Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

How can we communicate through the recession?

Posted by Nick on March 2, 2009

At a time when the news agenda is firmly gripped by job losses, bankruptcy and budget deficits how should the modern corporation communications team respond? There is certainly a widespread feeling within the industry that at a time like this corporate communications teams should batten down the hatches and avert risk. No one wants to be responsible for the interview during which the CEO struggled with questions about job losses. This culture often contrasts heavily with pressure from internal business stakeholders who look to the PR team for support at a time when marketing budgets are being reduced. The corporate communications function (especially in the B2B world) is now often the primary channel for a company messages > see this interesting study which found that pressure from inside corporations during the downturn is significant – 64% of in-house respondents said they’ve felt an increase in pressure to perform from their internal clients.

So we’ve established it’s a tricky period with potential for bad news breaking and contrasting internal pressures. But what can be done?
Industry veteran Lord Chadlington makes a salient point in an article on this subject: ‘Silence will result – almost inevitably – in the assumption there is something to hide’ . This is something that every major corporation will recognise. If you close down relationships with journalists that are close followers of the organisation and that expect regular pro-active contact it can tempt them to be more investigative – after all some journalists have strict briefs to watch just a handful of companies. If the story doesn’t originate from the communications function it has the potential to originate from business stakeholders such as non-media trained employees, customers and partners. Perhaps best not to raise suspicion in the first place by opting for silence.

From the same article Simon Lewis, Director Corporate Affairs at Vodafone makes another good point “communicating when times are good is always easier. But there will now be a greater emphasis on providing a perspective”. I took this to reflect the need for a company to be bold, to have a position on the issues surrounding it in order to offer stability to its stakeholder audiences. At a time like this championing a cause or issue can provide a platform to align the brand in a positive light. CSR issues and approaching some of the worlds big challenges can provide a point of communications differentiation during this period. When backed by interesting, unique, content issues-based communications can also deliver a reduced risk interview option for spokespeople who may otherwise have been expected to comment solely on business performance.

The recession poses significant challenges but also offers the opportunity to differentiate through communications. Companies that can take and ‘own’ relevant issues are likely to gain a positive reaction from journalists that I suspect will shortly be suffering from recession fatigue themselves.

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