Times are hard. It appears that the people running our financial systems lost control. And whilst the pundits argue the difference between high finance and the so-called "real economy", your investors, your shareholders, will be demanding to know how your board is going to respond to scenarios including zero revenue growth and revenue decline in 2009.

When the going gets tough, the tough get communicating.

Here's a few thoughts regarding the criticality of public relations in recessionary periods.

Firstly, the paragraph above points out that your stakeholders will want to know what you're planning and how you're doing against that plan, so attenuating your organisation's ability to both listen and respond isn't going to help any.

During the down times you may need to call on the goodwill you've accrued over the good times. In which case, how wise is it to retreat from the public forum? You could think of it in terms of a marriage; when the relationship is under strain which marriage counsellor would advise listening and talking to each other less?!

You might have noticed the likes of business authors, designers, architects and engineers resorting to biological metaphors to convey ideas and concepts, and even borrowing directly from nature’s designs. So-called biomimetics or biomimicry. As an engineer and marketer, I love looking to nature for clues simply on the basis that biological processes have been honed over a slightly longer duration than anything man made. And this approach is salient, I believe, to our getting our heads round an organisation’s response to tough times. How does the organism survive exposure to a tough environment?

So those business authors refer to “trimming the fat”. In his book Business @ The Speed of Thought, Bill Gates refers extensively to the organisational IT infrastructure as the digital nervous system, analogous to the biological autonomic nervous system. And we’re all familiar with the parallels drawn between capitalism and Darwinian survival of the fittest; indeed it informs the very vocabulary we use to discuss free markets.

I have introduced this way of looking at things for one reason, and that is to make the assertion that an organisation’s marketing communications is muscle and not fat. Now, that’s not to say it’s the most toned, most athletic muscle, but it isn’t something you can trim in the sense of eliminating fat. It is something to “work out”, to exercise more vigorously in hard times.

The biological metaphors keep coming. The so-called “fight or flight response” is the biological response of animals to acute stress. Needless to say, your muscular condition will play its part in determining whether you win the fight or keep yourself out of trouble.

So my advice is to re-examine how your marketing communications budget is deployed, but cutting it is folly. I helped take an underperforming production facility from being one of my past employer’s worst performing to winning Management Today magazine’s Best Process Factory in just two years. How? Well one of the most useful approaches I introduced was to classify everything in one of three ways:

  1. Value-adding: contributes beneficially and directly to the achievement of your business objectives – cutting investment here is counter-productive, but you should work out how to make every pound add even more value
  2. Maintenance: this is investment in your ability to keep the value-adding activity in tip-top condition – in our biological language, this is exercising and eating well
  3. Non-value-adding: this stuff has no direct contribution to make to the achievement of your business objectives or your ability to do so. Cut it out completely.

Being muscle, not fat, places marketing communications in the first category. It is value-adding. If you disagree, it will be because your marketing communications is not in shape and so you’ve started to think of it as fat not unconditioned muscle, and/or you haven’t assigned every single cost in your business to one of the categories above.

Your PR investment is a measure of how much you value stakeholders, not a measure of your share price or investor sentiment, as the former ultimately informs the latter.

You might want to catch my post next week then where I discuss some of the ways to get your marketing communications to the gym.