Maybe you've had this nightmare: The economy goes south and the business you work for, Company X, the nation's 11th-largest manufacturer of widgets and widget-related accessories, finds its bottom line bottoming out. So it lays off 15% of its staff and slashes its operating budget - a turn of events painstakingly reported in the industry's leading trade magazine, WidgetWeek.The communications department is hit particularly hard by the cuts. Key people are lost. Months later, the company website is no longer updated with any real frequency, and the remaining PR staffers find they have lost touch with a number of reporters who used to deal with now-laid-off employees.
Unfortunately, one of those reporters is the local correspondent for WidgetWeek, which has been forced to make layoffs of its own. Its already-overworked reporters find themselves covering more ground with fewer resources.
So the magazine never reports on the sizeable federal contract Company X wins one year after the cuts because it never hears about it. It also makes no mention of the innovative new manufacturing techniques X has implemented that allow for greater profitability and the company's eventual turnaround. Two years after the cuts, Company X is in better shape than ever - though you'd never know it from a casual reading of WidgetWeek.
The last article of any prominence it ran about the company was a hysterical analysis of its downfall - two years ago.
It's a nightmare only someone in PR would have, but that doesn't make it any less likely to come true. And a survey released two weeks ago by Middleberg Euro RSCG and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism lays out just how likely it may be by exploring what journalists want from the companies they cover - as opposed to what they get - during an economic downturn. Eight hundred newspaper, magazine, and broadcast journalists participated. The results may not be surprising, but they are nonetheless telling.
According to the survey, most journalists believe a "preoccupation with bottom-line survival measures
is the greatest thing working against a company's economic recovery. Almost as many believe communications in general should be more fact-driven and less boastful during a recession.
Sixty-six percent said innovations - not cost-cutting measures - will be the key to a company's turnaround. And most say businesses should increase external communications during a downturn, which many would agree is the exact opposite of what's happening.
Overall, the survey paints a picture of reporters not getting the information they need from the companies they cover, and not having the time to go chasing after it. It also lays out the dangers of not having people available to respond in a timely manner. After checking with a company's website, many journalists willingly turn to chat rooms or a Usenet for primary sources.
Preparing for the upturn
Those who conducted the survey, as well as other PR professionals, had strong reactions to the findings. "What's happened to PR in the past year, or year and a half in terms of budget-cutting, has been the single biggest disappointment to me in the 25 long years I've been in the business,
says Don Middleberg, chairman and CEO of Middleberg Euro RSCG. "I thought we were more recession-resistant because our work was better understood and appreciated at the 'C level,'
meaning among CEOs, CFOs, and COOs.
The opinions expressed in the survey, says Middleberg, should be a wake-up call to management: A quality PR staff, armed with a hearty budget and stories about actual innovations implemented by your company, can do more to turn things around than any number of layoffs or budget cuts.
"The journalists are telling CEOs that in tough economic times you shouldn't batten down the communications hatches,
he explains. "You should communicate factually, frequently, and consistently. Use this time wisely, say the journalists, to position yourself for when the economic upturn comes."
Rory O'Connor, VP of strategic communications at Dittus Communications and former award-winning journalist with the San Jose Mercury News, says the survey confirms what his former colleagues have been telling him for years: Journalists are expected to do more with less, and any company smart enough to make their job easier will reap the benefits in the long run.
"If you can be proactive now and get out and keep your mindshare in the media, you are going to have a powerful tool at your disposal in the long term,
he explains. "When the economy comes back, you're going to be the company that these reporters turn to, the one that will be written about."
"If you don't,
he continues, "you will easily fall off the radar screen, because a journalist isn't going to have the time to go looking for you."
But are such expectations realistic? Steve Harris is VP of communications with General Motors, which, as he puts it, has "in the last three years substantially reduced our budget and people resources."
He agrees that increasing communications during a downturn is a good idea, but it's not necessarily one that's likely to be embraced "at the C level,
particularly because maintaining a relationship with a reporter shouldn't really require a huge budget. "When you have to cut resources, the last thing you cut is the ability to maintain contact with the media,
he says. "Events can go and more elaborate resource-consuming activities can go, but when all is said and done, you can still have a computer and phone, so there's no reason to ever lose that contact, even in an economic downturn."
His recommendation to other PR managers (and the challenge of his position), is to always maintain a balance between good people and good resources.
"We're constantly watching the balance between what we have to spend on activities and what we have to spend on people,
he says. "You can sometimes have too much money and not enough good people, or lots of good people and not enough money for them to do their jobs adequately." Finding that balance, he believes, is the best way to stay on a reporter's radar despite having less money to operate with.
How important is innovation?
Harris takes issue with another part of the study. Journalists
surveyed said they're most interested in hearing about a company's innovations and what plans it has for the future. "Journalists are saying, 'Innovation will be the single greatest tool for success in the future.
Tell us about it. Tell us how you're going to innovate. Tell us how you are going to manage change,'
says Middleberg. "(That's) pretty much the exact opposite of what a lot of companies have been doing."
But Harris says those findings don't jibe with his experience of late.
"In an economic downturn, usually the media wants to focus on the downturn itself and what different corporate areas are reeling from it," he offers.
"There seems to be less focusing on what you're doing that's innovative or future-related.
"(Innovation) is what we've been pushing - you can't give up on that.
But I wouldn't say that's what people in the media are knocking down our door for."
BUSINESS COMMS DURING DOWNTURN
Should businesses make significant changes in the frequency or volume of their communications initiatives as a result of the economic downturn?
56% say they should make an effort to increase external communications
4% say they should decrease/limit their communications efforts
40% say no change is necessary
Should businesses change the tone of their communications?
55% say yes, it should be more fact-driven
41% say yes, it should be less bombastic
38% say yes, comms should be more focused on future plans and messages of innovation
32% say yes, focus on hard news as opposed to soft
17% say yes, it should be more financially oriented (for public and private companies)
15% say no, the tone shouldn't change at all.