ANALYSIS: PR industry mulls a shift in strategy if US goes to war

As the tension rises in Iraq, airtime for PR efforts only dries up. Sherri Deatherage Green looks at ways companies should communicate if the country goes to war.

As the tension rises in Iraq, airtime for PR efforts only dries up. Sherri Deatherage Green looks at ways companies should communicate if the country goes to war.

As tensions heat up between the US and Iraq, military reservists leave home, peace activists practice chants, and cross-country motorists see semis carrying strangely shaped cargo. But what are PR people doing to prepare for the possibility of war? Perhaps not as much as they could be doing. War communications preparation isn't pervasive, but some large companies are making plans, observes Weber Shandwick Worldwide chairman Jack Leslie. "Most companies, I suspect, aren't doing it but realize they ought to be," he says. Despite President Bush's tough words, nobody can be sure the US rockets and bombs being shipped to the Middle East will be fired upon Iraq. But it doesn't hurt to mull a few "what ifs" about how messaging might need to change in the event of war, PR execs advise. Meanwhile, many corporations are already dealing with employee-communications issues involving workers called to active duty. The PR industry also may find itself facing a huge experience void in the event of long-term military action. The last time the US engaged in a prolonged ground war, some of today's PR executives were beginning their careers. Others were in diapers. "Certainly, if it becomes a protracted war, we'll have to reach to history. And we are going to have to devise new ways of communicating," Leslie says. "The basic shape of communication today is so different than it was 30 or 40 years ago, and quite different than it was a decade ago." Some companies are holding off on marketing projects, notes Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM PR in New York. "Last year, I totally got why, when we entered the war on terror, people were not anxious to spend," Laermer says. But marketing is about momentum, he adds, and companies that wait too long on the sidelines lose the game. "You can't wait for the end, because that could be the rest of your career." Speaking softly Some agency execs see the logic in putting media relations on hold in the early days of a military conflict. Few activities could be more futile than pitching stories when war reports fill every second of network time. But if military action continues over time, companies should find tasteful and appropriate ways to revive their marketing. "If it's a long, drawn-out war, like Word War II or Vietnam, eventually things will return a little bit to normal. The press will go back to covering other things," points out Charles Dolan, Ketchum's government relations SVP in Washington. "The British proved this in the second world war. It's almost a necessity in times of war to carry on. One of the objectives of terrorism is to disrupt your way of life and your economy." Understatement might be the best messaging approach during wartime. Even companies producing items for the military shouldn't brag about fatter profits, Dolan advises. "Don't let your commercial interest overrun your patriotic interest," agrees Andrew Gilman, president of CommCore Consulting Group in New York. "Put the country first and your company second." Even if war correspondents decide to sidebar some gadget being used by soldiers, PR people should approach the opportunity respectfully, he says. "Don't look to have your product stand out. Always give credit first to the soldiers and the US effort." Companies with overseas interests should not only resist the urge to blatantly promote products assisting the military, they should also think twice about overly patriotic messages, especially on websites. "They'll need to be able to walk a very difficult tightrope between matching their global audiences with their domestic markets," says Simon Moore, a corporate communications professor at Bentley College in Waltham, MA. A global survey released last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found growing discontent with America internationally. Many Middle Easterners expressed outright hatred for the US, and are boycotting American products. And foreigners appear to harbor love-hate feelings for American culture. "You'll find people complaining about US policies with a Coke in one hand and a McDonald's hamburger in the other, wearing an LA Lakers t-shirt," Dolan quips. Companies doing business and selling products overseas should emphasize their multinational characteristics and humanize themselves locally by highlighting the benefits they bring, Leslie advises. "Almost all global companies are also your neighbor," he says. Keeping employees informed Possibly the most important audience during wartime is employees at home and abroad. Federal law protects the jobs of active-duty National Guard members and reservists, but maintaining employee morale can require communicating effectively with them and coworkers who must temporarily take on additional duties. "I think it could be turned into a culture-building exercise," says Alan Weinkrantz, proprietor of a self-named PR shop in San Antonio, TX. Covering for active-duty personnel and helping their families can be presented as a way for civilians to help the cause. "You'll see that a lot in San Antonio," Weinkrantz predicts. UPS employs many guardspeople and reservists, particularly pilots. During the Persian Gulf War, it began filling salary and insurance gaps employees might face when called up, says PR manager Peggy Gardner. UPS' HR department has some 40 communications staffers who use websites, magazines, and newsletters to reach employees. HR representatives contact the families of active-duty personnel, and coworkers help them with day-to-day tasks. "We've made a point as a company to make sure families hear from us," Gardner says. US companies might also look to Israel for examples of how to communicate with active-duty employees. Most Israeli men serve in the military at least a couple of weeks a year well into middle age, notes Charlie Levine, Ruder Finn's CEO there. In 1991, while heading his own PR firm, Levine took along a typewriter when he was called up in the army spokesman's core. These days, many executives keep in touch with their offices via cell phone and laptops during military service. But employees working in war-threatened areas want more specific information. "They want reassurance that the company itself is trying to reach out and gather the best possible intelligence about what's going on," Leslie says. They also want to know that their employers are making plans for evacuation. Another Pew poll found that 51% of the public is following the news about a possible war with Iraq very closely, compared to 38% tracking economic developments. Yet for most companies, the emphasis remains on "the economy, stupid." "We're not focused so much on war as on the context of the overall economy and recognizing that people are more hesitant," Gardner says. ------ Your Guardians of Freedom Air Force reservists and guard members were among the first military personnel to be called to active duty after September 11. To many of their spouses and employers, they were flying off into the unknown. Brig. Gen. Ed Tonini called on Doe Anderson in Louisville, KY, to develop an outreach program for spouses, employers, hometown papers, community leaders, politicians, and colleges. The agency brainstormed the Your Guardians of Freedom concept pro bono, and later implemented it for the Air National Guard. "At its core, it's a retention program," Tonini explains. "You can spend $1 million training a pilot, and you can lose him in a heartbeat because of an unsupportive employer or unsupportive wife." Websites were built for the public, employers, wing commanders, and customer-relationship management. A wing commander can quickly generate letters to those affected by a service member's call up. Young children receive books about their parents' service, older kids receive patches, and spouses get posters and postcards to send extended family. The Department of Defense (DoD) has also had trouble collecting employer contacts for guard members and reservists. Sen. Ted Stephens (R-AK) suggested reviving the "E Flag" program, which recognized production efficiency in WWII. Instead, Tonini's crew updated the concept, designing lapel pins to be sent to bosses recommended by service members. The Air Force accumulated 59,000 employer contacts in 10 weeks, six times the number the DoD gathered in two years. "We made it a point of pride for commanders," Tonini explains. The Air Force and reserves are also adopting the program, and it has been reviewed favorably by other branches of the military, Tonini says.

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