My, how times have changed

When Larry Werner joined Ketchum 16 years ago, after spending most of his career in corporate public relations, then-chairman Paul Alvarez told him that he would either love it or hate it.

Alvarez, it turns out, was right.

“I loved every minute of it,” Werner says.

Pittsburgh, business and public relations have all changed quite a bit since then, and Ketchum has managed to survive and prosper through it all. Werner, now the public relations firm’s managing director, still loves public relations enough to stay on in a position in which he’s helping smooth the way for his successor, Jerry Thompson, who took over as director of the Pittsburgh office last year.

Werner got his feet wet in public relations to help make ends meet as a father of four, doing free-lance publicity work on the weekends while working for United Press International. He went on to do public relations for U.S. Steel and, later, for Equibank.

Werner joined Ketchum in 1984, a time when Pittsburgh’s reputation as a corporate headquarters was foundering and its industrial base looked like it was headed for the showers. Ketchum was a corporate agency that did and continues to retain a goodly share of big corporations on its client roster.

Still, the agency has had to shift with the times. It created a unit, for instance, that is focused on garnering smaller technology companies as clients and has adjusted the way it does business and the services it offers to accommodate the changes in the way companies form and grow in the Digital Age. And while Werner had to scramble hard to get and keep business in a shrinking market, his successor will face the challenge of retaining top-flight talent to handle the business that the agency lands.

Through all of it, Werner says, the basics haven’t changed all that much. While communications demands tend to be global and the bad news travels faster than ever, the fundamentals still have to be there, Werner insists.

“The honesty, integrity, professionalism — that hasn’t changed a bit,” says Werner.

In this month’s One on One, the public relations veteran talks about what he’s seen and what he envisions for his firm, his profession and the clients they serve.

SBN: What has been the most significant change in public relations since you began your career?

Larry Werner: Technology is transforming the way all companies work, and we’re no different. If we don’t move into the Digital Age and maintain our leadership, then we’ll be just part of the pack, and we’ve always been pioneers. So Jerry certainly faces that challenge, but he’s already got a leg up on it. He’s into this new venture with Red Leaf, the venture capital firm. We’ve got a whole (technology) unit within Ketchum, and we’re working with a major consulting firm moving us into the Digital Age.

Globalization is another area that I think is important, whether you’re in Pittsburgh or New York or London. A lot of our clients, like Heinz, Alcoa, have operations all over the world and again, technology is part of this issue, too. Companies want agencies or consultants who can serve them everywhere.

We just had a call last week from a new client who was in a crisis down in Peru. We had to get on the phone immediately with our people in Latin America, and they had someone there within 24 hours to help the company out. That’s the way things have changed. We didn’t have global clients when I started here 16 years ago. Our major account was Mine Safety Appliances, and they still are one of our best clients. They are global now, too.

The agencies like Ketchum and the leaders in the field are going to have to find ways to manage global accounts and everything that goes with them. We have 42 offices around the world. We had four or five when I started; they were only in the U.S.

What challenges does your successor face as Ketchum moves into the next century?

We always say our assets go up and down the elevator every day. And getting highly qualified, experienced, knowledgeable people in our business is getting more and more difficult. And we’re not losing them to other agencies, but because it’s a buyer’s market out there … they’re moving to high tech firms because of the compensation packages. We’re having to adjust the way we look at those issues, the lifestyle that Generation Xers have, their work ethic and so forth.

Ketchum is noted for having one of the best training and development programs of any agency. We have something called Camp Ketchum that I helped start 16 years ago — week-long training that involves people from all over the agency. (We have) Ketchum College, which a lot of other agencies have emulated. We train every level of management in a central location, and we also have our local development and training programs. Those are some of the things that help us get and retain the kind of quality people that we need.

What challenges did you have to face that Jerry Thompson won’t need to deal with?

My biggest challenge was getting business. Jerry’s biggest challenge is making sure he has enough resources to handle the business coming in. We’ve got a tremendous book of business with our traditional clients, our new clients and with the high-tech field booming as it is. That’s a nice challenge to have. I know he’d much rather have that than the one I had.

So Jerry doesn’t have to spend so much time marketing the services because Ketchum has a good reputation. We’re getting more business without the kind of efforts we had to make years ago.

It must have been quite a distraction to have to spend so much time prospecting for new business.

That’s always a challenge in the agency business. Your first obligation is to serve the client and provide them with the services that they need. But at the same time you have to make sure you’re bringing in some new business because every agency loses business every year, probably 20 to 25 percent through attrition. So if you want to grow, you have to more than replace that business.

What has been the single most significant change in public relations since you began your career?

I think the biggest change has been technology — technology and the Internet — because of the immediate impact of communications. You used to be able to contain, control and manage communications, but today, a rumor will spread and all of a sudden, it’s all over the world. It’s an enormous challenge for a company. So the way an agency or a consultant is able to create networks of influence has changed through technology.

That’s the biggest change and the biggest challenge: How do you manage those influences today for your client? It’s a synergy between the strategic objectives a company might have and a blending of the new communications. We had a company that had a crisis, and before they could even react to it, someone had put it out on the Internet and had it all over the country. That’s the impact of communications (technology).

But I think some of the important things that are still the same are strategic thinking — people don’t want someone to pump out press releases anymore. They want a strategic partner, someone who can think with them and help them advance their business. The same values that we teach all of our people are still important. We have them sign an ethics statement when they join Ketchum.

How are the changes in the ways that businesses form and grow affecting public relations?

You have to be very judicious because these companies have basic needs, and usually they don’t have the internal resources to supply them, whether it’s legal, accounting or marketing. What we try to do is develop packages where we can set up a model, but we don’t have to put in tremendous time consulting with them and having them spend time that they can’t afford in meetings, so that they can use the model and we can supply the expertise when they need it.

It also brings up another challenge in terms of compensation. There are companies out there now that want to provide stock or in-kind services for compensation, which we’ve never done but are rethinking.

You mean trade for services?

I wouldn’t say trade for services. I’m talking about something a little harder, probably stock. That’s not something we ordinarily do, but we are taking a look at it.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who know that they need public relations services but don’t know where to start?

I’d say, first of all, give a great deal of thought to identifying your needs. Some people think they need advertising, but they need public relations. Some people think they need public relations and what they really need is advertising. Get a quality person, an experienced, knowledgeable person in house, someone who understands marketing and communications. And if they’re looking for an agency, take a look at that agency’s track record and make sure they’re an agency that’s worked with smaller companies and understands their needs.

Talk with a number of firms and make sure they understand what the expectations are; get those clear with whatever agency or consultant they decide to work with. Clearly identify what results they want, get an agreement and then measure those (results) as they move along. Chemistry is very important. You have to like them; you have to be prepared to take them along as a full member of your team.

It sounds like the ideal arrangement is to have a good in-house person combined with the right agency.

That’s the ideal situation. If you get a good person in house, they’ll know how to pick a good agency. But it’s not easy to find those kinds of people. If you can’t, find a good agency that can serve that purpose until you find the in-house person. But it’s not an easy thing to do. I think it’s easier to get a lawyer or an accountant. How to reach: Ketchum,

Ray Marano ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN magazine.