PR should relish opportunity to lead

Many believe that Thomas Paine penned his observation "These are times that try men's souls" in his pamphlet Common Sense.

Many believe that Thomas Paine penned his observation “These are times that try men's souls” in his pamphlet Common Sense. However, the quote actually came several years later, in an essay called The Crisis. Paine's words seem particularly appropriate today, as we try not to lose our collective common sense in the greatest economic crisis in generations.

The declining fortunes of many industries are increasingly impacting providers of marketing and communication services. Clearly, we are starting to see softness in some parts of our business while others – digital, mobile marketing, business transaction and turnaround communications, crisis, and public affairs – are in strong demand.

The recent completion of our annual survey of more than 250 clients sent a clear message: Expectations remain very high in 2009, despite the economy, because clients realize they still must communicate to key stakeholders – employees, customers, investors, channel partners, and regulators – with constancy, clarity, and conviction of purpose.

Our hope is that neither clients nor competitors lose sight of the high value effective communications delivers every day. It is understandable that some might seek price relief, while others sell deep discounting, depending upon their financial circumstances. But clients should be careful not to take away the incentive for their firms to act as true business partners. Now, more than ever, clients want – and need – their agencies to invest the maximum effort in sound communications strategy and counsel that deliver results to advance the business agenda.

Firms should resist the urge to win and service business at any cost. It is vital that we do not de-value our services. We must vigorously defend what we do as not just another discretionary corporate cost that can be turned on and off at will, but as a partnership that adds to our clients' bottom lines.

We create great value for companies whenever results can be measured in behavioral outcomes that can be monetized. For example:

Timely issue management and crisis response that preserves sales, shareholder demand, or employee loyalty;

Game-changing new product launches with high return on marcomms investment;

Well-executed online programs that head off or correct costly viral transmissions of bad customer experience;

Sustainability programs that produce immediate savings by reducing energy and material resource usage, while building reputation and esteem among all audiences;

Coalition formation, public education, and policy advocacy that modify or defeat unwise or costly government regulation;

Campaigns that reinvigorate public interest in leisure activities ranging from pro sports to travel.

The real question for our industry – agencies and clients alike – is: Do we have the courage to seize the communications agenda and be held accountable for delivering bottom-line outcomes that achieve meaningful, measurable results?

When the communications silos come tumbling down and clients seek an accountable, authoritative, and knowledgeable partner, will they look to us or go elsewhere?

This is when the desire to lead is the greatest form of bravery.

Dave Senay is CEO of Fleishman-Hillard.

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