Staying Up during a Downturn: While the Global Economic Crisis Brings New Challenges, It Also Creates Opportunities for Strategic Communication with Stakeholders Inside and outside the Company

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When news of a global financial crisis hit in late 2008, communicators worldwide wondered what they should be doing to help their organizations survive a downturn--not to mention save their own jobs. CW Executive Editor i Natasha Nicholson consulted with Russell Grossman, director of communication at the U.K. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, about the effects of the crisis on the communication profession, and how communicators can advise leaders, keep employees engaged and show their own worth, regardless of the downturn's outcome.

Natasha Nicholson: What is your role in your organization?

Russell Grossman: I'm director of communications at the U.K. Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We're the central U.K. government department responsible for the economy and for maximizing U.K. business success, both at home and abroad. My role, and that of my team, is to explain how the U.K. government is handling the economic crisis and to keep our many stakeholders informed of developments, plus ensure balanced and accurate media reporting of it all. It's also important we don't just understand the theoretical way the economy is affected by a downturn, but what actually happens in the real world.

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NN: What do you think the effect of the economic crisis will be on business in Europe and the Middle East?

RG: I don't think that Europe and the Middle East will be affected that much differently than other parts of the globe. The defining feature of the current downturn--which is likely to formally become a recession, that is, with two consecutive quarters of negative growth--is that it's global. On one level, it means that everyone is in this together. And it means that solutions will best be achieved by countries working together, such as the meeting in Washington, D.C., in November that brought together the leaders of the world's 20 most important economies for urgent discussions.

NN: How do you think communicators will be affected?

RG: There will clearly be (and already is) pressure on budgets. Some firms will incorrectly see communication as the organizational fat to trim, while others will remember the disastrous consequences of doing that in the last recession [in the U.K.] more than 15 years ago. Firms that did so were ill prepared when they needed to power up again. The firms that didn't lay off all their communicators had the clear advantage after the economy improved.

To some extent, though, how practitioners will be affected depends on how we react. Communication as a profession--acting as counsel and consort, and often as the conscience of management--has come a long way since the last recession.

It sounds really cliched, but this is an opportunity for practitioners to prove what they can achieve in a downturn: how they will help squeeze the last ounce of competitive advantage for a company and maintain external reputation and staff pride.

NN: How can communicators best serve their companies and demonstrate their value during a downturn?

RG: First, really understand your firm, its business and, critically, how that business is likely to be affected. All economic downturns are different. I've learned that the "experts" are often no better able than anyone else to predict how anyone or anything will be affected, although they can provide a lot of useful analysis afterwards. No one knows for certain what the future holds. If you'd said six months ago, for example, that Britain's banks would be partially nationalized, or that firms like Lehman Brothers would go under, few would have believed you. So informed practitioners at the board level who learn to recognize the economic trends outside their company and the potential effects for its sector can provide great value.

Second, recognize that uncertainty presents a particular challenge. Often, we rely on a fount of "certain" information from which to translate, reassure or defensively brief against. …