OP-ED: PR pros have the power to assuage war-induced fears

Sitting at the computer, we often reach a moment where suddenly the machine flashes a "not responding" message. In computer language it's a way to not continue, and it happens when the PC loses its direction and doesn't know what to do next.

Sitting at the computer, we often reach a moment where suddenly the machine flashes a "not responding" message. In computer language it's a way to not continue, and it happens when the PC loses its direction and doesn't know what to do next.

Welcome to 2003, where computers aren't the only ones not responding. Most new ideas - concepts for soda or requests for spirituality - are falling flat on their faces. There's a torrential downfall of uncertainty and fear in the air that gives people a reason to flake out. We are all on the receiving end of those flakes. People are all about the war in Iraq now. There's a poll that says upwards of 90% are "for" the war. So what do these tidings of trouble mean in terms of public behavior? These are surely tough times. It's a crossroads for the economy, and people don't know what to do next. Like the characters in the Bunuel film The Exterminating Angel, people aren't able to leave the room. We're suffering from a less elegant version of it, which I call "the wait." The issue during wartime is, purely, what's next? We all wait for the war to end, the economy to turn, and our nation's general attitude to brighten. What can you, a seller of things, do to get folks moving in your direction? The answer lies in understanding and accepting specifically who your customers are now. In February, The New York Times reported that a chief executive trade group's members said a stunning 41% thought the top concern wasn't war, but the cleanup afterwards and the terrorism that would come of it. So the message for marketing and PR people to remember is that it's a long haul for us. Nothing will merely "end" when the war is finished, or Saddam is found. The lesson when dealing with customers today is to tread lightly. Here's how it works. A recent New Yorker cartoon displayed a guy in a T-shirt watching television on the couch with his lay-about dog. His wife is leaning out of the kitchen. "We better stock up on snacks if there is going to be a war," he tells her without any irony. This is the 2003 war at home! Back in 1991's Gulf War, I was a new entrepreneur starting a PR firm the same month as the US began that messy business. A lot of businesses I knew lost because they did not recognize definitive signs that their customers were scared. I feel that being a sales (we're in sales, folks) executive, more than any other occupation, means continually dealing with the future. It combines calculation and instinctive foresight. Let's regard that word. Foresight was what was sorely missing in 1991, and it's what is needed so urgently now. Today, you sell to customers who buy your messages in a wholly distinctive way. Remember: you as the seller are leading the way with learned strength. Wartime turns us into people who stay home and act with fear. It's that protective quality, an innate nature that says we are going to rise to this occasion by making our families safe. It's a feeling of guilt, too, which tells us that it's not OK to have a good time on a Friday night or buy a case of Yoo-hoo while our boys and girls overseas are putting their necks on the line. Consumers have always been in the habit of turning off to anything new during such periods. As clients make pleas for our ever-valuable time with "911" pages and calls of neediness, do not despair. We'll be there for them, and they'll remember it. As marketers, to reach our customers we need to become part of the fabric. This is more than petting a dog, ruffling a kids' hair, or saying sweet things about a spouse when confirming appointments. Customers look for comfort - and you, the innovator coming into their lives, can provide it in droves. In wartime, being there 24-7 is the key to serving customers who want and need to be given what are really "comfort sales." In ancient times, a war was used to solve problems in each village. Among those who were asked to mediate were the providers of new objects: marketers. Thus we are fixers of our communities. These days, everything outside the home seems to be mere noise or filler. What matters at the end of the day is where we go at the end of the day. As we enter our customers' lives, we can keep that in mind, and thus provide significant value by becoming and staying involved in their "real" lives. And it helps greatly to be generally informed about the news of the day. Not just the war news either, but culture, sports, local, fluff... The idea is to know it all. People will expect that of you. Alexander Graham Bell said: "When one door closes another door opens, but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we don't see the ones which open for us." Open the doors carefully. -----
  • Richard Laermer is author of Full Frontal PR and CEO and creative officer at RLM PR in New York and LA.

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