Past lessons learned help PR better handle current recession

As September marks the start of the new academic year, the Agency Business Report signifies the start of the new year for PR firms.

As September marks the start of the new academic year, the Agency Business Report signifies the start of the new year for PR firms. This year's tables reflect the difficulties of a trying economic environment, where agencies were squeezed by clients who were themselves under severe pressure to deliver business-related results with smaller teams and budgets.

So far, 2010 shows promising signs. There are many differences between this latest recession and the so-called "dot-com bust" recession from the early 2000s. Conventional wisdom has it that PR firms have done better in this recession.

Having covered both, I think firms benefitted from the tough lessons of the dot-com crash. As such, they had less far to fall. Agencies are now run far more efficiently - HR, IT, new business, and financial operations have become far more critical to the long-term strategic plan. Agencies are better businesses than they had been, and the obvious ramifications of the recession of 10 years ago - large-scale layoffs, overpriced but empty office space, and devastating consequences due to the loss of a few key clients - were not in evidence during this last go-around.

The new hallmarks of the recession-scarred firm are stressed out middle management, unapologetically unreasonable clients, and rigorous (some might say punitive) agency reviews. It's important to recognize that the true stars of this industry - agencies and individuals alike - have thrived in spite of a hideous market, but have not been unscathed by it.

In the spirit of the New Year, I offer a few resolutions to take to agency teams. First, bring back training, and with it the time for those who need it to take and benefit from it. Firms must be smarter than ever to compete. Issues such as privacy, which has not been at the forefront of PR knowledge, are vital for agencies to grasp.

Second, reward those who hold the keys to great client relationships, at all levels. As client teams become smaller, each connection is a key to success, from the most basic account coordination to the highest strategic level. Don't take any piece of it for granted.

Finally, don't minimize the efforts it took your firm to survive when communicating with your staff. Even as you may brazen it out to your clients, and your business media, your teams need to hear you know how hard they worked to stay ahead.

Julia Hood is the publishing director of PRWeek. She can be contacted at julia.hood@prweek.com.

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