Bouncing Back: PR/Comms Lead Companies Into the Future


Is the economy showing signs of a comeback? The news is flooded with mixed messages, with predictions of a turnaround date ranging from early 2010 to—gasp—as far off as 2017. Regardless of various soothsayers’ accuracy overall, individual industries could begin experiencing growth—and, in turn, growing pains—any time now. When the engine kicks back on, senior managers need to have a solid game plan for communicating with all their various stakeholder groups, from customers and employees to bloggers/media professionals and investors. Indeed, organizations’ communications during the last year (or more) have been focused primarily on crises of all shapes and sizes, from announcements of layoffs to declarations of bankruptcy, to corporate restructurings. As the first twinkle of light at the end of the tunnel becomes visible, executives’ next moves will be scrutinized more than ever. Specifically, overly optimistic forecasts or too-much-too-soon budget injections could backfire down the road; likewise, downplaying good news too much could lead to the company being overshadowed by juicier stories in the media. When it comes to leveraging the current business landscape most effectively and then developing strategies in anticipation of a future turnaround, executives should consider the following best practices. â–¶ Make yourself known within the upper echelons of the organization, whether senior management likes it or not. Many CEOs understand the value of public relations and want to protect their corporate reputations during a recession. However, says Porro Associates CEO Jeff Porro, “while they are likely to pay ‘lip service’ to their communications teams,” CEOs get distracted by other priorities and rarely take initiative on their own. Thus, the corporate communications/PR team must leverage there relationships with leadership to transform a CEO’s good intentions into real action. â–¶ Make communications training at the senior-most level a top priority. Senior leadership’s ability to communicate effectively is vital during a recession for internal and external audiences alike. CEOs must offer consistent, motivating messages during a recession to reassure customers, employees, investors and all other stakeholder groups—a skill that requires thorough training and thoughtful planning. Likewise, Porro says, when the economy is booming, a CEO can use the profit margin to prove that they are an effective leader; when profit margins dwindle, the CEO must illustrate his/her leadership skills by communicating the corporate message effectively, especially when traditional/digital media are the vehicles for message dissemination. â–¶ Remind leadership that communications is a means of demonstrating relative success—and failure. CEOs must rely on their ability to communicate to prove their own value. Porro points out that “authenticity is key,” because a good CEO builds trust by addressing mistakes and then providing a plan to solve them—not by avoiding issues altogether. When CEOs can articulate honest, clear messages about a company’s status, they are treated as experts. When they avoid problems or issues facing the company, they lose their effectiveness as spokespeople. â–¶ Remain aggressive in efforts to communicate with stakeholders via online messaging, and don’t let digital content languish. Jack Holt, chief of new media relations at the Department of Defense, emphasizes that “information at rest will stay at rest until acted on by an outside force.” Therefore, it is not enough to create content and leave it online in the hopes that the right people will find it eventually. Rather, executives need to make consistent and ongoing efforts to get online content in front of their most influential audiences, and they need to use these digital channels to give audiences choices they would never have when getting information through traditional media. Another tip for leading online communications in the future, according to Holt: Instead of simply writing a blog, create and own a bloggers roundtable in which multiple external thought leaders can participate, because “chances are they have more important things to say [than you do], anyway,” he says. (For more online communications tips for the modern business environment, see “The Toolbox of the Future” sidebar.) â–¶ Never, ever overpromise—and don’t let leadership overpromise, either. As the economy begins to recover, it’s easy to get caught up in either extreme—many CEOs either set goals so low that any progress would be considered extraordinary, or they underestimate the time it will take to get back on track. Instead, communications executives need to make sure leadership stays on pace with the public’s optimism and offers realistic expectations of what stakeholders can expect within the next six months to a year. This, Porro says, is a good way to show—not tell—stakeholders that the CEO still controls the company’s success. [Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Ashley Houghton, account supervisor at Michael Smith Business Development (MSBD), for her on-the-ground reporting at the “Rethinking Corporate Communications 2009” conference, hosted by Communitelligence in Washington, D.C., September 30-October 1. Houghton can be reached at ashley@mikesmithpa.com.] CONTACTS: Jeff Porro, jeff@porrollc.com, Rohit Bhargava, rohit.bhargava@ogilvypr.com; Jack Holt, charles.holt@hq.afis.osd.mil

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