PR is better prepared for a recession than in years past

While some agencies might fear a recession, there are good reasons to believe that it will not be so bad.

While some agencies might fear a recession, there are good reasons to believe that it will not be so bad.

An average exchange will often go like this: Enterprising PRWeek reporter will call an agency contact and ask if they see any signs of a worsening economy.

"Not at all," the contact says. "Business is booming, budgets are increasing, and we're hiring like crazy."

I was the Bay Area bureau chief when the PR industry faced the crippling recessionary cycle of the early 2000s, and I heard it all. In fact, if you were to faithfully record what I was told was true, there were no layoffs and no lost accounts during the dot-com bust.

Tell that to Neihaus Ryan Wong, the iconic tech agency that shuttered in 2001.

Many equated the down times with 9/11, and certainly that had a monumental impact. But troubles began well before that, and much of the slowdown started in the technology world. The decline was an infection that insinuated itself into many other parts of the agency organism, and no practice was immune.

Now as the economic indicators are giving everyone the jitters, there is reason to hope that this time around, the agency business will be able to weather the difficulties better than it did earlier this century.

One reason why agencies will fare better is that the recent talent merry-go-round never reached the dizzying absurdity of the dot-com boom. Those who manage the 20-something generation bemoan the expectations and habits of the breed, but agencies have resisted giving in to every salary request or job title inflation just to staff up an account team.

PR agencies are also much better run than six or seven years ago, as even small firms, out of necessity - and sometimes due to client insistence - became more buttoned down in the financial, IT, HR, and other processes.

But the most important factor in agencies' favor is that a more complex and healthy complement of partners and service providers are now part of the larger marketer ecosystems. There is a greater coherence to what agencies of all kinds, and other companies, are charged with bringing to the strategy table in terms of its relative contribution.

This is excellent news for PR, because - guess what - no one else does what PR does. Agencies are also not trying as hard to be all things to all clients, but rather be able to apply core competencies to a whole new challenging environment.

The debate of who owns new media has moved on to the fact that digital is part of the DNA in every piece of business. Now that that's settled, PR firms can continue to offer the expertise that it does best, only in a larger, more integrated context.

Because of this, the greater marketing universe - in particular the CMOs - gets PR in a way that it never has before. Sure, PR needs to be more accountable, and pressure will be intense to make it so. But the industry is light years ahead of where it was the last time reporters were making those calls.

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