Even Economic Cooling Isn't Expected to Stall Momentum

Los Angeles P.R. firms raked in the dough this year, thanks to booming business from dot-coms, tech firms and a slew of other new clients. But what may be even more surprising are their predictions of similar gains next year, despite signs of an economic slowdown.

Among the major L.A. players, the local office of Hill & Knowlton Inc. boosted billings to about $21 million in 2000, a 50 percent increase over 1999, according to Executive Vice President Ron Hartwig.

Ketchum, meanwhile, boasted 2000 L.A. billings of $48 million, three times greater than its 1999 total of $16 million.

The rising tide also lifted smaller firms, like The Bohle Co., which saw its 2000 billings jump by 50 percent to $6 million.

Maureen Crow, chief executive of Carl Byoir & Associates, said the 2000 boom is easy to explain.

"Two things happened: The dot-com explosion was great to everyone," she said. "And public relations became quite elevated, so for the first time people were hiring public relations agencies before they hired advertising agencies."

But that wild success has come with warnings about the economy and a growing shortage of labor.

"A major concern I have for the industry is that we not get so greedy that we take business we can't serve in a professional way and cause a negative reaction from the very clients that are our existence," said Sue Bohle, president of The Bohle Co. "Greed is a tremendous threat to the public relations industry. Any company that's growing faster than 50 percent should be taking a real hard look at itself. They've got to be stretching their people very thin."

Sean Fitzgerald, a senior vice president at Ketchum, said he's mindful of the perennial chicken-or-egg challenge of having enough qualified staff to handle all accounts. He said it helps to think ahead.

"We're making investment hires," he said. "If we identify a good candidate, somebody we know will be valuable to the company at some point down the road, we'll hire them on the spot."

Bohle said she's doing that, too. That way, she has people trained and ready to jump in, rather than getting caught scrambling to service accounts while getting new hires up to speed. Bohle offers all employees a minimum of two training courses each week.

Bohle, Ketchum and Hill & Knowlton had plenty of company in their profitable 2000. The abundance of business coincided with what many said is the profession's coming of age.

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