Trend Watch: Shaping Communications Strategies for 2K9

The upcoming New Year signals the usual calendar changeover, but this go-round the annual tradition seems to be wrought with more anticipation than Y2K: It marks the transition of power from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (polar opposites in many ways); an inevitable worsening of the already dismal economic forecast; and a business environment that seems all but doomed. In short, 2008 will be punctuated not with a period, but with a question mark. For communicators, revisiting the year that almost was is an exercise in futility, as the damage has been done. Now, as we move into 2009, these executives must reflect on the trends whose hazy form will begin to take shape and affect the way they will (be forced to) conduct business in the not-so-distant future. PR News spoke with a number of communicators to identify the trends that will redefine the business models of tomorrow. *Loose Change: Innovation and collaboration will assuage the fear of the unknown. Being averse to change and risk might seem like a prerequisite for some senior executives, but that syndrome--which already crippled them in 2008--will completely paralyze them in 2009. In Porter Novelli's "Change Now" issue in its Intelligent Dialogue series, the agency's CMO, Marian Salzman, stated: "We are living in a time none of the old rules apply. We want and need change, but we're also afraid of change. It is crucial for marketers to understand the balancing act that's going on in the national psyche." That goes for all communicators, but more crucial than understanding the balancing act is knowing the strategies for mastering it. The two ingredients that are invaluable to this strategy development are innovation and collaboration. The innovation piece is simple on the surface: It revolves around embracing new technologies--especially digital communications platforms--to engage stakeholders with personalized outreach. These digital platforms also apply to collaboration strategies, although this ingredient is less straightforward. According to the 11th annual CEO Survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, "Collaborative [business] networks have gained global currency, but most companies have not developed a systematic method of capitalizing on them." Why are collaborative networks so valuable? For starters, they allow executives to streamline their operations by leveraging other organizations' assets. They also enable companies to extend their reach beyond borders. Organizations as diverse as Novartis, General Electric and Caterpillar are collaborating in the forms of strategic partnerships, value chains and outside suppliers to reach new markets. The spirit of collaboration also extends to the Web. One example of a collaborative efforts is advanced-level group of senior executives who joined to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by social media--which formed in 2008. Members include a growing list of Fortune 500 companies, and it serves as a forum for senior executives to exchange best practices and strategies for managing change in the digital space. *Talent Show: The challenge of recruiting and retaining top talent intensifies. According to PwC's CEO survey, 89% of CEOs agree or strongly agree that the "people agenda" is a top priority. Shrinking budgets--a by-product of the global economy's collapse--and generational conflicts make talent management even more challenging. Thus, executives must rely on nontraditional strategies, including: Make corporate culture a main asset. According to Bonfire Communications CEO Gordon Rudow, "[A company's culture] is what it affirms through its leaders, messaging and behaviors. Brand is about differentiation. A lot of people talk about brand as the soul of the organization. So, if culture is the collective conversation and the brand is the soul, then both should be in service of the organization's overall purpose." (See "The Tipping Point: How to Launch an Internal Brand," PRN 06-30-08.) Break down the silos between HR and communications. Jason Anthoine, president of the Cohesion Group, recommends these strategies for doing so: Assign an account executive to HR; pitch collaborative projects between PR and HR; and mingle the two departments. (See "PR and HR: Why These Functions Aren't Kissing Cousins, and 5 Things You Can Do to Change That," PRN 02-04-08.) Think outside the resumé. Look at digital means of reaching out to potential employees, especially those who belong to Gen Y. Reaching talent at multiple touch points will continue to be critical in 2009. (For more retention tips, see sidebar.) When building teams in 2009, communications executives should underscore the importance of the following skills, all of which were cited as the hardest to find by CEOs in the PwC survey: business and technical expertise, global experience, leadership skills, creativity/innovativeness, courage to challenge, adaptability, analytical sills, language skills and the ability to collaborate. *Uniformity Is Boring: Increased competition makes differentiation more important than ever. Regardless of your industry, competition for clients, customers and investors is fierce, so identifying and communicating your organization's competitive advantages is essential. Cathy Wolfe, director of marketing services for Toshiba America Medical Systems, recommends the following strategies for gaining a competitive advantage: Focus on customer loyalty. "Survey customers and use that data to understand the issues that are important to them, and then develop a plan for addressing them," she says. Educate stakeholders about what is happening in your industry, and how your organization is adapting to changes. When possible, seek third-party endorsements. "Continue to build relationships in your industry," Wolfe says. "We have a strong outreach to industry associations, working with them both on the education and validation sides." Heightened competition is also the result of an increasingly cluttered marketplace, which means that communications executives will need to be creative with outreach initiatives. And being heard above the clutter isn't a matter of turning up the volume; rather, follow the advice Teddy Roosevelt borrowed from an African proverb: "Speak softly and carry a big stick. You will go far." PRN CONTACTS: Gordon Rudow,; Jason Anthoine,; Cathy Wolfe, Tips For Retaining Top Talent Provide employees the opportunity to work on challenging projects of various types. Create an aggressive management development program that includes training to help managers improve relationships with their direct reports. Make sure employees know the firm's mission, and work to instill a sense of shared vision among your employees. Refine hiring practices. Place an emphasis on work/life balance; if possible, tie it to incentives to stay. Create an environment and corporate culture that are diverse and unique. Spark a robust dialogue within your organization. Source: The International Communications Consultancy Organisation and The Institute for Public Relations

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