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Pioneer tech PR agency bows out

Niehaus Ryan Wong, one of the public relations firms that helped whip up the dot-com frenzy, is calling it quits.

Niehaus Ryan Wong, a pioneer among the public relations firms that helped whip up the dot-com frenzy, is calling it quits, according to Bill Ryan, a company co-founder.

"We are dissolving the company and have given our clients 30 days' notice," Ryan told CNET News.com on Thursday evening.

One of the first of the top tech-only PR firms to cease operations, Niehaus Ryan Wong snagged headlines for Internet and other companies such as IBM, Yahoo and Apple Computer for 10 years.

At a company meeting Thursday afternoon, the agency laid off most of its 20-person staff, according to an employee who was present, who added that a small group of workers will be retained to wind down operations.

Ryan said the decision to pull the plug was made to allow the co-founders a chance to pursue other career opportunities.

"I'm jazzed about the future," said Ryan, who plans to open his own PR agency. "We're all looking forward to trying different things...It's been a wonderful ride."

Some of the company's highlights were overseeing Yahoo's PR when the Internet portal first launched and helping resurrect Apple's brand name in the early 1990s after years of stagnation.

In the early days of the Internet, the San Francisco-based agency staked out turf well before the Web began to take off, back when the "information superhighway" was the toy of engineers, academics and computer geeks.

But then came the Net boom of the late 1990s. The thinking at start-up companies at the time was that they had to have the right PR team to build their brands. Eager executives beseeched reputable PR firms to handle their accounts, sometimes plying them with offers of big cash or significant shares of stock.

In exchange, the agencies circulated reams of news releases, hosted lavish parties, and spun, spun, spun.

"We presided over the halcyon days of the Internet," Ryan proclaimed.

Those days ended with the Internet meltdown that began in the spring of 1999. Niehaus Ryan Wong suffered through about three rounds of layoffs in the past year, said an employee of the company who requested anonymity.

From a work force that numbered about 100 in 1999, the agency's staff had shriveled to a fifth of that.

The closure "didn't come as much of a surprise to many of us," said the employee, who was present at the meeting. "Rumors were circulating for a while."

Not surprisingly, among the PR firms that tied their wagon to the dot-coms, most have been forced to lay off employees, and some have begun representing businesses outside the tech sector. Studies have shown that the PR budgets of tech businesses have dwindled by as much as 67 percent.

Some critics have said this is a fitting reward for the companies that helped fill the Internet bubble with so much hot air.