September 11: Editorial - 'It's business as usual,' a few might say, but PR pros must know better

In the months after 9/11 much was made of the fact that it was back to "business as usual" in New York and DC, the mantra repeated as if - said often enough - it would become reality.

In the months after 9/11 much was made of the fact that it was back to "business as usual" in New York and DC, the mantra repeated as if - said often enough - it would become reality.

To declare things unchanged was an understandable reaction to the tragic events of that day, the clearest way in which the public could respond to the terrorists and demonstrate that they were unbowed, that America is made of sterner stuff.

But, as PR pros whose job it is to have a clear read on the public and how to communicate with it, we cannot ignore the fact that the US has undergone incredible change in the last 12 months. There's been a perceptible, if indefinable, shift in the nation's mood as it has responded to both tragedy and the threat of a new, drawn-out form of war; and, whether connected or not, there's been a sea change in business as the remaining bastions of the "greed is good" ethos have been stormed by those seeking a more ethical, transparent business environment.

Larry Moskowitz, founder and chairman of Medialink, calls the change "sweeping and staggering." "Lizzie Grubman faces jail time, not happy hour," he says. "The once hot PR execs at WorldCom and Enron are cooling their heels in unemployment lines. The new-economy firms that relied on hype are consigned to old-economy graveyards. The sea of $30,000 retainers, business-class travel, and stock-option frenzies has dried up. In its place are empty desks, brown-bag lunches, and nervous employees wondering if their 401Ks are alright."

As one of the architects of video PR, Moskowitz has many years' experience reading the mass market, and he feels that the PR pro who succeeds in this environment needs to be a very different animal to the one that whooped it up in the roaring '90s. "Communications pros of today face a need to return to basics and a revolution in accountability," he says. "Executives are demanding actionable advice and bread and butter airtime and ink.

'Gimme the clips and airchecks and tell me what it all means for our business,' goes the refrain. In other words, move the needle and tell me why you are moving it."

He adds: "Under the scrutiny that comes with diminished optimism - and that scrutiny is upon us - the communications professional should heed the call to accountability. Those of us who don't hear the klaxon of 'prove it' had better ensure their investments are beating the averages."

Fellow industry leader and veteran, Howard Rubenstein, feels PR pros have had to change in character too. "Frivolity no longer cuts the mustard," he comments. "Those that could help their clients analyze the changed world have done well, but those who just kept doing ill-timed and poorly thought-out promotions suffered. Sure, the gossip columns still run strong and consumers keep spending. But celebs are more careful about their public statements and consumer PR has to be more honest and serious than ever."

The short form is that candid and clear communication has never been as important as it is right now, and those that can rise to that challenge are invaluable in the business, governmental, and nonprofit worlds. The industry evolved rapidly in the '90s, driven by consolidation and automation, but ironically, given the retraction in revenues, the last 12 testing months have sparked greater change still.

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