Staying one step ahead of the lion

While the pundits debate the current state of the economy and whether it fits the formal definition of a recession, we continue to see high gas prices, consumer spending is sluggish, the dollar is weak, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, and the housing crisis is affecting everyone from Bear Stearns to the average citizen.

While the pundits debate the current state of the economy and whether it fits the formal definition of a recession, we continue to see high gas prices, consumer spending is sluggish, the dollar is weak, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, and the housing crisis is affecting everyone from Bear Stearns to the average citizen. It's during times like these that we become painfully aware of the power of economic forces.

If we liken the economy to a starving lion, we would in turn recommend that our clients move, and move quickly. Our clients don't have to outrun the lion, but they need to run faster than their competitors. It's both unnerving and humbling. It's also a climate that makes PR agencies nervous, as we are left to contemplate budget cuts or worse.

Ironically, the case for maintaining and even increasing communications spending in a down economy is a compelling one. It can be an opportune time to dominate the conversation, strengthen stakeholder relationships, and develop new marketing partnerships.

Numerous articles citing such cases praise companies that increase spending and, by implication, impugn those that cut costs (agency spending) and "hunker down."

Most clients understand the need to move. But for those clients who do not, those of us in PR ask if it is a rejection of the strategy or a commentary on the trust they have in us to help them succeed during challenging times?

It's a fair question. What does it tell us about our value as a business partner that when times get tough, our budgets either get cut or we get dismissed altogether? It should be a wake-up call to rededicate ourselves to client service excellence, aimed at building a new level of trust with our clients.

In the 1998 article "A Matter of Trust," David Maister explains: "Trust is about relationships. I will trust you if I believe that you're in this for the long haul, that you're not just trying to maximize your own short-term benefits of our interactions. Trust is about reciprocity: You help me, and I'll help you. But I need to know that I can rely on you to do your part and that our relationship is built on shared values and principles."

If you're skeptical and believe that you will always be the victim of across-the-board budget cuts and that PR budgets will always be the first on the chopping block, then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I like to regard it much more in terms of Pascal's Wager that "the infinite expected value of believing is always greater than the expected value of not believing." In other words, what have you got to lose by raising your client-service game?

Our clients must believe they stand a better chance of out-running the lion if we are running with them. At your next staff meeting, begin by discussing client service and trust, and push your review of the new business pipeline down a few places on the agenda. If you do, and you make it an ongoing practice, it might keep you and your clients one step ahead of the lion.

Leo Bottary is SVP at Mullen. He blogs at clientserviceinsights.blogspot.com.

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