PR professionals take bull by horns to surmount dilemma of downturn, social media

Local public relations and marketing firms that have remained successful have a couple things in common: They’re able to change with the tide and they’re bullish about what they do.

At Imagine Communications, for instance, Alex Raffi, the firm’s partner and creative director, said the company had to adapt during the economic downturn and find ways to engage people and to make them see the value in marketing. To that end, those at Imagine realized they weren’t just a group of marketers, they also have to be business consultants. They’ll tell a client what they do really well, and make that a focus.

“These are things that I don’t think are traditional marketing,” Raffi said.

Traditional or not, they’ve worked.

Billings at Imagine have increased modestly: “People are starting to be cautiously optimistic,” Raffi said.

Across the country, there’s a similar trend.

Annual U.S. spending on combined public relations and word-of-mouth marketing services will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent between 2010 and 2015, to $10.96 billion, according to private-equity firm Veronhis Suhler Stevenson.

Darcy Neighbors, founder of CIM Marketing Partners, has more than 25 years of experience marketing in Las Vegas. She said during the downtime a lot of clients were scared and wanted to pull back budgets, but she saw opportunity.

“We told them, ‘This is a time to capture market share.’ The clients who stuck with it are doing incredible now,” Neighbors said.

Her firm has about 35 clients.

“We are definitely seeing billings come back, although people are more prudent,” Neighbors said.

James Stover, president of the local Public Relations Society of America chapter, said he views the local industry as “steady to increasing.”

An account manager at MassMedia, Stover noted the firm has grown its client roster and staff over the past few years. Health care clients have been a stronghold, and through its relationship with Healthcare Partners of Nevada, it was able to expand into partner companies JSA Medical Group in Florida and Healthcare Partners in California.

Technology has turned the industry upside down.

“In the last five years there’s been a lot of changes in the way we communicate,” Raffi said. “We learned that people now, because people have so much access to information, they’re harder to impress.”

Good communications, he said, should interrupt people and sidetrack them from what they’re doing.

“People live in social media now to a large degree,” Raffi said. “People are ultrafocused on their little world. Unless you have a story to tell, nobody’s going to pay attention to it.”

The past five years have been the most challenging of Neighbors’ career, with the combination of the recession and increasing social media usage.

“The biggest trend that’s going to be the most difficult to manage for any company, is their online reputation management. That is going to be crucial,” Neighbors said. “If you can’t manage the negative posts online, you are going to lose big time.”

At MassMedia, Stover said he’s noticed an increased client expectation for a fast turnaround.

“All clients want it now,” he said.

In crisis communications situations, response time has gone from an hour to seconds. Social media, blog posts and other mediums have made it a very different public relations world today.

“You better be prepared and you better include social media. You better have a social media policy,” Stover said.

Micromarketing to targeted audiences, too, is a big trend.

Looking ahead, CIM Marketing Partners will be doing more one-on-one business development and media training with its clients.

“I think that’s going to be a big part of our future,” Neighbors said.

Oftentimes, Raffi said, clients say they want to differentiate themselves and be noticed, but not all of them have an apparent story to tell, which is why PR professionals have to dig deeper than ever to get to the interesting information that will stop someone in their tracks.

“The key to being a successful firm is creativity, no matter what you do,” Raffi said.

Reacting to the changes have worked for Imagine: The firm hosted free marketing seminars through the Henderson Chamber of Commerce during the recession, which in turn helped build trust with the community.

“People responded very well to that,” Raffi said.

The 12-person company made it through the tough times without having to lay off a single employee. Today it has a rotating client roster of about 30.

As for the future, Imagine is playing around with book publishing and may add it as a service, but any future new direction is determined by serendipity.

“I think as we grow we’ll find niches and we’ll experiment. If the staff finds an area of interest and wants to expand, we’re open to that,” Raffi said.

MassMedia’s future includes expanded advertising.

“I think communications wise, it’s essential. Having everybody on the same page for the same team, … there’s no miscommunication,” Stover said.

Contact reporter Laura Carroll at lcarroll@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4588. Follow @lscvegas on Twitter.

Awards deadline approaches

The Las Vegas Valley Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America sponsors monthly luncheons, mixers, professional development seminars and an annual awards program, the Pinnacle Awards.

Membership is open to public relations professionals or college professors teaching the craft at an accredited college or university. The local PRSA chapter has about 100 members.

Aug. 29 is the deadline for entries in this year’s Pinnacle Awards, which showcases the best and brightest of Las Vegas PR professionals. The event is scheduled for Nov. 13 at the Rocks Lounge inside the Red Rock Resort.

For more information on the local chapter, visit prsalasvegas.com. For information on the awards program, visit prsapinnacleawards.com.

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