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Are Companies' Communications Skills Ready for Y2K

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

In the computer industry, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of articles written about what will happen when computers everywhere tick off the first minute of January 1, 2000.  Often called the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem; business, government and individual system programs were never written to handle that date.

But most industry analysts feel the disaster will be averted.  Companies and governmental agencies around the globe are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into taking corrective actions so they can function in the 21st century.

Are We Ready?

Can we say the same for a company's advertising and public relations skills, programs and activities?

Today, most firms and individuals practice very strong centralized control over their communications activities whether they use internal, external or a combination of resources.  The question we have to ask is whether or not this approach will be equal to the challenge as we enter the 21st century global marketplace.

Historically, most of a company's public relations and advertising efforts have been used to support the sales force and distribution channels.  They've been directed outwardly to generate leads and build interest among customers and prospects...the goal sell products and services.  Directly or indirectly their success has been measured by their ability to generate customers and sales.

But organizational requirements are changing.  While its not a major shift you can measure today, management is beginning to understand that it is more important to find, service and support existing customers rather than focusing so much of their emphasis on getting new customers. 

Global Business Climate

This is especially true as companies deal more on a global basis moving seamlessly across country borders.  They are finding that global customers want global service and global communications.  Increasingly, they are dealing with the entire organization, not just pieces and parts of the organization.  

The same is true in advertising and public relations.  Management wants clear, concise, global messages.  They want global programs and information dissemination, not efforts that are cobbled together according to geography, business units or divisions on a market-by-market basis.  

But will this marketing and sales support be sufficient in the new millennium?

We don't think so.  

Successful advertising and public relations individuals and organizations are developing a totally new tool and skill sets.  In a number of instances, they are actually taking the lead in defining contact points -- where and how customers and prospects want to be contacted.  They are helping management determine what means or media should be used and perhaps increasingly which customers should be pursued...and why.

Outbound, Inbound Communications

Most of our attention and efforts to date have been focused on external communications, getting the message out from the organization to the customer and prospect.  Few of us have really been concerned about the in-bound traffic from customers and prospects.  Internal communications -- making certain everyone in the organization understand the company's goals and objectives -- have generally been slotted under human resources or treated as the training ground to prepare people for the "real work" of communicating with the marketplace.

Increasingly though, management is beginning to realize that communications is one of their most important assets and one of their most effective tools in the global marketplace.  Farsighted managers are no longer simply asking for an ad to be produced/placed, a data sheet to be designed and printed, a release to be pumped out, an interview to be arranged or a press event staged to promote (sell) a product or service.

As the new century approaches management wants communications efforts, activities and programs that surround, enhance and lead individual products, brands and the organization.  They want communications efforts and activities to become the driving force for the entire organization to increase mindshare, marketshare, sales and profits.

Shifting Market Demands

This shift is relatively easy to understand if you analyze today's fast moving markets.  Notebook and desktop computers are on a 3-2-3 schedule.  Three months to design and produce, two months to get into the market and three months to flush the products out of the channel so the cycle can begin again.  Increasingly computer systems are being produced one-at-a-time based on a customer's individual specifications and requirements.  Cars that were historically redesigned and reintroduced annually are now on a six-month cycle.  Even here customers have greater freedom in individualizing their purchases.  New men's and women's clothing designs are introduced quarterly rather than twice a year.  

In every market, companies begin developing their replacement products even before the present units are available in the marketplace.
 
In this rapidly changing environment, product differentiation is becoming impossible.  With the increasing use of the Internet and Web, conventional distribution channels are being challenged as individuals and organizations move from Web site to Web site, company to company to find the exact product or solution features, availability and price they want and need.  

In this anyone, anywhere environment; organizations have to add value to their name, their products and their services.  They need to develop special one-on-one relationships with customers and prospects, whether they are across town, across the country or half way around the globe.  In this environment communications isn't simply a support activity, it's a strategic lead function.

21st Century Shift

The 21st century problem/challenge for advertising and public relations people though is how narrowly or broadly they define their efforts and activities for the company and their responsibilities to management. This doesn't mean they have to -- or should -- control and/or manage everything that goes between the organization, its customers and prospects, industry influences and decision-makers.  

However, they do have a responsibility to the firm's management and its employees to do everything possible to ensure the image and brand message is well understood and consistently communicated internally and externally.

Public relations and advertising can no longer focus strictly on what the organization sends out.  Rather they need to focus on what the customer or prospect receives.  This is a major shift because these individuals and organizations often initiate the contacts directly with employees at all levels.  They also get inputs from industry advocates, the financial community, governmental agencies, the media and other customers/prospects that share similar wants, needs and objectives.

Status Quo is Failing

Public relations and advertising are no longer simply responsible for the tactical details -- the releases, the ads, the direct mail pieces, the literature, the articles, the reviews, the event details and interview scheduling.  They must shift from only concerning themselves with inside-out planning.  They must increasingly take on the added responsibility of understanding the outside-in activities.  They have to develop recommendations and solutions for management to make certain the image and brand message goes both ways.

It's simple in concept but far-reaching in terms of the organization's success or failure.

© Copyright 1999, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.

 

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