The Public Relations Entrepreneur: Building a Firm vs. Going Solo

Article excerpt

During the last year or so, an increasing number of articles have cited ominous facts and figures about the recession and its undeniable effect on the public relations industry. Reports of personnel cutbacks at firms and declining client budgets have been featured in articles appearing in general news and trade publications; industry association meetings have devoted entire panel discussions to the topic; even cocktail party conversations have been strained as peers whisper about coworkers who have been laid off. In fact, employment at the top 25 firms' New York City offices dropped 11% in 1991, according to an article in a March 1992 issue of Crain's New York Business.

But despite this harsh reality there has been a developing trend that could very well shake up the entire industry: public relations professionals are increasingly choosing to leave their jobs at big public relations firms or corporations and venturing out on their own. Most of these entrepreneurs have started their own firms in search of greater financial and emotional stability. Whatever the reason, the number of public relations professionals starting their own businesses has skyrocketed, and companies of all sizes are responding favorably to these smaller, service-oriented shops.

"The business environment is changing," said William Lawrence, Ph.D., director of the Small Business Development Center in New York City. "My clients have indicated that major corporations are shifting their thinking and are embracing the wide range of creative, cost-efficient services provided by smaller firms. Companies are becoming increasingly budget-conscious and are realizing that they can turn to smaller service shops for many of the same creative services provided by larger firms, at a considerably lower cost."

Many of the public relations professionals who've started their own businesses are "going solo"--setting up as independent practitioners or consultants. Others have set their sights on building a public relations firm. While this distinction is important, all too often both categories are looked at as one group. Each choice presents a unique set of challenges and rewards. In addition, the individual's choice is indicative of his or her personality and long-term goals.

Rhodes & Weinberg Inc., in New York City, was formed in 1992 by Dennis Rhodes and Pamela Weinberg. Weinberg voluntarily left a satisfying position as a public relations manager at Restaurant Associates to join Rhodes and build their own company. Their firm focuses on three areas of expertise--the broad-based hospitality industry, lifestyle and business-to-business.

Rhodes & Weinberg is currently providing public relations services for a number of large companies. They dismiss concerns about competing with big firms and stress that ambitious public relations professionals shouldn't shy away from competing with big firms for business. "Companies, whether big or small, have not expressed any concern about our size," said Weinberg. "They are happy to be dealing with the two principals of an agency, avoiding the layers of bureaucracy all too common at big public relations firms."

"Today's competitive business environment requires public relations professionals to really understand public relations and marketing. Clients need a smart, strategic-thinking 'business partner,'" added Rhodes. "To have a successful small agency you have to take this responsibility very seriously."

Many marketing executives discovered the advantages in dealing with smaller, cost-effective firms during their struggle to reduce their expenses in the tough economy. Happy with the caliber of the work and the personal attention of one or two senior-level executives that personally handle all aspects of their business, they are most likely to stick around, even when the economy fully recovers.

Louise Pollock and Jani Aronow left the New York City office of Ketchum Public Relations last year to form Aronow & Pollock Communications, Inc. …