News hole shrinks for PR opportunities

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Following a disastrous 2002 for the public relations industry, the war in Iraq now threatens to blight 2003. The most immediate problem for PR agencies is the shrinking news hole-a vital element of campaigns-now that it appears the war will go on for longer than some expected.

While the advertising industry seems to be returning to something approaching normal business, the continued coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom has presented a different set of issues for PR firms whose job is to do everything from finding the right tone in press releases to oversee employee communications programs for firms with large numbers of armed-forces reservists.

no peek at money

Numerous initiatives have already been canceled. With the media focused on the Defense Department's regular press briefings, the U.S. Treasury postponed its preview of the nation's new colored $20 bills, planned for the end of March. Since the new notes won't be available until the end of the year, the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing and its PR agency Burson-Marsteller, part of WPP Group, are now pushing back plans until later this year.

Despite the fact that United Parcel Service gained good mainstream coverage of its new brand logo last week, it was forced to call off many of the celebratory events it had planned through its PR firm, Edelman. The delivery giant employs 1,000 army reservists. Michael Schiferl, director of Edelman's U.S. media practice, said that a global satellite hook-up to link employees in 200 countries was canned along with an event that was to be staged in New York City's Times Square.

While UPS's rebranding was long planned, Edelman also helped travel client the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. with some rapid repositioning. The client asked that the U.S. flag be added to its communications alongside the country's own flag. It also wished to play up its status as an American territory.

Beyond the obvious reduction of media coverage, PR agencies face other logistical problems too-many of the satellites used by agencies to broadcast media tours to local stations are tied up by the media beaming the war into U.S. living rooms.

Peter Himler, managing director at Burson-Marsteller, said that while there's been a lot more latitude to proceed with programs than post-Sept. 11, "We are not seeing people switching money from advertising into PR programs. I'd say clients' PR programs are more susceptible to current events than advertising." He added some clients such as travel Web site Orbitz were in demand from media outlets doing stories on the war's impact on travel.

Andy Cunningham, president-CEO of new agency CXO Communications, in San Francisco, says that war, coupled with the fears of the virulent Asian flu virus, has made it even harder to execute international PR programs. Ms. Cunningham says she's seeing more companies moving to work with smaller boutiques closer to home.


On the international front, Sharon Gamsin, VP-global communications for MasterCard International, has to worry about the sensibilities of customers and the media in the Middle East. "The Middle East is taking a lower profile than say Latin America. My advice to staff is that they are in the best position to be sensitive to what's going on. I tell them if they think their media will report it, it's their call," she said. In the U.S., MasterCard is continuing to release general business news. "We need to continue to run our business, you can't let life stop," Ms. Gamsin added.

Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick Worldwide has not seen a major impact on revenue-yet. According to Chairman Jack Leslie, "Companies are looking more to their PR agencies for help to think through the issues. The service is more appreciated." But, he added, "overall, it is one more serious problem in a year fraught with problems."

According to holding company reports for 2002, Omnicom Group's PR unit saw revenue fall 6.2% to $921 million, while advertising grew 9% to $3.3 billion. At WPP, PR and public affairs revenue fell 10.9% to $718 million while ad divisions declined 1.7% to $2.9 billion. Interpublic Group of Cos. groups PR with marketing communications functions; marketing communications revenue fell 10.9% to $1.7 billion, against advertising/media revenue which slid 8.9% to $3.7 billion.

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