Prime crisis is a chance to hone skills

There's no doubt that money is a major worry of the moment. The sub-prime mortgage mess spawned a related, and scarier, prime crisis, in which even people with traditional, 30-year-fixed mortgages are getting anxious. As the sub-prime borrowers who accepted too-good-to-be-true offers on their mortgages wake up to adjustable rates that have shot way up, they're defaulting on their loans, home prices are tumbling, and the entire economy is quaking

There's no doubt that money is a major worry of the moment. The sub-prime mortgage mess spawned a related, and scarier, prime crisis, in which even people with traditional, 30-year-fixed mortgages are getting anxious. As the sub-prime borrowers who accepted too-good-to-be-true offers on their mortgages wake up to adjustable rates that have shot way up, they're defaulting on their loans, home prices are tumbling, and the entire economy is quaking.

While individuals worry about prices going up and jobs disappearing, businesses worry about prices rising and the economic cycle going down. In turn, banks and financial institutions consider the effect of their losses. And governments wonder if their financial systems will hold up under the strain.

We know for sure that the world is in the midst of an international economic crisis, but there are plenty of things we don't know yet. This might be just another phase in the up-down, yin-yang cycle that all economies go through, or it could signify a totally new combination of factors that will change the financial landscape beyond recognition.

Have globalization and technology made economies more robust and quicker to bounce back? Or have they made economies more vulnerable? Financial authorities have intervened to stave off a meltdown, but have they done enough?

We know that sentiment (business and consumer confidence) remains important, but so are financial fundamentals. Perhaps current sentiment represents a return to sober realism after a long spell of partying. Or is it exacerbating the problem and becoming a self-fulfilling doomsday prophesy?

PR pros shouldn't claim to possess definitive answers to these questions. We are not economic specialists. Rather, we lend expertise in understanding the questions that matter to our clients and their stakeholders.

If the prime crisis has taught us anything, it's that a fail-safe strategy does not exist. The smartest course of action is then to cultivate an inquisitive mind and take nothing for granted.

With all the angst it's provoking, the prime crisis offers an opportunity to sharpen the skills needed for the sort of dialogues that build reputations and relationships. When the stakes are this high, details of tone, manner, and intentions are crucial. Organizations that make light of the crisis and claim to be completely in control risk coming across as insincere; official responses to events such as Hurricane Katrina have made people suspicious of reassuring pronouncements. Organizations that speak of the crisis in apocalyptic terms risk rerunning the Y2K scenario and being dismissed as sensationalist scaremongers.

In this cynical, media-savvy age, everybody expects organizations have vested interests. It's imperative for companies to talk about issues not just from their own perspective, but also with awareness of and respect for other perspectives, including those of implacable critics. The challenge for PR pros is to earn stakeholders' trust through dialogue and to use it wisely.

Marian Salzman is the CMO at Porter Novelli.

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