Recession offers chance to re-evaluate the status quo

At a Wall Street Journal CEO conference last November, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.

At a Wall Street Journal CEO conference last November, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with. This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”

How are you spending the recession? I've received many different answers to this question over the past weeks, depending on how well the company or firm seems to be faring.

Certainly agencies are finding new ways to partner with their clients, in some cases doing so in a manner that resembles more of a banking relationship. In effect, some clients are asking agencies for long-term financing so they can continue the essential programs they have underway. For long-term relationships with deep investments over time, this is probably the way to go. Of course, if we learned anything after the dot-com bubble, it was to choose your clients as carefully as they choose their partners.

Many firms can now boast a truly global operation, and the silos that prevented one troubled region from impacting others are less clearly drawn than they used to be. Also, PR agencies have made great strides in penetrating previously untapped markets, particularly Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Agency and service-company CEOs with truly global operations are spending time in those markets, trying to keep on top of client and economic trends that could spiral.

Many, though, still play the waiting game – clients, agencies, and service companies alike. Budgets are being squeezed, decisions are delayed, but not all organizations are seeing the taps shut off dramatically. So they are delaying decisions – about staffing, structure, marketing, and new products – until a clearer picture emerges from the confusing array of statistics and stock indices.

The PR industry has come a long way since the last recession. It is not a function that is easily or willingly excised from corporate or marketing budgets. PR does not have to defend its right to exist. So the fundamentals of this industry, anyway, are quite sound. But it would be a shame to miss this opportunity to re-evaluate some of the outdated practices and to explore unchartered endeavors that will help the PR industry continue its upward trajectory. Among the obvious areas to focus on are measurement, diversity, and structure of both agency and in-house teams.

There is a certain heady freedom to be found in chaos. The PR sector, so far, is holding its own in a crisis of yet-unknown scope. But treading water won't move it forward.

Julia Hood is publishing director of PRWeek.

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