Time to rev up communications and PR

This will be my sixth column on the terrible economy and what to do about it from a marketing and communications point of view. I am envisioning and hoping for a "break in the clouds," if only a little, for my next column. Since August 2007, my columns have offered a lot of ideas and tips on how keep your marketing efforts afloat during the downturn or recession. But, we haven't covered much about public relations and communications.

Have you noticed lately that you are seeing the same companies being covered in the media over and over again? That is because many companies have pulled back their public relations activities due to budget cutbacks. And those still generating content for the media are getting a bigger market share. Let's face it; every business is stretched, including the media. Many cutbacks in newsrooms have created more need for content, ideas, facts, figures stuff they can cover. This offers opportunities to those companies still generating publicity and press releases. Like it or not, difficult times can be opportunities in disguise.

If your advertising and marketing dollars have been reduced, you can still communicate with your employees, customers and the community with a minimal budget. Steady communication reassures everyone that you are here for the long-haul. Don't just recede because of budget constraints, as doubt and inaccurate information gets formed in a vacuum. If you have idle staff, here are a few tactics they can focus on:

1. Stay consistently visible through publicity and press releases. In any economic situation, being consistently visible and staying in close contact with the media and your industry is critical to any company's success. Not only can a company maintain a strong market presence, it can do so at minimal cost compared with traditional advertising campaigns. In addition, the credibility of an independent third party (reporters and media) carrying your message strengthens its impact. Be seen in the places customers tend to be looking, including local media, industry newsletters, magazines, Web sites and association reports.

2. Have something timely and newsworthy to say. Parcel out what you have to say by timing and topic. Don't always set your efforts and expectations on the "big feature" on your company. A public relations campaign, when done right, can create the sense that your company is almost everywhere the prospect looks. It creates a sense of credibility and familiarity, especially in this economy.

3. If you are being pursued by the media because of some negative story, like the loss of a big contract, plan in advance what you are going to say. We have many recent examples that have worked out well for our clients, news that could have turned out to be very negative. But with proper planning, the news coverage was correct and positively covered.

4. Rev up the community relations. There is no right or wrong way to construct and implement a community relations plan. There are events your company can produce at a minimal cost, including workshops, sponsorships for community events and non-profit organizations, school programs and contests, educational programs, speakers' circuits, scholarships, tours of your plants or business, corporate blogging. The ideas are limitless and they will help strengthen your image and brand.

5. Counterbalance some of the negative news reports. Share some good news with your customers, such as positive customer stories, good conversations with suppliers and buyers and new deals even if they're very small. Consistent communications can be done for pennies: e-mails, e-newsletters, phone calls, you name it.

6. Learn more about online communications. Your company's own Web site should not be the primary "new media" choice when communicating with customers. Interactive media issue-specific Web sites, e-mail campaigns and Internet banner advertising make it easier than ever to provide services that can be measured down to the click. Put word-of-mouth and search engine optimization strategies in place or miss out on tremendous potential. Social media sites such as FaceBook and YouTube are making traditional methods such as the 30-second television spot, seem obsolete and, of course, they are a lot less expensive.

7. Don't forget about your employees. Investing time and effort right now in effective employee communication can pay off. Most good employees want to know how the business is doing and how they can help. Maintaining a regular schedule of communication is necessary for any business. More than half of working Americans said their employers have not addressed their concerns about the impact of the current economic turmoil, according to a new survey by Weber Shandwick, one of the world's leading global public relations firms. In its survey of 514 employed Americans, the agency found that 70 percent expected the current economic situation to have a negative impact on the companies they work for, while 62 percent of those said their companies would have trouble meeting its goals. And although 54 percent said their company leaders have stayed mum on the impact of the financial turmoil, nearly three-quarters said their colleagues are discussing the possibilities. People can make the wrong assumptions in an information vacuum, and that can be self-fulfilling. Keep your staff motivated with factual data on which direction they should be pushing. This is a time and an opportunity for leadership to communicate, in any form, and establish trust and credibility.

Most businesses will probably emerge from this economic storm more seaworthy leaner and wiser. Companies can look forward to becoming more savvy and customer-focused by meeting the challenges ahead. Many will become more operationally adept, more engaged and more sensitive to the markets and employees they serve. I am committed to keep focusing on the opportunities that exist, and the things you must do to keep your company afloat.

Marlene Olsen is president of Olsen & Associates, a public relations agency in Reno. Contact through www.o-apr.com.


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