What does the year ahead hold for PR practitioners? Is the emerging global recession an opportunity or threat to our industry? Here are my predictions for 2009, a year when, I believe, proactive PR career planning will prove vital in helping the strongest to survive and indeed flourish.
Back in 1992, when times were last this tough, Heyman Associates reported PR and corporate communications professionals coped by working longer hours, taking on additional responsibilities and managing with reduced budgets.
One difference then was the perception that job security was not under fire – and an observation that companies would rely on in-house staff rather than agencies.
I think few practitioners, certainly in the UK, currently feel their jobs are secure – and those working in-house seem to be as vulnerable as agency staff today. So what can you do to recession-proof your PR career in 2009?
- Online and social media may provide career opportunities as undoubtedly more and more companies will look for skills in understanding the digital world and influencing the "new influencers". Any practitioner who doesn’t have a grip of this "new media" risks a major hole in their curriculum vitae/resume. However, there’s so much hype in the sector that the danger is companies will focus on blogger outreach and other initiatives that do not deliver real benefits. They will soon learn to beware those who invent, or reinvent, themselves as experts in this arena. I predict, a sense of proportion will prevail and proven results will be expected – fewer Emperor’s new clothes will be seen online.
- Crisis management skills will be critical – but this isn’t the old world "tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth" approach. Contemporary crisis will prove to be more complicated, yet more superficial, more immediate and more long-lasting, more personal and more global than ever before. Those involved will face greater demands for action from diverse critics who can communicate as equals. But as the recent Motrin situation revealed, modern crisis can often be a storm in a teacup and require a more pragmatic management approach.
- Focusing on media relations skills (one facet of PR) on your CV as an ability to generate "free" publicity and present PR as the optimum marketing tool in a recession may be a mistake. I predict that companies will no longer accept the argument that an ability to produce cuttings or organise events means effective PR. Indeed, I’d like to see 2009 mean the end to events or press releases that tenuously relate to a brand and the even more questionable approach of calculating the "advertising value equivalent" of media coverage. If you’re involved in marketing PR, you’d better be able to demonstrate how your activities have resulted in sales and other tangible benefits.
- Specialist or generalist? I know a lot of highly specialist practitioners who are are proving to be square pegs looking for a square hole following redundancy. I believe that being able to demonstrate specialisms is important, but these need to have generalist currency. This means looking at how you can apply your expertise in different ways. For example, knowing particular media or politicians may not be of value, but the ability to build relationships is. A lesson here for younger folk is to extend your horizons beyond PR into other management disciplines.
- Maximise your network – it might sound obvious, but the temptation when jobs are on the line is to stick behind your desk and not do anything beyond the essentials. This is a short-term view and doesn’t enable you to bring in new ideas that show management how you are contributing during the though times. Look for free training or learning opportunities, arrange to meet contacts in the evening or at weekends, share your ideas and maximise the "boundary-spanning" role of PR by contributing information gained from your sources. And, if the worst happens and you are looking for a new job, your network is the best place to start, so keep it warm.
At the end of 2008, we’re seeing a lot of "do nothing, spend nothing", austerity PR, but I think there is a smarter approach that involves coming up with more cost effective ideas.
We need to focus on showing how we as individuals, and as the PR profession, genuinely contribute to our organisations. How can we report and prove our achievements and demonstrate how these link to attaining the critical organisational goals?
What new experiences can we gain and how can we interpret our career to date in terms of the diverse skills and knowledge we have gained? How have these made us experts, and generalists? Can we demonstrate the wider application of our communication and relationship skills at all levels – from tactical to strategic.
How extensive are our networks of relationships? Now is the time to update your little black book (or Linked In account if you prefer). Don’t just think about those people you are in contact with now, but track down former colleagues, who may just have risen up a different tree over the years. Don’t just be selfish though – you can’t just hook up and expect someone to remember and help you out.
You need to be genuine in building relationships. This means giving back as well as receiving. So I recommend that the best way to enhance your career in these tough times is to look for opportunities to contribute:
- engage pro-activiely in new media to share your insight into the practice
- circulate interesting information to others you know
- volunteer to lead projects, teach others, become a mentor or organise a networking event
- join professional networks – whether online such as PROpenMic or your national PR association
- begin to study – it might seem counter-intuitive when money and time may be short, but investing in your future development and even looking for a career change may just be the best thing you ever do.
In conclusion, I think 2009 will be very tough for some of us, but offer great opportunities for others. The secret for survival and success will be a flexible and pro-active approach that enables you to open up new avenues, take advantage of whatever comes your way, and promote yourself as the most important client you have ever had.
May I wish a happy, prosperous and successful New Year to you all.