Down economy is PR's time to shine

By most measures, corporate America is currently experiencing a down economy. Companies are assessing their options against this background of lower performance and decreased expectations, and they are leaning toward budget tightening.

By most measures, corporate America is currently experiencing a down economy. Companies are assessing their options against this background of lower performance and decreased expectations, and they are leaning toward budget tightening.

As an article in The Economist (“Perfecting Pitches,” August 16, 2008) recently pointed out, marketing budgets are often cut first and hardest. Communications, in general, tends to follow this rule because, like other “shared services,” it does not generate a profit. The paradox, however, is that communications, earned media coverage in particular, is more important than ever in a down economy.

Generally accepted economic theories tell us that expectations help drive economic growth. The way consumers, stakeholders, and investors imagine companies will perform is a partial measure of how they will behave: positive publicity drives momentum, which, in turn, shapes perception. The job of every PR professional is ultimately dependent on this dynamic, particularly when a company's constituents are more concerned about their pocket books than new products.

By strict definition, PR is about getting the word out, disseminating information to the right people so the public can make more informed decisions. As communications professionals, we help generate awareness about important innovations and possibilities for the future. The more elusive and challenging aspect of PR is the actual shaping of perception, attitudes, and behavior.

In a sluggish economy, maintaining a strong, positive image can differentiate your company (or client) from competitors and send a strong message that you are not only weathering the storm, but also performing in spite of obstacles. A company that can do that is one that people want to be associated with through thick and thin. The same Economist piece suggested that “the downturn may even be a blessing in disguise,” as strong companies “can stand out more easily and steal market share.”

So despite the instinct to adopt a reflexive foxhole approach during times of trouble, communicators should encourage their business partners and leadership teams to be proactive, challenge the skeptics, and rally the troops.

Economic slowdowns should signal business leaders to be more bullish with their PR efforts, which they can do without breaking the bank. For example, desk-side briefings, executive speaking opportunities, blogging, editorials, and press releases all offer inexpensive but valuable ways to promote products, initiatives, and executives.

Most communications pros agree that showing ROI for PR is a challenge, even under the best of circumstances. But it is exactly in these tough times that we have the opportunity to prove the value of PR to the companies we serve.

Budget cuts are often inevitable, but they are temporary. Use these cuts to make your group stronger. Be creative and proactive. Get back to the basics and to strategic media relations that will position your company positively.

Shannon Troughton is VP of PR at WellPoint.

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