In this tough economic climate, the need for public relations is as strong, if not stronger, than ever. Despite chatter about circumstances improving, organizations are still facing layoffs and cutbacks, plummeting stock prices, negative press coverage and lower levels of consumer confidence. Organizations are looking for ways to save money and protect themselves by downsizing or eliminating PR because they see it as a discretionary expense not contributing to profit margins. However, failing to devote funds to public relations is a shortsighted and self-destructive move that will hurt an organization’s bottom line and its reputation.  

Some argue that spending on public relations is an unnecessary expense. They insist that the money spent on public relations could be better spent on other facets of the organization. For example, see “The Down Sides” section of this ReadWriteWeb post. Skeptics who fail to recognize the value of public relations often have misperceptions about what PR is and what it does. Since a lot of PR work does not or cannot stand alone in a noticeable way, people tend to think it must not be very important. Most who deny the importance of public relations don't usually understand PR's role:to successfully communicate with influencers and strategically position an organization (their client or client's partner) in the best possible light. PR tactics are not meant to steal the spotlight. Mere visibility is not a measure of PR success. Much of the most effective public relations work is nearly imperceptible to the public because PR functions are seamlessly integrated into the inner workings of the organization(s) they represent. 

Proactive communication and public relations can prevent, if not mitigate a damaged public image and propel the organization toward its goals. In a way, a public relations strategy resembles that of an insurance policy. Investing in PR can help organizations promote themselves while also taking preventative measures to thwart a potential crisis. So, if disaster does strike, a public relations team will be the first responders on hand to mitigate the situation and do damage control. With an insurance policy, if someone does not have coverage and has a heart attack, when their heart stops, it’s too late to take out a policy. Even if an organization may not think there's a serious need for PR services at present and they're operating without an effective plan in place, when a major issue arises that detracts from their reputation, there’s no insurance policy to protect it. Without public relations teams getting ahead of the story, the public and media are left to their own devices to make sense of the situation, often to the detriment of the organization involved. Despite popular belief, PR is not just about photo ops and grabbing headlines, but is built on engaging and educating the media and the public, by providing them with correct information in a tactful way.

A classic incident that always comes to mind is when the auto executives took private jets to Washington D.C. to ask for government bailout money. This sort of mishap is an indication of what can happen without proper public relations guidance. Two weeks later, auto executives carpooled to Washington in their own company's fuel-efficient cars (see photo), but imagine how the hearings would have played out if they did so from the start. It could have been a completely different outcome.

We cannot change what has already happened, so organizations would be wise to remember that the best offense is a good defense i.e. using public relations proactively to avert an impending crisis and formulate response plans before they are needed. If a crisis cannot be prevented, at least a swift PR response can minimize potential risks and damages to an organization’s assets and reputation, while preserving its mission.

– Contributed by Anne Norris. Follow her @anne_norris