EDITORIAL: Self-reliant start to PR's new year

While economists are still dithering over whether to make forecasts for recovery or decline into recession in 2003 - with marketers even indicating a modest increase in ad spend during the next 12 months - WPP influential chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell has again sounded a resolutely downbeat note to start the year.

In an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Sorrell says that there is still little cause for hope and that the 'impulse for a breakthrough will only come through in 2004'.

He reiterated his view that PR was a growth market in the medium term, but scotched the fondly-nurtured hope that PR spending rises in times of crisis, saying that it is human nature to veer towards cost-cutting even when there is evidence of the benefits of PR spend.

Sorrell's prognosis is borne out to some extent by the stories in this, the first issue of the new year of PRWeek.

There are clearly still plenty of pitches out there, but the trend for bringing nuts and bolts PR activities in-house continues, with many in-house departments also rationalising their teams.

But as this week's feature article underlines, experiences are likely to vary greatly across specific sectors. While the impact on sectors such as travel and financial services is already clear, the consumer sector is also now likely to be real cause for concern.

Christmas sales were reportedly the worst for 10 years, and the impact has yet to be felt of rising personal debt and a potential tumble in the housing market.

But the climate of economic and geopolitical uncertainty has also created a new and subtly different consumer market, marked by a desire to preserve a sense of certainty.

Among consumers, this is already leading to an increased cost-consciousness and desire to take control in areas such as personal finance, plus a greater concentration on home-based activities (not least DIY) among over 25-year-olds. High sales of 'traditional' group activity toys such as board games over Christmas also hint at a mild nostalgia.

Consumers won't necessarily be harder to reach, but this increased 'self-reliance' needs to be taken into account - and it is here that PR practitioners can really add value.

While Sorrell may well be right that human nature dictates a save, rather than spend, mentality in a crisis, the rapidly-changing consumer landscape is going to have to be navigated, and when it comes to understanding the climate of public opinion, it is PR practitioners who hold the route-map.

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