What will happen to internal comms in a recession?

What might happen during an economic downturn and what you can do to keep your job.


What might happen during an economic downturn and what you can do to keep your job

Anxiety is setting in among some internal communicators, and fears of recession have veteran recruiter Jean Cardwell’s phone ringing.

“People are anxious,” Cardwell told Ragan.com. “They are asking me to keep an eye on other options for them.”

The problem is, there aren’t many other options. While companies have, so far, refrained from firing internal communication staff, there are few actively hiring internal communicators, recruiters in Chicago reported.

The United States may not technically be in a recession (defined as two successive quarters of negative economic growth), but worries are spreading that last year’s clamoring of “if there is a recession” has become “when the recession starts.”

Make yourself recession-proof

Three important tips from 25-year communication veteran and Chicago-based executive recruiter Jean Cardwell

1. Get political. This is the time to have a few conversations with company brass so, if the ax does fall you can avoid it. “Don’t assume you are beyond office politics because you are in the communications department,” Cardwell advises. Get in there and mix it up.

2. Be a communications superstar. Become a communications utility player: prepare yourself to write speeches, communicate to employees and contribute to meetings. Say to your superiors, “How can I be of use here?”

3. Don’t whine. If you’re seen as a complainer, you might be one of the first ones out the door. And definitely don’t carry a sense of entitlement—that too will send you packing.

A recession could prove detrimental to communicators, said James Pedderson, director of public relations at Challenger, Gray and Christmas, an outplacement firm that tracks and reports on job-cut announcements monthly.

“Communications efforts … are among the first areas targeted for cuts when companies retrench,” he told Ragan.com. “In the 2001 recession, media and professional services (where many communications jobs are found) were hammered.”

In case of an economic downturn, what can you do to keep your job and maybe—as some communicators we talked to suggest—use this downturn to prove just how valuable internal communication is for an organization?

When the going gets tough …

Robert Holland, a veteran internal communicator, experienced several recessions and witnessed three downsizings while working with AT&T and Lucent Technologies. Holland managed to keep his job through those downsizings, but insisted “it was no picnic.”

“I saw a lot of people lose their jobs in past recessions and it wasn’t pretty,” he said. “A lot of these people left the company not knowing what they were going to do.”

Although Pedderson couldn’t provide exact figures for the number of communication professionals laid off in 2001, he described deep cuts among people in the profession. Edelman fired 100 people; Temerlin Consulting lost 200 and more than 3,500 employees of Interpublic Group lost their jobs.

Despite this grim talk of layoffs, many in the communication world believe a downturn provides communicators with an opportunity to prove their value within an organization.

“Communicators prove their worth during bad times; whether that’s a recession or some particular crisis—that’s where communicators earn their money.” said president of Ragan Consulting Jim Ylisela. “Anyone can communicate good news, but when the news is bad that’s what separates the great communication from fear.”

A recession is all about fear, so answering employees’ questions and counseling executives are crucial roles for communicators, Ylisela said.

“In the absence of good, accurate information people will always conclude the worst,” he explained. “No one is sitting around during a recession—not hearing from their leaders—thinking, ‘There must be a bonus in here for me.’”

Employees who don’t hear from company brass assume they will soon be fired. Communications plays a vital role in squashing this anxiety and helping guide their company through a recession.

“One of the most important things internal communication does is build relationships between business leaders and workers,” Holland said. “There’s no better time than when that relationship is most strained to show what we can bring to the table.”

Measure, measure, measure

Internal communication practitioners we talked to all agreed measurement is a key component of proving your worth during a recession. And something is better than nothing in terms of measurement.

Even if your company can’t perform a full-blown communication audit, Holland recommends doing something to demonstrate the business worth of your department.

“Show that there was this business problem, which you address with communication and here was the result,” explained Holland, who’s now president of his own consulting firm, Holland Communication Solutions, and author of the Prove Your Worth manual on measurement.

Most importantly, Holland continued, communicators must think like business people during a recession. “This is the time to show business savvy,” he said. “Don’t just think like tacticians—like tactical communicators—think like business people and focus on how you can prove the value of your position.”

The smart companies will keep you around

Last time the U.S. experienced a recession, companies fired anyone who didn’t directly contribute to the bottom line, said Lynn Hazan, of Lynn Hazan and Associates in Chicago, an executive recruiting and consulting firm.

“They didn’t need to keep—in their opinion—employees involved, motivated, inspired and up-to-date on what’s going on in the company, they just chopped heads and a lot of internal people were out on the street,” Hazan recalled. “Communications and marketing people were seen as expenses.”

After the economy recovered from the 2001 recession, companies began hiring again. Hazan said that in 2004 and 2005 companies started actively seeking internal communicators with three to seven years of experience. But these companies axed internal communicators before many of them could accumulate that experience. This ironic twist sent Hazan and her peers scrambling to fill positions.

If companies learned from their mistakes in 2001, it could mean fewer layoffs for internal communicators.

“Have companies gotten smarter?” Hazen said. “Are they now saying if we can weather the storm together and keep everyone working then once the market recovers we’ll be in a better competitive position six months or two years down the road?”

That doesn’t mean job seekers should abandon hope. Hazan noted that niche employers are continuing to hire, while Cardwell said she just received a call to fill a vice president of communication position.

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