If the current economy is troubling for companies, then it should be equally troubling for those of us in PR. Not for the expected reasons – e.g., reductions in client spend – but because, as stewards of our organizations' brands, we have not done enough to stem the gaffes eroding market confidence – a large factor in the current crisis.
Obviously, PR efforts couldn't have stopped the recession. But where we could have played a vital role – and can still – is in helping anticipate and adjust to the shifts in public mood and expectations. These changes are exacerbated in several industries by the addition of a whole new set of stakeholders into what are traditionally “boardroom discussions” – DC policymakers.
While PR is uniquely equipped to align companies' communications with public sentiment, our industry hasn't fought hard enough for a seat at the table – relegating most communications to reactive status. That doesn't cut it.
Now, “business as usual” can lead to “out of business.” We have a responsibility to help clients navigate the shifting landscape of influence. Pay and bonuses that had once inspired people to pursue careers in finance are seen as signs of the gluttonous excesses of a broken system. The public is angry. To turn things around, new thinking – which can account for public mistrust and heightened governmental scrutiny and involvement – is now absolutely necessary.
To stem the tide of negative perceptions, understanding what's causing them – and more importantly, what people expect companies to communicate – is crucial. Public sentiment has shifted drastically from even a year ago – but the impact and depth of that shift is what's causing continued corporate missteps.
In this environment, many businesses are cutting back on communications, but when a seemingly innocent activity – new office decorations – can create negative perceptions, bringing unwanted consequences, you must ask: Can a company afford not to be proactive?
Influence is evolving. The line be-tween everyday business – “this is a company tradition” – and a communications nightmare is razor thin. Businesses need to realize that communications cannot be just a “fix” – especially when some problems can be avoided in the first place.
Understanding, respecting, and adapting to the changing demands of your audience should be a priority. Effective influence requires solid, positive reputation and relationships with the people you want to reach. Our industry must fight to help companies tell their story in ways that are honest, understandable, and accessible – from the start.
A good reputation equals success. So we must find ways – through better research, understanding, and measurement – to ensure that companies are equipped to adjust their communications and safeguard their reputations when the next inevitable wave of change comes.
It won't be easy, but recent events teach us that being prepared in ad-vance is well worth the effort.
Torod Neptune is SVP of public affairs for Waggener Edstrom Worldwide.