Leaders can't fiddle as Rome burns

I've been seeing a combination of panic and blank stares of late. I'm not speaking of the population at large, but rather two distinct and connected entities: PR executives and PR students.

I've been seeing a combination of panic and blank stares of late. I'm not speaking of the population at large, but rather two distinct and connected entities: PR executives and PR students. I've sat alongside the former at breakfast panels, luncheons, and industry dinners. I've lectured to the latter at such schools as Monmouth University, NYU, and the College of Charleston, to name a few.

Industry leaders are in a full-blown panic. Gone are the days when the typical agency owner or corporate communications VP would exchange niceties and indicate that “Things are good. Really good. How about you?” Instead, I hear words like “catastrophic,” “unprecedented,” and “seismic.” These “mal mots” are quickly followed with phrases such as “steep downward spiral,” “never seen anything like it,” and “can you believe this?”

One Fortune 500 CMO told me his business wasn't that bad, considering the corporation's sales figures had only fallen 19% in Q4. “Hey, our top competitor was off more than 60%,” he said sardonically.

Meanwhile, agency leaders shared their respective plights at a breakfast roundtable a few weeks back. Talk centered on “who will own the idea?” Industry icons were deathly afraid that traditional ad agencies and interactive firms might be better prepared to “own the idea” and win the lion's share of what remaining budget dollars were available. One agency executive admitted lying awake nights worrying that ad agencies will begin poaching top PR talent. These concerns are understandable, if incredibly myopic.

PR agency executives need to stop navel-gazing and, instead, partner with clients to better grasp the dramatically changed landscape of their customers. Leaders should tag along on a client's sales calls and ask questions about the “new normal” in their customers' lives. Uncover those new nuggets of information and you'll find yourself fretting far less about whether advertising, interactive, or PR owns the idea and be able to focus on providing new solutions for new client problems.

The second, more distressing, myopia is our industry's near universal abandonment of college seniors.

Students have been flocking to PR in record numbers. Many have mortgaged their financial futures to pursue a career in our field. Yet, they now watch the world around them go up in flames and fear they are entering a workplace that offers few, if any, relevant job openings.

What's our leadership doing to help them? They're literally fiddling while Rome burns. Seniors majoring in PR, journalism, and communications need our help now. They need advice on how to make their résumé look more saleable and how to make the most of their last few months in college. Most of all, they need our reassurance that things will get better and that they have not chosen the wrong profession.

Start listening to your clients' customer pain points and stop relying on outdated market research to determine your PR plan. Most of all, reach out to the kids. They're our future. They need and deserve your best thinking right now. So, put down the fiddle, insert the Dr. Scholl's, and hit the pavement.

Steven Cody is managing partner and cofounder of Peppercom, a strategic communications firm.

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