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PR firms adapt to economic downturn

Public relations man George McCabe admits he’s a little loath these days to pass even the smallest potential clients along to someone else. He performed that courtesy plenty in the past, as did other professionals in the valley’s tight-knit community of public relations and marketing professionals, where spreading the work and the wealth is usually a matter of routine. But these days, McCabe, PR director at B&P, a spinoff of the state’s largest advertising firm R&R Partners, is looking out for his media agency first. A lack of clients to go around has made for a tougher market for flacks all over.

Making matters more “competitive” is that increasing job losses at major media companies nationwide have spurred more public relations professionals to strike out on their own. And the once-steady stream of referrals from larger companies such as B&P is dropping like water levels at Lake Mead, some in the industry say.

That’s a tough position for people such as McCabe to be in. Like many others in local public relations, he has forged close friendships with other people in his line of work. But business is business, he says.

“Personally, they are friends, and I’d like to help them,” McCabe said. “But I can’t rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Back in days of abundance, PR folks got a good bit of business from McCabe and he enjoyed helping his peers and friends. Today those memories seem far away.

“When times were booming, I was more likely to take a piece of business that didn’t fit and refer it,” he said. “I’ve referred a lot of business in my career.”

McCabe provides just one example of the changing dynamics of the local public relations market. It’s one in which most would-be clients are looking a lot more appealing than they had in the past.

Lynn Purdue used to pass more referrals to smaller operators, too. She has opted to sign more of those clients as her regulars have tapered off or reduced their advertising and public relations budgets.

“Projects that were just three months (long), we wouldn’t take on, because we didn’t have the capacity,” said Purdue, a principal of the 10-person Purdue Marion & Associates firm. “Now we have that capacity.”

SURVIVAL SECRETS

The news is far from all bad for small and sole-proprietor PR firms; most say they expect to survive the recession. Finding a niche is the secret to success for some. Tami Belt formed Blue Cube Marketing Solutions after working in-house for St. Rose Dominican Hospital and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She has since taken on, and retained, big clients such as 7-Eleven.

The convenience-store chain was referred to her years ago by The Firm Public Relations and Marketing owner Solveig Thorsrud, Belt recalled.

“It’s really cool because all the PR firms help each other. It is more like friends,” Belt said.

Even as those referrals may be getting harder to come by, professionals who can hang onto the clients they have — and specialize — seem to have an edge.

With Belt, that specialty is in philanthropy.

“I do the charities,” as she puts it, with a slight laugh. “I try to show companies how to get involved with the community, and showcase a plan.”

That task is easier when Blue Cube’s clients are in-state, such as ManagedPay or Carter Powersports. Belt also donates work for charities and charitable events, including the “Freedom Walk” and “Ride 4 Kids.” All told, the PR soloist says her efforts over the years were generous.

“I’ve donated about $20,000 of my time,” Belt concluded.

Longtime public relations specialist Mary Vail has a firm rule when it comes to charitable efforts: If her clients don’t want to get involved in causes, she won’t take their business. Community involvement makes business and moral sense, she said, “whether it is health or education-related.”

Vail is spending her time working with Smith’s Food & Drug on a food drive for homeless, which is put on by the Clark County School District.

“I’ve been involved in PR for 25 years and I keep my focus on charity work,” said Vail, who established Las Vegas roots in the mid-1990s when her husband retired from the military.

Other rules Vail abides by include not taking on more than one client in a particular field. You’ll never find Vail pitching two restaurants, or two builders at once. She sees that as a conflict.

Ruth Furman, the owner of ImageWords Publicity & Writing since 2001, has her own guidelines. One is to not to accept more work than she can handle.

That temptation is always there when running a business, Furman admits, as one never knows when business will become scarce.

“I am not afraid to say, ‘no,’ ” she said. “I think a lot of sole proprietors take on business that doesn’t make sense.”

STATE OF THE INDUSTRY

The number of mom-and-pop PR shops continues to grow — at least by some accounts. No formal year-over-year figures were available. The Public Relations Society of America’s local chapter keeps track of its members, but that doesn’t account for nonmembers.

Las Vegas is home to 14 sole proprietor or small PR agencies and 15 larger firms. “Small” in this case is defined by PRSA as three people or fewer, local PRSA President Diane Gibes said. Individual membership is 135.

She sees signs of hope and reason for caution in her industry.

“I did see one of our members get a job recently,” Gibes said. “And I saw one person go out of market to get a job.”

Public relations is downsizing locally, much like practically any other industry, Gibes added.

Sarah Procopio knows firsthand about consolidation. She had to cut the staff of her 4-year-old True Marketing firm almost in half a year ago, after the recession first hit. Going from 12 to six employees made her keenly aware of the industry’s current fragility.

“It’s challenging, but we are hanging in there,” she said.

Still, True Marketing’s sales are down about 40 percent from mid-September last year.

Public relations professionals often have backgrounds in advertising and journalism, making it likely that more people will flock to PR as those hard-hit segments downsize. Such was the case with Alyssa Anderson, whose background includes broadcast journalism, public relations, broadcast advertising and marketing and — again — PR.

This time, Anderson is on her own. She started A List Media a year ago, after her entire digital media marketing division was axed by Sunbelt Communications — the parent of KVBC-TV, Channel 3. Her husband was also cut by Sunbelt but later found work with KVVU-TV, Channel 5.

“We watched the world crash while watching TV in our hotel room, while on our honeymoon in Hawaii,” she recalled of the financial market collapse a year ago. “We are news junkies.”

Forced to start over, Anderson has tried to accommodate potential clients.

“I will work with them on any budget. I can make just about anything work,” she said.

BEING YOUR OWN PR BOSS

A recent day in the life of Sarah Thornton was a peek into the life of a typical owner-operator PR professional. After a morning meeting, she appeared in small claims court to try to recover payment for service from a former client. Later, Thornton rushed off to law firm Bailey Kennedy — a client that definitely does pay.

Thornton’s case against a local homebuilder marked her first time taking a client to court.

“I thought I had to take a stand for my business,” she said. “My work is valuable.”

The judge agreed, and ruled in Thornton’s favor. She said she is owed less than $2,000, but declined to give the exact amount.

A different day could hold a charity run, like one Belt was recently organizing. Or a meeting with the Scintas could be on tap, as it was for Vail. PR involves a lot more than calling reporters and writing press releases.

Thornton has been in public relations for 14 years, and she started her own firm in 2007. She was motivated by the lure of having more flexibility to spend time with her family. It’s still 40-ish hours she spends working for clients, but the hours need not be 9 to 5.

Again, referrals have been critical to the success of Thornton’s business.

“Every single one of my clients (has) been referred to me by either a colleague or a friend,” she said.

Thornton credits her former boss, Thorsrud, for helping her with referrals at the beginning. And the entrepreneur had the chance to get started before the financial markets collapsed a year ago.

She doesn’t believe that she has seen the end of referrals from bigger PR outlets, either.

“Big companies don’t compete with sole practitioners,” she said. “If an account is too small, they send it my way and I appreciate it.”

Referrals are down about 25 percent over the last year for Furman’s ImageWords, but she’s still doing well.

Sometimes she refers work. Other times she will take on the big players.

“I was reluctant to compete with larger firms, but now I am not shy about going against larger firms.”

Contact reporter Valerie Miller at vmiller @lvbusinesspress.com or 702-387-5286.

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