenty of flak for retaining high-priced PR counsel in the midst of an economic meltdown. More recently, Toyota suffered a crisis unprecendented in its history when it was forced to recall millions of cars. Global president Akio Toyoda also had to endure a very public grilling at Congress.


While economic challenges have brought consolidation to traditional media, Senay notes that the majority of media in the US 'remain active, far-reaching and highly influential.'

National newspaper influence is led by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post is a key player in terms of policy and politics while the Los Angeles Times is favoured for its entertainment coverage.

'Their influence is also channel agnostic,' says Senay of these publications. 'Even a casual study of the blogosphere shows that these media reverberate throughout.'

Other business-led titles span a range of platforms, including Bloomberg, Dow Jones and Business Week, while key news weeklies include Time and Newsweek. Pop culture weeklies People, ET Weekly and US Weekly cannot be discounted.

TV, of course, is highly influential, with Sachs pointing to the enduring popularity of breakfast and talk shows. 'The shift toward ideological loyalties has been a pronounced trend,' adds Senay of cable news channels. The most successful of these, Fox News, is noisily right-wing, while MSNBC veers left towards the liberal elite. CNN, meanwhile, opts for a more centrist path.

'Perhaps the biggest story in US TV news is that satirical, late-night infotainment shows like Stephen Colbert's and others provide the youth market with by far their largest – and most credible – source of mass televised "news",' says Senay.

A mature and diversified magazine market offers a multitude of mass-market and vertical titles, reflecting the sheer breadth of interests and industries in the US. Lifestyle media such Oprah Winfrey's O, Martha Stewart Living and Good Housekeeping are particularly popular. Others have achieved resounding global success, such as National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Cosmopolitan and Rolling Stone.

The US internet market may have recently been overtaken by China, but the diversity and sophistication of its online media offerings remain unparalleled. The influence of Google  on the PR industry is well-documented, while the country is also home to social networking titans Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Newer location-based social networking platforms include Foursquare and Gowalla.

Successful digital properties blend text, rich media, video and a high degree of social networking and interaction.

Leading the way is pioneering citizen journalism site the Huffington Post, while other important websites include Politico and the Daily Beast. Pop culture websites like and Gakwer are highly popular, while important tech destinations include Mashable, TechCrunch and Engadget.

Many of these sites are powered by bloggers, with the medium showing few signs of slowing down. Influential political blogs include The Drudge Report, Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, Red State and The Note. Marketing and social media are also well-represented, through such names as Chris Brogan, Seth Godin and Brian Solis. Other important business blogs include economists Paul Krugman and Greg Mankiw and trendwatchers PSFK.

'A recent study claims that 26 per cent of Americans get their news through a mobile device,' points out Senay. 'Twitter played a pivotal role in the Toyota recall, and continues to do so. There are several lead sites for every major issue,  cause, lifestyle or vertical industry.'

The growth of ethnic media is also worth noting. The Hispanic media, in particular, are demonstrating explosive growth across all platforms. 'It is a big focus for some clients,' says Sachs. 'It's easy for mainstream clients to think it's all the same and translate the language - but it's very different.'

Bellwether brands

There is no shortage of savvy comms operations in the US. An important, and encouraging, recent trend has seen PR people ascend to the highest ranks of brand oversight. IBM's Jon Iwata, for example, oversees comms, corporate affairs and marketing. BMC Software's global comms chief Mark Stouse occupies a similar role, as does American Airlines' Roger Frizzell and Intuit's Harry Pforzheimer.

P&G recently caused ripples when it reorganised its external relations team so that brand PR now reports into marketing. The company is also pioneering the use of engagement metrics to evaluate its success in terms of interacting with consumers.

Beyond these trends, there is considerable PR innovation. Sachs points to Coca-Cola and Pepsi for their cutting-edge use of digital.


The PRWeek US Agency Business Report offers a comprehensive rundown of the nation's biggest firms.

Seven of the world's biggest eight agencies are headquartered in the US and dominate its domestic market: Fleishman-Hillard, Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, Ogilvy PR and Ketchum.

The exception is Paris-based MS&L Group, the combination of US network MS&L with various Publicis Groupe PR agencies.

All of the big firms offer a comprehensive range of deep, sector-specific expertise, across consumer, corporate, financial, healthcare, technology, digital and public affairs.

Below this layer are a raft of successful agencies that tend to display strength in two or three practice areas. These include tech agencies Waggener-Edstrom and Text 100, public affairs heavyweight Apco, and healthcare firm Ruder Finn. Mid-level holding company agencies also inhabit this space, such as GolinHarris, Cohn & Wolfe and Porter-Novelli.

Exclusively domestic agencies are led by Peppercom, MWW Group, C-K PR and Taylor. Larger independents include Qorvis Comms, Schwartz, ICR and Dan Klores. Strong niche players abound, whether representing a specific sector or region. Almost every agency with global ambitions, meanwhile, counts a US presence of some sort.

Salaries, says Sachs, have stagnated – with only digital and healthcare exhibiting any kind of growth. 'Generally speaking, the market is still tight and, in particular, for people coming into the profession – they are kind of screwed right now. Even digital people.'

Senay points to public affairs, 'convergence marketing', reputation management, crisis and financial as key growth areas. He expects salaries to rise in 2010. 'We will respond accordingly.'


Increasing government intervention, says Senay, has obvious implications for public affairs. 'The ubiquitous presence of government in all aspects of the market will push an already growing trend - the use of public affairs in virtually all sectors,' says Senay.

The US lobbying industry is large, lucrative and subject to various regulations. External counsel spans PR, law firms and specialist agencies. Lobbying is protected by the country's First Amendment and is conducted at national, state and local level.

President Obama has stepped up regulations on lobbying, after two rounds of legislation in 1995 and 2007, but plenty of loopholes persist. Overall, the level of disclosure required of lobbyists has increased substantially over the past ten years. The influence of lobbyists remains a divisive issue in the US. Many former legislators – 43 per cent of members of Congress since 1998 – become lobbyists.

Sectors that spend most on lobbying include financial, insurance, real estate and healthcare. Most recently, protracted negotiations over healthcare legislation have been the subject of intense lobbying efforts. Foreign governments also spend large sums lobbying government.

All of the major PR firms count mature public affairs practices. There are also a plethora of specialist consultancies and law firms active in the area. uses public records to compile a list of the top lobbying firms over the past decade: Patton Boggs leads, followed by Interpublic Group's Cassidy & Associates, Akin Gump, Van Scoyoc and Williams & Jensen

More recently, figures from 2009 point to lobbying firms that are on the rise: the Podesta Group, Brownstein Hyatt, Ogilvy Government Relations and Dutko - recently bought by UK's Huntsworth Group.

Political communication is also well developed, with many campaign strategists attracting as much attention as the candidates themselves. There is increasing crossover with PR, typified best by Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn, a former pollster and strategist for the Clintons and Tony Blair. Other heavyweight names include Obama strategists David Axelrod and Joel Benenson, along with Republican consultants like Karl Rove and Charlie Black.

The Obama campaign also successfully harnessed digital communication through a breakthrough campaign that fused email marketing with social networking. Accordingly, specialist digital consultancies are also emerging from the political sphere, none more high-profile than Blue State Digital, led by Thomas Gensemer.


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