When the going gets tough, the tough make some noise

Many companies go dark with their marketing during a downturn. Here's why this might be a big mistake.

On Monday, Nicole Jordan and I released the findings of a survey we did of PR agencies. It was the follow-on to a survey I published in February that focused on client satisfaction. The results of both showed significant communication divides between agencies and clients. The other PR issue in the economy? Companies going quiet. The New York Times posted an article back in October in which it showed that smart companies are not cutting their marketing and PR spend in a down economy. My company's CFO told CFO Magazine that companies should not waste a recession -- it's time to innovate and grow. Yet why are so many going silent to save dollars? I've asked Tiffany Anderson of Sterling Communications to share her take from the agency side.

Guest editorial by Tiffany Anderson

It's tough out there, and most companies are going line by line through marketing and communications programs and services looking to cut anything and everything they can. And it's not just the companies currently suffering - healthy companies showing profits over the past quarter are doing anticipatory cuts, raising panic and feelings of doom. Worse than that, however, is executives feel that they have cut all the right things and best prepared their companies for the recession. They are wrong.

There's nothing wrong with running "lean and mean" companies and cutting unnecessary overhead. However, don't cut the programs and services that are giving you the visibility and brand awareness you need to attract customers and earn revenue. Usually the first line item to go when companies need to cut their expenses is marketing and public relations. After all, executives feel that business can go on and that these programs aren't a core part of operations. Unfortunately, many executives are removed from these programs and focus on other areas, simply not putting in the needed time to understand these critical functions and how these very activities can help them appear to be heroes to their boards.

Communication programs are the bridge between companies and their customers. Sure, businesses can focus on building a strong sales force, however, sales needs to be armed. They need a communications team to help drive awareness so when they are knocking on doors, there is a sense of familiarity with the company they are pitching. Suddenly ceasing communications and "going dark" may raise eyebrows as to whether a company is still in business or whether it's on the verge of shutting its doors. There's never been a more critical time to appear to be thriving. Besides, this is also the time to steal market share from your competitors and there is no better way to do that than through continued brand awareness.

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Moreover, many customers are starting to become familiar with businesses via social media, a realm that has really enabled customers and businesses to become more connected and interactive. Many businesses who are cutting down on their communications programs are also trimming or cutting their social media strategies, an area where there is the most chatter, speculation and room for errors. When lines of communication go down, businesses truly become "out of sight and out of mind." Now is the time to be seen and lead industry discussions. We are at a very experimental point in time where people are open to trying new technologies, new ways of thinking and better ways of conducting business. Although everyone is going through tough times, it's also a period of opportunity, and many of your competitors understand this and are taking advantage of it.

Many businesses have become savvy in social media and "get" that as the communications landscape changes, they need to as well. Traditional media outlets are increasingly folding. In fact PR Week and PR Newswire recently conducted a media survey and found that 50 percent of journalists are considering a new career in 2009. This is yet another testament to the fact that the traditional vehicles companies used to reach their customers (i.e. print media) continues to drastically evolve. The point is that things are changing quickly, and businesses can't afford to cut budgets, bury its head, and peer out when sales increase. By this time, they will awaken to a new landscape, one in which its potential customers have already been talking with its competitors and all this time building the confidence that you will have to play catch up to.

So, don't play catch up. Stay in the game and continue to foster the relationships that you've worked hard to establish. If social media is part of your overall communications program, stick with it through the hard times. It will serve you well in terms of generating sales and buzz within your target markets. Social media is incredibly cost effective. Once you've built the groundwork, it's all about taking the time to maintain it. And it's worth it. Businesses are hopefully continuing other thought leadership activities such as speaking engagements, webinars, tutorials, white papers, etc. Don't let these materials go to waste. The beauty of social media is that the possibilities are endless. Use the tools that make sense for your target audience - here are just a few: post customer video testimonials on YouTube, tweet the link and engage with influencers via Twitter, push out via Facebook, etc. Without a vehicle, marketing materials are meaningless. Without reaching your customers, your business is meaningless.

Tiffany Anderson is a communications professional with more than 12 years of experience in the high tech industry. She is currently an account supervisor at Sterling Communications, an innovative high-tech PR and marketing agency. When Tiffany’s not doing PR, she’s riding her motorcycle, wake boarding, snow boarding, or spending time with her parrot Rossi. She tweets at @tiffanyanderson and contributes to the Sterling blog at http://sterlingpr.typepad.com/blog/.