In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks, there was a disheartening theme running through many of the conversations between public relations professionals. Some felt the profession had become less vital—trivial even—in the wake of such massive human tragedy. Others felt the media would be unreceptive to press releases and pitches on subjects unrelated to the disaster, closing their columns to “mundane” business news and focusing exclusively on America’s “New War.”
But the pessimists are wrong.
In the weeks and months ahead, public relations people will have an important role to play in the recovery of this nation and in the revitalization of its economy. Whether the industry rises to that challenge will tell us how far we have come as a profession, and how far we can go.
The vital role of corporate communications in the recovery is already apparent, in the demand for public relations volunteers at non-profit groups assisting in the relief effort and in the role of employee communications specialists in reassuring workers at companies impacted by the attacks both directly and indirectly. But for most PR people, their contribution will be less glamorous—perhaps less obvious—but no less important.
A prolonged war on global terrorism cannot be won unless the nation’s economy is restored to full strength quickly, and the nation’s economy cannot be restored to full strength without the confidence of the American public: employees, investors, consumers, communities. The role of public relations is to rebuild that confidence, both explicitly through communications programs designed to underscore the contributions corporations are making to the recovery (including the incredible outpouring of philanthropic support in the wake of the disaster) and implicitly, by getting back to the reassuring routine of commerce: trade shows and new product introductions and earnings announcements.
As stories in this issue indicate, those PR people who have started to get back into the routine of media relations have found most reporters receptive—as long as the pitch is sensitive to the situation. Some have even found their relationships with reporters strengthened by this shared experience. That’s why the counsel of industry experts like Dean Rotbart must be ignored.
“Whatever your public relations plans were for the next six months to a year, you can basically forget them,” said Rotbart, editor of The Journalist and Financial Reporter, in a column that was widely circulated last week. “This past week all the business journalists I know became war correspondents and every corporate public relations department in the country sustained severe collateral damage.”
In his column, published online, Rotbart warned, “The magnitude of the terrorist stories and the proximity of events to the heart of the financial news establishment, means journalists and news organizations will be preoccupied for months and perhaps years to come.” He talked about one reporter who was “near enough to the twin towers when they collapsed that [his] world literally went black for an eternity of minutes” and asked, “Do you believe that any future business news story, such as the recently announced merger between Hewlett Packard and Compaq, will really get Ron’s pulse racing in the same manner it had previously?”
That question was answered resoundingly last week, when The Wall Street Journal ran a story on Monday morning again questioning the merits of the deal. The story resulted from a speech by H-P chief executive Carly Fiorina, delivered via satellite to computer industry analysts at a conference in Monte Carlo, but it wasn’t pitched by anyone at H-P or Compaq. It was the result of a reporter wanting to get back to the beat he covered.
Rotbart asks, “What about the far more mundane earnings forecasts, product introductions and economic projections that make up the bulk of a business journalist’s regular diet?”
Without personalizing the issue (I don’t know the journalist Rotbart mentions personally), it seems to me that business reporters are anxious to get back to business. I know I am, and I suspect Rotbart is too, since less than a week after the tragedy he wrote this column, dealing with the relatively mundane topic of how public relations people should deal with the media at a time like this.
Most business journalists, I suspect, understand the importance role that American business will play in the struggle ahead. They understand the importance of restoring investor confidence, employee confidence, and customer confidence. And they understand the important part they, as reporters, must play in that process.
The merger of H-P and Compaq may not be a glamorous story, compared to stories being filed by those on the front lines of the war against terrorism, but it is still an important story—it may even be a more important story today than it was before last Tuesday, because the very fact that it is being told indicates that the American economy continues to function.
Earnings forecasts and new product introductions and economic projections may not touch our hearts the way the stories of grieving families or lost relatives do, but they are none the less important for that. Free enterprise is as much a part of the fabric of American life as baseball, which properly resumed last week, and the normal functioning of the markets—with all their earnings estimates and new product introductions and economic projections—is a signal that we have not been defeated or cowed by these terrible attacks.
One of the ways we fight back against terror is by refusing to be terrorized, by demonstrating in a million little ways that the things that were important to us before last Tuesday are still important today. Reporters understand that. If you don’t believe that, pick up The Wall Street Journal a week after the attacks and read German utility RWE’s unsolicited bid to buy American Water Works or Oracle warning of weakness in its corporate software business.
Investors had a right to know these things before the disaster, and they have the same right to know these things today. Business reporters have the same responsibility to bring them the information they need. And public relations people have the same mission too: to use communication to build strong, mutually supportive relationships between American corporations and the stakeholder groups upon whom they depend—now more than ever—for their continued success.