Communication in a recession

There is no more challenging time for a communication professional than to manage reputations at a time of financial hardship or recession. Our current UK financial position is changing the very face of life as we know it, and communication departments are going to need to be in a position to quickly readjust.

It is estimated that there are many thousands of people working in communication departments across the country, and for most they have been focused on promotion and reputation management. They now face the tough times where they have to shoulder the burden of helping staff through cutbacks and possibly even redundancies. And yet, it is a time when they too will be under the same threats with a bleak future.

We have had it good for many years. During the past 10 years opportunities for communication and public relations staff have been significant. The public sector communication has continued to grow throughout this time. We now have internal communication, more web development, and a 24 hour media management for rolling news all part of our public sector bodies. Everyone from the NHS and police through to voluntary groups and even schools, have introduced communication and PR into their staff. Much of this has been linked to our obsession with image and the management of it in a celebrity dominated era.

As a communication professional, I don’t want to downplay the importance of reputation management and having appropriate staffing levels to deliver this. But some of this growth has been linked to a determination for all senior managers to feel that they have their own ‘spin doctor’. In our new age of austerity this is one luxury that will have to stop.

Old style communication

Communication should be focused around what has been delivered,l what has been the impact of the PR staff and does it justify the spend that is currently being made. Where the money to fund communication comes from the public purse it must also demonstrate what it delivers to improve those services for people. What does the communication activity do to make things better for those customers.

Yes, we can argue that the world has changed in the past 10 years and communication has become more direct and immediate. There is a 24-hour rolling news service, the rise of the citizen journalist and the appearing of social media. The bottom line is that there is not enough money to fund communication and the teams that have been built up in an era of plenty will have to be scaled back to a more appropriate level to the current financial situation.

What does that mean for reputation management in 2010?
It means we will have to work smarter. Ensure we can have systems to provide early warnings to threats and risks to the organisational reputation, and have the associated plans to react instantly to get on top of situations that emerge. We must also identify value for money ways of communicating. This requires two things that communications functions have not been good at, firstly, knowing what works and why, and how this can be demonstrated, and secondly, maximising the new low-cost opportunities that the Internet and social media bring. The importance of internal communication must also not be understated as the pressure placed on organisations whose staff are demotivated, stressed out and are going through a whole range of emotions linked to cutbacks and possible redundancies.

Where does this leave the communication professional in 2010? It is obvious to say that the role is under extreme pressure – to justify what they deliver, to support organisations through changing times, and to readjust plans for the new circumstances. The gain we have at the end of this will be a communication function that is more relevant to the shop floor or front-line of the organisation. Once we have suffered some the pain.

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