lmost daily we see media coverage of potential downturns or various bubbles bursting.
Whether or not another Great Recession is headed our way, 2016 is looking like a year of uncertainty. The US election, the UK’s EU Brexit, Middle East stability, global oil price, natural disasters disrupting supply chains, China’s volatile stock market: these are just some of the contributing factors in an uncertain time.
(Main image: A sign of the times? China stocks fall as investors await March economic data. Photo: An Xin/dpa)
History dictates that when a recession rears its ugly head, communications departments and agencies have typically been the first to be on the wrong end of cuts.
At a series of LEWIS Futures Forums events held across February and March this year, we polled senior global public relations and communications decision makers on this very topic. So, how would they respond to a potential recession in 2016?
A third said they would expect to increase communications spend. Another third said they expect it to be business as usual. Fifteen per cent said it was likely that more resources would be diverted into research and development. Meanwhile, a cautious fifth said they would likely be reaching for the rope to firmly batten down those hatches.
Overall, those surveyed were fairly confident about surviving and even thriving during potential future recession. But should they be, given the track record of public relations and communications budgets during economic downturns?
We think the answer is yes. There are four arguments that demonstrate why public relations is safer and provides more strategic value to organisations during periods of economic flux. Especially during any economic downturn.
1. Power of measurement to justify ROI
Measurement and return on investment have always been a topic of debate in our industry. But no one can deny that our measurements methods have dramatically changed and improved since 2008.
Gone (or should be gone) are the mediaeval days of weighty coverage books. In the 2000s, there was little clear link to contribution to business objectives, or whether the content you were producing was actually any good. By 2008 it was all about level of activity, which may or may not have impressed senior managers in determining value.
Today, sophisticated monitoring and analysis tools help us to show the exact contribution public relations and communications makes to achieving corporate strategy. Rather than simply reporting on activity, we now communicate and prove outcome and value, using data to offer insights and guidance.
2. The power of content
Measurement leads seamlessly to the incredible growth of the importance and influence of content. The way we use content now, and how we assess its contribution to corporate goals and strategy, is like night and day from just eight years ago. The impact and value of content we are creating has never been more influential.
It’s safe to say that the 2008 recession pre-dated content marketing becoming a serious strategy or widely used term.
In the last decade, it was difficult to prove the direct impact of content. Now we track and report back on the value and contribution of content across every company channel and platform and its direct impact on lead generation and sales.
Sentiment, tone, share of voice, syndicaton, engagement, and so forth; we easily identify what works and what doesn’t.
"There are four arguments that demonstrate why public relations is safer and provides more strategic value to organisations during periods of economic flux.”
The value and influence of content and content marketing strategy on marketing and sales, especially customer acquisition and lead generation can be seen directly by decision makers. Mike Banic, global vice president of marketing at cyber security company Vectra Networks, illustrated this during one of our Forum events:
“I can tell the board how many inbound web visitors we had from reading articles online or engaging in social media and then linking to the website. When we publish blog posts about threat research, we can track a huge spike in web visits. I know exactly where people are going after reading the blog.
“The most important aspect is to be able to track the customer journey. There are so many great tools today to build pathways or journeys through digital content. For example, what content resonates at what part of the buying cycle, where are you in your journey. It’s very simple to associate calls to action in digital outbound activity.
“In our weekly sales and marketing team meetings, we review leads by channels, like inbound web queries, content, social media, how many leads turned into meetings. We analyse what lead sources work or not. This gives me the ability to make brutal decisions about where to make investments, and where to reduce or stop.
“This level of insight was non-existent at the time of the last recession. The quality of the data I provide to the board on a monthly basis proves the exact value of marketing and communications.”
The public relations and corporate communications professional has always been the idea generator and wordsmith. The Vectra example demonstrates that never before has the content we produced been so critical to achieving commercial objectives.
3. Social media ensures companies cannot hide and are constantly at risk
Since 2008, the media and channels in which we operate have grown and transformed beyond belief. This of course is primarily due to the rise of social media, digital channels, citizen journalism and blogging.
Back then, social media was still in relative infancy and very much a consumer play-thing. Twitter was a celebrity tool for fans of people like Ashton Kutcher. Facebook was still for teenagers and students. Brands, certainly not business to business brands, didn’t embrace it like they do today. Measuring social was not even an option.
Today, social media is at the heart of everything we do. And communications directors and their teams hold responsibility for managing these myriad of channels, worldwide stakeholder engagement, reputation management.
The bottom line is organisations operate in a social era of transparency never seen before. A brand’s reputation is on the line every second of the day and accountability is very real, not just a buzzword. Companies are unsurprisingly dependent on their teams of communicators to monitor, react, respond, engage. Were communications departments this indispensable 10 years ago? Probably not.
This era of social and technical revolution is the most important driver in asserting the position of the communications director as chief protector of corporate brand and reputation – every second of the day.
In this era of openness and democratisation of opinion and media, no board could possibly consider cutting the resources of a team at any time, let alone during a recession.
4. Recessions improve productivity and the need for and stature of strategic public relations counsel
Anyone who has worked in corporate communications during a recession knows that as in industry we work incredibly hard and often in stressful circumstances. Anecdotal evidence from industry peers is that work rate and productivity went through the roof during the last recession. Furthermore, the experience and learnings from that that time and productivity has remained with us.
The very nature of recession increases corporate demand for public relations and as a consequence boosts the industry’s value and status. The role of the communications director and the counsel they provide has become especially valuable during times of turmoil, in no small part due to the huge rise of social media, as well as the changing communication landscape.
“Public relations and communications have secured a different place and value since the last recession.”
When recession hits, stakeholder scrutiny of companies increases. Communicators therefore must treat recessions like a crisis situation. If a recession is a crisis, this simply heightens the need for well-managed and experienced crisis communications and practitioners.
Organisations that emerge stronger and quicker after an economic downturn are those that invest in strategic communications beforehand and keep it during the period of uncertainty.
Public relations and communications have secured a different place and value since the last recession. The incredible changes we have seen in our industry in the last 10 years and the rise of social and digital media have completely transformed the way we communicate. We have the data, analysis and systems to prove that cutting communications during an economic downturn is a bad idea. But recessions aside, the strategic value and importance of corporate communications to the organisation has never been higher. It is the CEO’s most trusted advisor.