By Jean Wyllie, Managing Director of Porter Novelli.
When times are tough, communication is more critical than ever. Potential issues which may arise during a downturn, such as profit warnings or workforce reductions have an impact on many different stakeholders – whether it is employees, customers, suppliers, investors or the government.
How significant an impact these issues have in the long term frequently comes down to how transparently, effectively and sincerely the company communicates with these audiences.
My choice of the words transparency and sincerity is deliberate. It can be tempting to batten down the hatches and remain tight-lipped in the face of adversity but transparency and sincerity engender trust and trust matters.
Imagine loyal consumers prepared to stick by a favoured brand even though it costs a little more than the competition or employees supporting the company through tough times because they appreciate and feel part of its long term success.
If companies don’t communicate at a difficult time, it leaves a vacuum which is filled by speculation and the impression that the management is out of touch, indecisive or simply doesn’t care. PR is in a unique position to help build and reinforce trust for several reasons:
- PR is, and always has been, about a long term dialogue with an audience.
Rather than being a one-off mass media blast, PR is an ongoing activity. As a discipline it doesn’t just ‘push’ information out but actually works most effectively when it is a two-way interaction between a brand and its stakeholders.
- PR is also a great means of communicating complex, sensitive issues.
Supposing you need to explain why a company will not meet its financial expectations but how there is a strategy in place which will strengthen the business in the long term.
A newspaper article which has been secured because of regular dialogue between the CEO and the journalist, offers the space to explain the nuances of a particular issue as well as providing the credibility of a trusted and independent editorial source.
- Good communications is based on an innate understanding of an audience.
Instead of using a ‘mass media’ approach, PR uses a selection of channels to reach the people with the greatest influence. It harnesses the power of peer-to-peer communications in a way that broad based marketing can’t.
This may mean talking to a particularly influential magazine in a sector, briefing an influential analyst or reassuring policy makers about a company’s commitment in a certain area. Reaching an audience through the channels which they value is the most effective way of communicating your message and shows genuine empathy.
Savvy consumers ‘tune’ out unwanted information and rely on a few trusted sources. We’ve already talked about the importance of using the right channel to communicate to a particular audience and this means you can reach the people who are your brand champions and who will help tell your message to others, saving you time and money.
Simply put, PR is incredibly effective at reaching the right people at the right time in a way that is relevant to them. This makes your marketing investment work harder for you.
PR isn’t the panacea for every business challenge. In good times or bad, every organisation needs to use a range of marketing techniques to achieve its business goals. But in a downturn, business priorities frequently turn towards customer loyalty, staff retention, reputation management and achieving greater efficiency.
As a discipline, PR has always been geared towards building trust, creating dialogue and delivering value and this is why, when the going gets tough, smart companies invest more in communicating!
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