Open letter from the PRWeek UK editor: Now is not the time to cut PR budgets

Reducing spend on communications during the coronavirus crisis would be hugely counterproductive, with the negative ramifications felt now and as recovery takes hold, argues PRWeek UK editor John Harrington.

To whom it may concern,

This is a message for organisations that spend money on communications, either directly through in-house comms staff or via agencies.

As we all know, disruption caused by the coronavirus is forcing employers across the private, public and third sectors to look carefully at their budgets. Difficult decisions will be made about whether, and where, to cut spending.

My message is simple: now is not the time to reduce investment in comms.

PR professionals are more important than ever as the crisis intensifies.

In the short term, the onus is on organisations to explain how the disruption affects them and their customers, clients, staff and other stakeholders. Failure to get the message right risks causing huge damage.

We've seen many examples of communications missteps that have dented reputations in recent weeks; JD Wetherspoon and Sports Direct being roundly slated for their treatment of employees and suppliers, and how they communicated with them, for example.

Or football clubs Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur, which have faced a backlash for reducing the wages of non-playing staff while their star players continued to receive full salary and benefits.

The subsequent ill-will is likely to last far beyond the duration of the current crisis, and could seriously hamper the recovery of those organisations when life returns to 'normal'.

In a poll of 12,000 people by Edelman across the world’s leading economies, conducted last week, nearly two-thirds agreed that how brands respond to the pandemic will have a ‘huge impact’ on their likelihood to buy those brands' products.

Indeed, one in three had already stopped using a brand they believed was not acting appropriately in response to the public health crisis.

This isn't about 'spin'. If a company won't act ethically, PR can't change that. But comms professionals can help articulate positive messages and deliver those messages effectively.

PR is unique in its ability to offer an outside perspective on how the wider world views your organisation, and provide insights into macro trends in society and culture.

This will be crucial, both during the current turmoil and as we enter the recovery phase.

Comms professionals are also among the most versatile in the services sector.

In recent years there has been a huge expansion in the types of services offered by PR agencies: from digital and content-creation skills to expertise on employee engagement, public affairs and social-media influencer outreach.

The industry's ability to deliver creative campaigns that produce effective results is stronger than ever. A look at the winners of the 2019 PRWeek UK Awards is testament to that.

This is no fluke – in recent years PR agencies and in-house comms teams have been investing in creative talent like never before.

At its heart, PR is rooted in communicating to the most difficult audience of all: journalists. PR professionals are used to 'earning' attention and coverage, rather than paying for it. They are in a league of their own in their ability to communicate the right messages to the right people at the right time.

In my view, the price of losing this expertise is too great, even in these unprecedented, unpredictable times - or perhaps because of them.

Best wishes,

John Harrington, editor, PRWeek UK


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