Public Relations: Recession Tool

by Robert A. Kelly

Before economic recovery can begin, consumers must begin to feel more positive about the future. That's where an effective public relations campaign can help your business forge ahead.

The business community's recession-rooted anxiety about 2002 results, and the reality that broad stakeholder perception (and, thus, behavior) must be positively informed if recovery is to begin, may be good enough reasons for recession-weary managers to take a closer look at public relations - specialists in behavior modification.

The reason public relations finds itself in the behavior business is because it's firmly rooted in the principle that people act on their own perception of the facts. It strives to create, change or reinforce public opinion by reaching, persuading and moving-to-action those people whose behaviors affect the organization. When the behavioral changes become apparent, and meet the program's original behavior modification goal, a public relations venture can be deemed a success and, in this case, even show the first signs of economic recovery.

Even in these recessionary times, when you start looking for a return on your public relations investment, it becomes clear that your goal MUST be the kind of change in the behaviors of key stakeholders that leads directly to achieving your operating objectives. So, it is quality planning, and the degree of behavioral change it produces, that defines success or failure of a public relations program.

In good times or bad, think about some of the perceptions out there that could actually hurt your organization. Perceptions that, if ignored long enough, could well result in behaviors that run counter to those you may desire.



At the root of it all, is that simple truism we all know but tend to forget: people really DO act on their perception of the facts and behave accordingly. But, if a manager is to have an effect on those perceptions and behaviors, he/she must deal with them promptly and effectively whether the economy is down or up.

Imagine how many audiences your organization may have to depend upon at one time or another? Would your list include insurance carriers, journalists, minorities, customers, prospects, employees, legislators, community residents and others whose perceptions of your organization, if left unattended, may hurt or help?

Here's one approach to informing those perceptions (and, thus, behaviors) out there that you may wish to consider.

List your important audiences in priority order. For example, customers, prospects, employees, local and trade media, local business and community leaders, and so forth.

As time permits, meet with members of each audience and jot down their impressions of your business, especially problem areas. Here, you'll have the opportunity to decide to what degree you will try to alter opinion and perception among each audience.

This becomes the behavior modification goal against which you will measure progress.

Next, prepare persuasive messages that not only provide details about your product and service quality, but address problems that surfaced during your conversations with target audience members. Identify what is really at issue at the moment; impart a sense of credibility to your comments; perform regular assessments of how opinion is currently running among that group, constantly adjusting your message; as well as highlighting those key issue points most likely to engage their attention and involvement; and finally, identify and build into your messages pre-tested, action- producing incentives for individuals to take the actions you desire.

Then, consider the most effective means for communicating each message to each audience. This may include simple face-to-face meetings, briefings, news releases, news announcement luncheons, media interviews, facility tours, targeted speeches, a brochure, and a variety of other communications tactics.

And don't forget special events, newsworthy activities like trade shows, open houses, awards ceremonies, contests, VIP receptions, financial roadshows, and even media-attracting stunts each of which will provide additional opportunities to communicate your message to your target stakeholders.

As you look for signs that your aggressive efforts are changing perceptions for the better, especially important in a recession, you should begin to notice increased awareness of your organization, especially progress in the marketplace for products and services as well as ideas; increased receptiveness to your messages; a growing public perception of the role your organization plays in its industry and in the community; and, of course, growing numbers of prospects.

These details are tracked by speaking on a regular basis with people among each of your priority audiences, by monitoring print and broadcast media for mentions of your messages or viewpoints, by interaction with key customers and prospects and, if resources permit, modest opinion sampling.

Each of these indicators will reflect a segment of local, individual perception which, in turn, will gradually begin to reflect the modified behaviors you seek.

Especially during hard times, remember that people in your community or marketing area behave like everyone else - they take actions based on their perception of the facts they hear about you and your business.

Which means that you must deal promptly and effectively with those perceptions by doing what is necessary to reach them. Especially during recession, you must persuade your stakeholders to your way of thinking, thus moving them to take actions that lead to the success of your organization.

PR consultant Bob Kelly was director of PR for Pepsi-Cola Co.; AGM-PR, Texaco Inc.; VP-PR, Olin Corp.;VP-PR, Newport News Shipbuilding; director of communications, U.S. Department of the Interior, and deputy assistant press secretary, The White House. He can be reached via email at bobkelly@TNI.net

 
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