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Fleishman-Hillard: Out in Front of the Competition
by Andrew Davis

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Pictured Phillip Sontag

Fleishman-Hillard, Inc. is one of the largest public relations firms on the planet. Founded over a half-century ago, the St. Louis-based company employs thousands of workers in 85 offices that are in cities ranging from Amsterdam to Atlanta.

A company does not reach this size without being intensely committed to its clients and consistently delivering satisfying results. It also needs to occasionally implement a few innovative twists—which the firm did on Nov. 30 by announcing the launch of FH Out Front, a team designed to reach the gay and lesbian community. The goal of the fledgling group is to be the most comprehensive gay and lesbian PR/marketing practice at a major communications firm in the country.

FH Out Front is chaired by Ben Finzel, a senior vice president of the firm's Washington, D.C., office, and Phillip Sontag, a vice president of the San Diego office. Windy City Times spoke recently with Sontag and discussed, among other things, the group's direction, structure, and plans.

Windy City Times: How did FH Out Front come into being?

Phillip Sontag: The firm had launched a multicultural practice called FH Hispana a couple of years ago that marketed to Hispanics. About a year ago, the firm wanted to increase its presence within various multicultural groups. So some of the gays and lesbians in the firm determined that it would be appropriate to build a practice that targeted the gay and lesbian community.

WCT: What is the mission of Out Front?

PS: The mission is to enable our clients to reach a viable community that not too many companies are targeting at the moment.

WCT: That leads to my next question. Your company's press release about Out Front states that the team is 'designed to reach the gay and lesbian community, one of the largest untapped audiences in the communications marketplace.' With all the disposable income and buying power that the gay and lesbian community supposedly has, why has this demographic been neglected for so long?

PS: If you look back historically at how multicultural markets have evolved in the United States, obviously for many, many years mainstream markets has [ dominated ] . In the last 20 years, African-American markets have taken off; in the past 10 years, it's been the Hispanic market. Things are evolving as companies start looking at various market audiences—and gays and lesbians seem to be the last market.

WCT: In general, when pitching an idea for a client or product, how hard is it to generate a storyline for a different market, like the gay and lesbian community?

PS: That's an interesting question. From a media relations standpoint, when we look with our clients to target the gay and lesbian community, we focus on publications that are read primarily by gays and lesbians, like yours. Most communities in the United States have one or a handful of publications that are read [ locally ] and then there are national publications.

Most of us in the practice are gays and lesbians. We know our communities and this [ movement ] is dear to our hearts. So we have the ability to create programming that really starts building relationships between the client and the gay and lesbian community. For example, look at Out magazine, which now has a slew of national advertisers; even a year ago, it didn't have as many as it does now. These companies are now just starting to advertise nationally, which is great. However, there are other components of a marketing campaign ( PR, grassroots, and sponsorships ) to consider.

WCT: Tell me about the structure of Out Front.

PS: We have a dozen communications experts in seven U.S. markets [ San Diego, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and San Francisco ] . Ben Finzel and I co-chair the program.

All of the experts bring different skill sets to this practice. I'm really proficient in consumer marketing and Ben is good at public affairs. Others are good with broadcast services, public relations, technology, and healthcare.

WCT: So far this program is only in this country, correct?

PS: That's correct; however, we've already starting getting e-mails from offices around the world that want to be a part of it. In 2005, we'll probably start expanding. If we have clients in the United States that want to market to gays and lesbians in other countries, we'll work with our offices in those nations to help create suitable programming. [ Conversely, ] if there are businesses outside the United States that want to market to gays and lesbians who live in this country, we can do that as well.

WCT: What countries look like the surest bets for expansion?

PS: Probably a couple countries in Asia and Europe ( like the United Kingdom ) ...

WCT: Do you see any hurdles regarding expansion—or regarding Out Front in general?

PS: We conducted a survey regarding consumers' attitudes about companies that market to gays and lesbians. We wanted to arm ourselves with the right tools to talk to prospects about; we didn't want companies to be afraid to market to the gay and lesbian community.

WCT: And Out Front is targeting clients in four areas?

PS: Yes. There's [ the area of ] corporate communications, which is really reputation-building. It involves working with clients internally to make sure that they're doing the right things with their gay and lesbian employees, such as offering domestic-partner benefits. There are also [ the areas of ] consumer marketing, media relations, and healthcare ( such as programs dealing with HIV medication ) .

WCT: You're doing something with Kodak?

PS: We've been doing multicultural work with Kodak for a couple of years. We're promoting what Kodak is doing with diversity with its employees. That company is doing amazing things with various groups, including African-Americans; Asians; Hispanics; and gays and lesbians—and part of my work involved building awareness of what Kodak is doing with gays and lesbians.

WCT: Out Front is also doing pro bono work with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays ( PFLAG ) .

PS: Yes, we've been working with them to help their D.C. and New York City chapters build awareness for some of their programming in those markets.

WCT: Although we've talked about how the gay and lesbian market is largely untapped, there are a few companies ( such as Fenton Communications and OpusComm Group, Inc. ) that do market to gays and lesbians. How does Out Front intend on separating itself from these other firms?

PS: There are a handful of boutique firms that solely focus on the gays and lesbians—and we believe that they do a wonderful job. From a national or international standpoint, we're one of the few major PR agencies that's created a concise, structured practice that can offer clients a structured approach.

These boutiques may have 10-15 people doing integrated marketing and advertising, but when you look at how many people are actually doing communications and public relations, the number is more like 2-3; their reach is limited. We, on the other hand, have 2,500 employees with 85 offices worldwide—and we have a practice made up with folks with so many specialties, like crisis communication, B2B, and healthcare.

WCT: Any concluding thoughts?

PS: We're very excited and we feel that this is a practice that is arriving at the right time. The Chicago contact is Steve Kauffman; ( 312 ) 932-2805.

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