In 2001, PRWeek pages were strewn with articles about layoffs. PR
firm firings seemed to get the most attention, but corporate staffs were
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
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,
- 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
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
- 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
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.