First off, take a deep breath. Sure, things aren't great, but there are some areas being hit less and some skill sets that are actually in high demand. Additionally, in tough economic cycles, an organization's ability to communicate clearly with its stakeholders becomes even more important, meaning demand for our services is actually increasing.
Many communications pros still remember the pain of 2002 and 2003 when sizeable PR firms went belly up, particularly in the tech sector. But the current recession will not hit the communications industry as hard. Consider that at the height of the dot-com boom the unemployment rate hit 3.8%, the lowest we had seen since 1957. You remember those dot-com days, when anyone and everyone was a “PR expert” and newly funded startups were handing out $20,000 monthly retainers like candy. That boom caused a labor bubble, and when it burst, the PR world was particularly hard hit. This time around the pain won't be as severe. Agencies have managed their balance sheets more wisely, and corporate departments and firms have not bloated up the same way they did in 1999 and 2000.
In the long run, the good news is that irrespective of the current economic condition, there is still a war for talent in America. With nearly 75 million baby boomers and only 30 million Gen X-ers, we simply will not have enough supply to fill demand for skilled workers. However, despite this long-term demographic trend, 2009 will indeed be challenging, and communications opportunities will be limited and dominated by a few industries and specialized positions.
Demand for communications pros in industries such as healthcare and technology has held up over the past several quarters. Many established tech companies are in the process of contemporizing or even reinventing their brand positions, which has given rise to a steady influx of new communications and PR pros to help establish and execute their messaging strategy. As for the healthcare industry, the combination of advances in medicine along with a population that is living longer provides some protection for the industry against down markets. Communications and marketing pros who understand this complex environment are highly sought after at all levels of the company.
For new grads and others entering the industry for the first time, align with a vertical or specialty that remains robust. For veteran communicators in between positions, consider looking for contract work with large organizations that are seeking partners to help handle the workload. And finally, for those currently employed, perhaps the best plan is to dig in, expand the value you provide, and deliver the communication strategy your organization will need to stay focused and weather this difficult time.
Michael Distefano is SVP of global marketing, CMO at Korn/Ferry.