Companies around the world seem to have down-shifted their usual mass-market, flashy-ad campaigns to opt for more targeted and subtle forms of communication. This comes as no surprise, with almost every crisis in the past giving rise to two trends: companies begin squeezing their communication budgets and shifting their spending away from expensive communication campaigns to more cost efficient public relations activities. At the same time, they scramble to protect and preserve their image by calling on the “spin doctors” or public relations practitioners to reassure shareholders and consumers. Both trends ultimately lead to a greater demand for effective public relations (PR) services.
One example of turning to PR in crisis was when Australian company James Hardie Industries was accused of poisoning homeowners with its asbestos filled products. The first thing JHI did was hire spin doctors to try and divert audiences’ attention away from its unethical practices.
During the current financial crisis, US and global banks have been scrambling to preserve their image with shareholders and customers through PR activities. These range from including special messages in annual reports, to emphasizing their socially responsible activities in order to downplay the “greedy” image the crisis has tainted them with.
It is not surprising then that today’s crisis has led to a burgeoning interest in PR. The industry is abuzz with discussion about how it can be better leveraged to offer companies an image building and immunization tool with more bang for each buck spent on communication.
The Middle East is no exception, as we witness an increase in PR activities aimed at warding off the demons of the financial crisis, not only in the corporate world but even at the level of governments. The Dubai government, for example, has been regularly issuing press releases, interviews and articles to counter rumors of the Emirate’s demise.
Up until the crisis, however, the PR landscape in the region seemed to be rather limited to tactical press releases and occasional press conferences, alongside the endless flashy events and glitzy parties, which appeared to be exactly what companies and their audiences were looking for.
Today, with public relations being revived as a hot topic, regional conferences about “strategic PR” are on the rise, and PR agencies are clamoring to re-position themselves as offering “strategic public relations” services.
The growing interest in strategic PR, however, can be misleading as it may not result in the expected return on communication investment. PR can only be truly effective if it actually follows a strategic thinking exercise that culminates in developing a fully fledged communication strategy. This strategy defines the company’s aspired positioning and translates it into messages and channels that successfully engage each of its stakeholders. PR then comes as an application of the strategy, representing one of the tools in a company’s communication arsenal — and one of the most powerful and cost efficient ones when used effectively and in tandem with the other communication efforts.
PR that is in line with a company’s communication strategy and effective in times of crisis is one that can engage an organization’s stakeholders and reach them wherever their interests lie. This also means reaching out to opinion leaders or “influencers” in each target group who can spread the company’s strategic messages, and generate the needed buzz to restore credibility or remind target audiences of the value of a particular brand.
Walt Disney is a company that has proven the effectiveness of PR as part of an integrated communication strategy during crisis. Disney ensures that its president constantly communicates with shareholders and employees, highlighting the sustainability of the company and how its corporate strategy will help it ride out the crisis. The company does this through special letters, speeches that can be downloaded from its website, dedicated sections of its annual report and a regular flow of financial updates available on its website.
Looking at the strongest brands globally, there are numerous examples of how these companies practice such PR tactics, using a barrage of new media and other unconventional channels to convey their strategic messages. Starbucks launched a “My Starbucks Idea” website for its customers to propose ideas they would like to see implemented in terms of the company’s products and services, bringing them closer to a brand that is traditionally seen as a luxury during difficult financial times.
Apple’s famous blog is full of tips on how to use its products, targeting Apple technology aficionados who are looking for a new way to integrate their iPod, iPhone or i-something into their everyday lives and work.
The number of creative applications PR offers that are both attention grabbing and cost efficient are endless — from town hall meetings that rally communities, to online contests, to gathering members of the media for round-table discussions.
The universe of PR activities is certainly vast, and their strategic value should by no means be underestimated by regional companies, especially in times of crisis. However, their strategic benefits can only be reaped if they are preceded by a holistic strategy that provides companies with a road map that guides all of their communication activities, including PR.
Nohad Mouawad & Ramsay G. Najjar