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From B2B to Autos, PR Firms Focus on Specifics

Companies on the Business Journal’s list of Public Relations Firms have found a way to succeed by concentrating on specific audiences. For Thousand Oaks-based Mustang Marketing, which traffics in business-to-business and public agency customers, the niche-targeting approach has led to expansion. April 1 saw Mustang finalize its acquisition of Ventura-based communications firm ZestNet Inc., bringing Mustang’s headcount up to 16 and expanding its reach further into Ventura County and Santa Barbara County, where the firm has the Mission Linen account. ZestNet founder Duane Eells will stay on for the transition while partner Ric Ruffinelli joins the Mustang team. Three years ago, Mustang President Dianne McKay met Ruffinelli to discuss a potential acquisition over lunch but “we couldn’t come up with a mesh that worked,” McKay recalled. That changed last year and now the former ZestNet Inc. will become Mustang’s satellite office in Ventura. The acquisition will also deepen Mustang’s software and web coding resources. The firm, which ranks No. 4 on the Business Journal’s list, ranked by Valley-area PR professionals, was founded by McKay and Chief Executive Scott Harris. It counts among its clientele entities such as Automatic Transmission Rebuilders Association and California Landscape Contractors Association and companies such as Dole Foodservice and Guitar Center. Other accounts include schools (California State Universities; California Lutheran University; Loyola Marymount University), hospitals (West Hills Hospital & Medical Center; Los Robles Regional Medical Center); and cities (Thousand Oaks; Westlake Village; Glendale). “Scott and I really try to be out in the community as much as we can,” McKay said. “We will always take the call and the meeting.” Storytelling for gearheads In Moorpark, Kahn Media, No. 1 on the Business Journal’s list, specializes in automotive and luxury lifestyle PR. Kahn’s clients range from Rolex Watch USA to Palm Springs’ Thermal Club and Carmel’s Quail Lodge and Golf Club; and William Karges Fine Art, a plein-air dealer with galleries in Santa Monica and Carmel. “I love helping traditional companies find new ways to connect with consumers,” said Dan Kahn, who employs everything from pop-up events to “organic influencers” like gearheads and mom bloggers. The firm’s founder left journalism to head Kahn Media in 2008. Kahn, who wrote for American Media Inc.-owned fitness magazine-purveyor Weider Publications, and the auto-centric Edmunds.com, was disciplined in niche writing and has carried that over into his PR work, which teems with fuel and electric vehicle clients. “My company would not exist if it weren’t for my career as a storyteller,” said Kahn, who had a big mortgage and no job when he launched his 24-person firm. “(We strive to tell) a story that’s meaningful to them and doesn’t feel like PR.” Passantino Andersen Communications, Antelope Valley’s largest PR firm ranks No. 13 on the Business Journal’s list. Partners George Passantino, former director of the California Performance Review for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a California State Legislature consultant, and Andy Andersen, a former legislative strategist, were previously employed at the now-defunct Inland Empire firm TMG Communications. Identifying an underserved region, Passantino and Andersen decided to set up shop in Antelope Valley, where their first account was Walmart Inc. “That’s how the firm got started,” said Director of Public Affairs Randy Terrell. Since startup, the firm has helped more than 30 Walmart stores gain approval in California from Burbank to Fresno by building public support for those projects. The firm has since transitioned into more public-private PR work. Clients now include hospitals and school districts in Antelope Valley and San Bernardino Valley, and BYD, the Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer with a Lancaster plant in a business-to-government deal providing buses and trucks to agencies such as Antelope Valley Transit Authority. In 2012, Passantino bought out Andersen’s interest in the firm and last year, he opened an Upland branch to cover more of the Inland Empire. In March, Scott Alevy, a former Chula Vista city councilmember who worked at the Upland office, led the launch of Passantino Andersen San Diego. “A lot of us come from political backgrounds,” said Terrell, who himself worked on two recall campaigns in 2003 and the 2011 effort to prevent Vernon from being stripped of its cityhood. “That opened a lot of doors.” Antelope Valley is no longer a quiet place, PR-wise. In the land use public affairs sector, “there are a lot of companies doing what we do,” Terrell said. “(Engineering firms) took a lot of that in-house. So the competition has increased.” Likewise, grassroots groups protesting development have “become a lot more sophisticated (in mobilizing and getting their message out),” Terrell said. “There’s a competitiveness there where (clients) want to see results.” As former politicos, “we’re still in this mode of we want to win,” Terrell said. Social media challenges Both McKay and Kahn remember the early days of utilizing social media for guerrilla advertising. Since the mid-2000s, digital marketing has become increasingly sophisticated as firms optimize how to help their clients target consumers and land atop search engines’ listings. As a vehicle for advertising and awareness, social media has become crucial to the PR world game. Despite controversies about Facebook Inc. and other platforms, McKay does not see social media losing its impact anytime soon. “I don’t see them retracting because of a political quagmire Facebook is having,” McKay said, allowing that 2018 is “going to be a weird year because it is an election year. I would never recommend a direct mail piece. You do have to look at the environment around you.” Kahn Media’s approach involves developing video content that performs on multiple platforms. However, some networks work better than others. “We tried really hard for years to make Google Plus work,” Kahn said. “It never really had an audience.” “(Despite social networks’ woes,) YouTube is not going anywhere,” he continued. “If a company has a Facebook page with millions of likes, we’re certainly less likely to walk away from it. At the same time, we have to be constantly looking for the next thing.” Kahn Media has many technical clients – Hellwig Products’ suspension systems and Redline Oil, a subsidiary of Phillips 66 and utilized by the fastest cars in the world at NASCAR and Indy 500. When executing a campaign, “we try to connect on an emotional level, but we do not get too technical,” said Kahn. His firm represents Petersen Automotive Museum, which recently reopened with a $125 million overhaul and an eye-catching, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates-designed exterior. “They have not spent a single penny on traditional advertising,” Kahn said of the Miracle Mile cultural institution’s 2015 relaunch. Kahn explained how an esteemed museum expert had braced the Petersen’s board for attendance to drop by half in each of its first three years. “What actually happened is that ticket sales went up three years in a row and rose significantly in 2018,” Kahn said. As social media and online communication has become more pervasive, the gravitas of outside PR firms in corporate decision-making has increased. While Kahn cautions that his firm doesn’t make curatorial decisions at Petersen, “we have a seat at the table,” he allowed. “We are sort of the voice of the people.” His in-house car enthusiasts made programming suggestions for recent exhibits “The Porsche Effect” and “The High Art of Riding Low,” which in turn helped Kahn Media better promote the museum. For the latter exhibition, they brain-stormed “Outlaw Culture,” and this component glorifying the nexus of Southern California Chicano and hot rod cultures “has changed the demographics of the museum,” said Kahn. “This is a great story. It’s not a car story, this is a cultural story.”

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.
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