An old story is told of a farmer who makes a comfortable living selling his produce at his small market. His son grows up, goes to business school, and gets a job at a large company in the big city. One day, the son visits the father and asks, “How’s business?” The old farmer reports that it’s a little slow, but things are going okay. He continues to advertise in the local paper and keep the billboard on the north side of town. The son responds, “Dad, don’t you watch the news? We’re in a recession. If you don’t start cutting back, your business will fail.” The father asks how long this recession has been going on; he hasn’t noticed it at this point. “It’s been months now, Dad. It just hasn’t caught up to you yet. Start making cuts now. And you haven’t raised your prices in years. Now is the time to boost your prices or you’ll never make it through this economic downturn.” The father followed his son’s advice. He took down the billboard. He cut his advertising in half. He boosted his prices by 10 percent. Within three months the produce business was struggling and within six months, it had failed.
The moral to this story, of course, is that the more bad news we listen and respond to, the worse we tend to make things for ourselves. The media’s reporting of the economy includes catastrophic headlines: “massive layoffs,” “skyrocketing unemployment,” “disastrous financial results.” I’ve talked to several companies who have told me they are “cutting back” due to the economy. I ask them if their company is struggling and many say, “Not yet. We’re okay for now, but we’re just being cautious.”
Please understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying we are free from economic concerns. I’m not saying the bad news doesn’t exist. I am saying by focusing primarily on the huge problems that exist (particularly within certain industries), the news media could be exacerbating those problems.
Imagine this. A company “cuts back” to “be cautious” because of the economy. As a result, they purchase less from suppliers, who are then forced to cut back and potentially raise prices. Then the company’s products become more expensive, so they cut back other places. The supplier may have to lay people off, increasing unemployment. By reacting to negative news instead of their own realities, the company is now making more negative news.
What is the role of PR professionals in these economic times? First, I think this is an excellent time for PR to frame the news coming from your organizations. If you work for a company that has 25,000 employees that decides to lay off 500 people, be sure to frame that for the media as 2 percent of the workforce. That’s not necessarily “massive layoffs.” Yes, it’s hard for the 500 people impacted, but a 2 percent adjustment in the workforce is part of living in a free market environment. Sometimes those adjustments are the right business decision, hard as they may be. If we can help the media keep things in context, we may help reduce the reactionary decisions that make the problem worse instead of better. I’m not saying to put a positive spin on bad news, I’m just saying to help the media keep your news in perspective.
Second, as the representatives to our organizations for our key publics, we need to help our organizations stay focused on the needs of those publics. In tough times, individuals and organizations tend to focus internally, thinking about what we need to help us through tough times. If, however, we can focus on our customers’ needs (and the needs of other key publics), they will turn to us to help meet those needs. That can help a company through tough economic times. Further, if you have helped your key publics weather the storm, when the economy turns up they are more likely to turn to you as their ally moving forward.
Economic times are tough, but we can do things to help our organizations through these times and not further the difficulties by feeding the scare stories (yes, some of them real) that headline the media today.