NEW YORK -- Between sips of a Diet Coke ("We helped launch this product"), one of the nation's most powerful imagemakers offers a somber prognosis for the public relations industry.
"It's much harder now to make sales. The cost of each sale has risen dramatically; clients expect so much more of us. It's a difficult climate," says Andrew Cooper, 44, the Baltimore native who now heads the 500-person New York flagship office of Burson-Marsteller, the industry's largest public relations company.
His recent promotion to chief executive officer of the Madison Avenue office puts Mr. Cooper near the top of a $4 billion industry smarting from the current economic slump.
The nation's PR firms also are being challenged by cost-conscious clients that expect ever more. Clients demand the eye of publicity without expensive advertising, wise counsel to help focus corporate strategy, and a better image in the eyes of an increasingly sophisticated public.
For all this influence, PR aces like Mr. Cooper are relatively unknown.
They don't accompany business leaders on presidential tours of Japan; they help organize these publicity-rich trips. They don't reform the post office; they set up patriotic events in Washington that the press dutifully covers. They don't create ads to convince the public that Tylenol is no longer tainted with cyanide; they advise the company on crafting a responsible image amid such a crisis.
Mr. Cooper's career path in this powerful industry had many twists and turns. Born in the Mount Washington section of Baltimore, he went to high school at City College, where he was the editor of the school newspaper, the Collegian. He then went to Grinnell College in Iowa, a liberal arts university where he studied psychology.
After graduating in 1970, he returned to Baltimore to teach English and journalism at Northwestern High School. He then left the city for good, this time to get his masters at Syracuse $H University in television, radio and film.
Mr. Cooper moved to Chicago to work as audiovisual coordinator at a school for the mentally disabled, and after two years made the switch to private industry by taking a job in Burson-Marsteller's creative services department.
Despite that unorthodox career path, Mr. Cooper has earned a seat on Burson-Marsteller's board of directors. Few rise that high after a start organizing slide presentations and jazzing up mundane training films on how to use batteries.
Mr. Cooper went on to set up General Electric's phone center for customer inquiries and helped develop "infomercials" -- advertisements weighted heavily with news. One of his most visible PR projects: organizing the 1984 Olympic torch relay to Los Angeles for client AT&T.;
Crafting an image for others is the industry's game -- and it's becoming ever tougher. Even for Burson-Marsteller, whose 2,100 employees in 28 countries and $215 million in revenues makes it the world's largest public relations company.
Burson-Marsteller once had a seemingly eternal contract with multinational giants such as Coca-Cola Co., General Electric Co., International Business Machines Corp. and Philip Morris Cos. These companies are still clients, but many now competitively bid out contracts.
So, while Burson-Marsteller still advises the companies -- especially their central offices -- individual projects may be put up for bid. That forces Burson-Marsteller to invest more time in preparing bids. With as many as 20 people working on a project, an unsuccessful bid can be costly.
Still, Burson-Marsteller has many advantages, he adds.
Unlike most public relations firms, which only have a couple of employees working in a local market, Burson-Marsteller has 63 offices around the world. Multinationals looking for a partner with equal world-wide experience are naturally attracted to Burson-Marsteller.
Only Hill & Knowlton Inc., with $173.5 million last year in revenues, 1,500 employees, and 62 offices in 25 countries, can compete with Burson-Marsteller's reach.
From his modest office, Mr. Cooper does much more than craft images for clients. Heading the New York office involves overseeing an amazing array of technology.
Burson-Marsteller's computers connect to 30 news services, whose thousands of daily articles can be analyzed, cataloged and printed out for clients. Johnson & Johnson, for example, might request all recent articles that review a new shampoo. The computers can quickly find the articles, analyze them for content, print and fax them out.
The New York office also features recording and filming facilities for commercials, even though advertising is usually considered a different field.
"What advertising can't do is tell you how the public will react. It seems predictable -- buy an ad and reach so many million people, but you don't know how you really will come across," Mr. Cooper says.
Public relations also can be cheaper, he says, because ads can cost more than $300,000 for a 30-second spot on a top television show. PR, meanwhile, entices the media to broadcast or publish news reports.
What are the new issues that concern clients? The animal rights movement and "green" issues are hot.
Another new concern for big, established companies is protecting the corporate reputation after years of stressing only price. Companies with a good name, Mr. Cooper says, always are encouraged to stress the tradition and familiarity, much as Lifesavers candy did for its recent 80th anniversary.
Should a crisis occurs, such as the Tylenol poisoning, Mr. Cooper always advises that the company's top executive go public and lead a crisis committee. Stalling tactics may not seem costly in the short-term, he said, but over time they can destroy consumer confidence.
In such situations, a trustworthy public relations firm assumes the role of confidant and corporate adviser, helping to make decisions that can determine a company's fate. Burson's help in defusing the 1986 Tylenol scare is credited with saving its client.
Such crises underline the complexity of an industry often envisioned as churning out press releases and holding press conferences. But few PR firms today judge results by the number of newspaper articles they generate, Mr. Cooper says. The main point: to generate a positive image in the media, the government and among the public.
"I think that what we do is increasingly seen as crucial," he says. "Public perceptions are incredibly important today."