Why PR matters in a down economy

Since October 2008, many people — clients, colleagues, PR pros, students, etc. — have asked me what they should do to survive in the economic downturn.

Since October 2008, many people - clients, colleagues, PR pros, students, etc. - have asked me what they should do to survive in the economic downturn. The answers vary for each group and individual, but the basic facts remain the same. Here are my top 10 reasons why public relations matters, especially in a down economy:

Credibility: With public relations, unbiased decision-makers can tell your story for you. Be it traditional media, Web-based communications, word-of-mouth, etc., the personal nature of the communications between individuals adds a layer of credibility. Research points that it is more believable because the communicator is speaking honestly and is unlikely to have an ulterior motive (i.e. they are not trying to sell you something). Think about it: If an unbiased columnist writes that a certain widget works well or that a restaurant has great food, doesn't that resonate with you more than an advertisement or direct mail piece? What if you read this information on a blog or hear it from your best friend? Sources are trusted more than an ad, direct mail, salespeople, etc.

Value: Public relations provides better ROI than most other forms of communication. Sometimes a simple phone call to an editor can result in a story that reaches numerous people and is worth thousands of dollars.

Perception: No other form of communication can persuade and change public opinion more effectively than public relations. PR allows you to reach the masses, through multiple, mass-media outlets to tell your story. Think about most of the major decisions you've made in your life. How were they shaped? Most were probably based on a personal experience or had something to do with news articles or broadcasts on a specific topic. How did you shape your opinion in the recent election and what was your perception of the candidates? How were those opinions/perceptions formed? Probably through news outlets – web, TV, newspaper, etc. Public relations allows you to tell your story and tell it as often as you like.

Trust: Consumers are constantly looking for trustworthy sources now because there is so much negativity surrounding the economy. PR professionals are trustworthy sources for companies and consumers. If you are an executive or high-ranking manager on the corporate side, then you need to seek honest feedback from your communications team. And if you are working with an agency, then show them that you trust them with sensitive information. Sometimes it is difficult to hear the truth, but it will pay off to have trustworthy advice that can lead to positive solutions.

Message strength: Public relations allows you to say many things that you can't communicate in an advertisement or on a billboard. A feature story, press release, blog post, etc., can tell a much deeper and broader story. It can be addressed and written for different key audiences and incorporate multiple key messages, things that can't be done well in an advertisement, billboard, etc.

Relationships: Newspapers, trade publications, and TV and radio stations are suffering in this economy, too. They are short-staffed and underfunded. Therefore, there is a need for PR pros with solid editorial connections that can also work well with a newsroom staff, understand how the media operates, understand AP Style, and know what makes a good story for readers/viewers/listeners.

Short-term vs. long-term: Don't sacrifice long-term marketing objectives because of short-term financial problems. Public relations can help you weather the short-term financial storm by keeping your name, product, or idea/cause in front of the public. You don't have to have a big budget to be successful. Public relations will also help you meet your long-term objectives when the market recovers.

Facts & speed: These go hand-in-hand in this day and age. It is normal for people to believe the first thing they hear during tough economic times. People are often edgy and nervous. Many stories could have been communicated better and been viewed positively if companies would have communicated them up front and quickly. Make sure that you check the facts and that you use trustworthy sources — inaccuracy can be fatal when so much emphasis is placed on transparency – but don't forget that you have to be fast, too. You can't take 24 hours to respond. Just ask Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. He was honest and forthright when he admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, but he still was portrayed negatively because it took him more than 24 hours to respond to a simple question.

Don't play hide and seek: As a former journalist, nothing is more frustrating than the fair-weather PR pro who is only there when times are good and nowhere to be found when times are bad. Too many companies, executives, and clients are hiding behind their attorneys or getting rid of their communications departments to cut costs. This is not the right approach. Be seen and be heard - in good and bad times. It will build trust, credibility, and relationships - and will pay you back tenfold when the economy improves.

Bite into market share: There is no better time than now to bite into your competitor's market share. By increasing awareness among your target audience in a down cycle when others are backing away, you stand a better chance to take business and customers away from the competition. It follows the same stock market principle of buying low and selling high.

If you follow these tips, then you can increase your market share and strengthen your brand awareness, as well as have an edge over your competitors. Times are bad. So invest when others aren't. By staying engaged with your audience through PR in down times, your company is building relationships that will grow and pay off even more when times are good. Will you be ready when that time comes?

Brett Turner is PR director of Jackson-Dawson Marketing Solutions in Greenville, SC, and president of the South Carolina Chapter of PRSA.

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