COMMENT: Thought Leader - Why public relations is an easy targetfor job cuts - and what to do about it

In 2001, PRWeek pages were strewn with articles about layoffs. PR

firm firings seemed to get the most attention, but corporate staffs were

also reduced.



Our profession isn't the only one to suffer in the economic downturn, of

course. Other business services providers were also hurt. But PR is

arguably more susceptible to boom-and-bust cycles because too many

companies view it as discretionary - OK if times are good, but easy to

dismiss when costs must be cut.



What's the source of this perception? For starters, we should look in

the mirror. PR jobs are at risk in today's Darwinian business

environment because PR practitioners too often lack:



- The skill-sets that are seen as essential business functions.



- A deep understanding of clients' or employers' business.



- An ability to evaluate and communicate what they do in ways that

demonstrate contributions to business objectives.



To survive and thrive, PR pros can't afford to see themselves as

media-relations specialists, speechwriters, or newsletter editors.



We must be seen as - and must become - business problem-solvers, who use

communications strategies to address the fundamental challenges faced by

our clients and employers.



At their best, PR people fulfill this aspiration. We use research to

understand problems, shape answers and measure results. We're grounded

in the social sciences and understand relationships among organizations

and individuals in society. And we possess the communications skills

required to inform, educate, and persuade. These are building blocks of

a powerful capability to identify, analyze and address business

problems.



When the business climate is at its worst, we should be at our best.



At times like this, there clearly is no shortage of problems to solve,

including:



- Maintaining corporate reputation and brand loyalty at a time when

consumer attitudes and behaviors are in flux.



- Reinforcing shareholder confidence and providing information required

for sound investment decision-making.



- Earning employee support for the transformations required to keep

companies competitive in a challenging world.



Here in Chicago, "the city that works," PR teams from various sectors

demonstrate the strategic involvement, focus and flexibility that make

for a respected, high-impact PR function.



At Exelon, the $12 billion electric utility, the corporate comms

team helps management earn employee support for its strategic plan

through frequent two-way interaction on business performance and

priorities - for example, through quarterly interactive satellite

broadcasts featuring Exelon's co-CEOs.



The PR team at Sears has taken crisis planning to a new, more strategic

level. The continuous critical incident communications planning process

allows Sears to identify "zones of risk;" review the readiness of

response "base plans," with particular emphasis on the plans'

communications components; test and use a tool to help simplify and

organize communication plans; and identify and rehearse the core

response team and key departments that could be assigned roles on a

cross-functional response team.



At global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, we're still focused

on shaping our reputation through media and industry analyst

relations.



But we have also changed our priorities in the past year to address the

most pressing business needs:



- The communications resources devoted to building A.T. Kearney's

reputation on business school campuses when MBA recruiting efforts in

full swing have been redeployed. They are now focused on marketing and

sales support activities that will build business with current and

prospective clients.



- Performance goals for all team members have been adjusted to reflect

an additional task: developing and implementing marketing strategy

across all channels (including direct marketing to clients and

prospects) for our most crucial service and industry practices.



- More resources and management attention are being devoted to strategic

communication inside the firm, to encourage alignment with and behaviors

in support of our vision, among our more than 4,000 employees in 37

countries.



By accelerating PR's maturation from communications specialists to

business problem-solvers, we can do more than just minimize the impact

of cyclical ups and downs. We'll also begin to change the fundamental

economics of our business, and be able to command - and de-serve -

higher fees as counselors and corporate practitioners.



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