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Communicators face those recession blues.


With all the talk about recession, you probably know that, "a recession is when your neighbor loses his job but a depression begins the day you lose yours." Or have you never been told of the eleventh commandment? You know, the one Moses left off the original list of 10 because of recessionary downsizing and the cost of stone tablets? Take note: Thou shalt not become secure in thy employment.

Whether today's job climate reflects a "rumored" or a real recession, communication professionals should never grow so comfortable behind their desks that they rule out the possibility of that unyielding corporate ax taking a sharp swing in the direction of their own offices. No business is immune to recession, but communication appears to be one of those most likely to be hit with employment cuts and downsizing. "Delayering" is one of the newest industry buzz words, but truth of the matter is, they really mean some dam good folks are going to lose their jobs.

Karen Hirtzel had been with Amfac in San Francisco for 10 years as manager of public relations when the company took some drastic financial reductions and she was laid off. That was nearly three years ago, but Hirtzel still talks of being fired with as much heartache as if jilted by an unfaithful spouse.

"It was devastating, much like breaking up with someone you've had a long-term relationship with, someone you were committed to," says Hirtzel. "I had to work through denial, shock, lethargy and a lot of anger before I could really stand on my own feet again. It was almost six weeks before I could even begin thinking of sending out resumes."

Hirtzel and her coworkers all shared a general sense of company changes even though they were not directly informed of them as they occurred. Amfac was attempting to downsize and avoid a merger, and most peripheral jobs were put on the line. "Somehow I thought that I would be there for a much longer time," recalls Hirtzel. "Being fired was traumatic, and as it turns out, public relations was not as integral a part of the company as I thought."

Hirtzel's exit package from Amfac in San Francisco included severance pay and benefits, letters of recommendation and outplacement counseling. But in the whirlwind of interviews, resume writing and industry networking, Hirtzel jumped at the first job that came along. She refers to this communication position as "transitional employment" in terms analogous to the "rebound relationships" people fall into after a painful divorce.

"You know it's not where you're supposed to be, but it's just a safe place to wait out the storm," she muses. "The healing takes some time."

Hirtzel now works as part of the sales and marketing team for PR Newswire, transmitting press releases and handling accounts for many of the same people she once worked with during her years with Amfac. This job came only after months of career assessment and examination.

"What I learned during that transitional time is exactly what I did not want to be doing for the rest of my career," explains Hirtzel. "You have to look at your job in a macro way, not just as a way of paying bills but as a way of productively and enjoyably and creatively spending your time."

Silver Lining Brings New Opportunities

Now, years later, Hirtzel has come to recognize the silver lining of a storm cloud she once thought would bring nothing more than a flood of rain. She advises fellow communicators who face similar situations to give themselves some time to identify creative aptitudes and talents before trying to hustle up another job. "Try to use losing your job as a launching pad for the rest of your career," she says. "One meaningful stage of your life might be ending, but it doesn't mean the end of your life."

After being hit with a double dose of recession-induced job changes, Diane Wilcox has decided that some time away from a nine-to-fiver, some time to regroup and to assess career direction, is exactly what she needs. A year ago, Wilcox was let go from international advertising agency Bozell after a lengthy stint as that company's PR manager.

"Naturally public relations was the first to go once things got tight for many of Bozell's clients," says Wilcox. "Executives think of PR as budget fluff, easily cut without cutting down on business."

For months afterwards, Wilcox tumbled and tossed in the great abyss of job hunting and finally ended up finding work in the same Los Angeles office complex with Somerville Associates, a travel and restaurant PR firm. It wasn't long, however, before she was also given the boot by Somerville.

That first hit was like a dry run for the second layoff, but it didn't make the Somerville split any easier," explains Wilcox, who is now taking time off to research ideas for fiction writing. "You could say I'm on temporary hiatus after that double-whammy," explains Wilcox. "The warning signs were there in both jobs, but I never acted on them partly because I never really thought I'd be out of work."

After years in communication, Wilcox fears that many more professionals will be looking through the want ads since most companies do not define public relations as "an integral part" of marketing and advertising. "Communication, I'm afraid, will fare badly as the economy reacts to recessionary cuts," she adds. "We'll continue to go first unless executives can be made to see the cost effectiveness of solid PR and marketing efforts."

Maintain Your Self-Confidence -It Pays Off

For those who've parked their briefcase behind the same corporate desk since college, Jon Hiltunen might appear to have walked through the lion's den without so much as a scratch. He's traversed through nearly a dozen job changes in the communication arena since his first assignment as a budding news reporter. Some employment changes have been through Hiltunen's own aggressive corporate climbing, others have been inflicted because of corporate financial ailments.

"Let's not exaggerate things," he says. "The recession is out there and many of us may lose our jobs, but this business is not for everyone. It's going to get tough, but the rewards will be great for those of us who can show our true value."

Since 1965, Hiltunen has worked in communication for Shell Oil Co., the New York State Petroleum Council, John Paluszek & Associates, an international paper company and US Surgical. "Why, I've held jobs on three of the comer buildings at 42nd and Lexington in downtown New York, Hiltunen quips. "Nobody ever said you had to travel very far to get a new job, but it always helps if the hiring company thinks you'd be willing to go anywhere for that job."

Hiltunen has also tried his hand at independent ownership and started his own PR company before being wooed back into the corporate world. He missed the cross-pollinization of ideas that can only occur in a corporate environment, sharing ideas with other communicators and with those not in the field. Today he's hung his sign outside the Dictaphone Corp. as manager of media relations, but says he's not closed the door on future employment shifts.

"Communicators have to learn to put a value on what they do if they're going to survive," he warns. "You've got to know what you're talking about when you walk into any sort of discussion with management. My advice is to find ways of adequately communicating your own worth."

Hiltunen argues that communication should be treated no differently than any other facet of business, and that industry professionals must find ways to quantify and qualify their jobs, ways to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts. He suggests keeping a file on every story placed with records of any positive results or direct sales. Readership surveys can also prove value and qualify communication campaigns.

"This recession really poses the ultimate challenge for us all, but we'll stay in the business if we rise to the occasion," Hiltunen says.

"Communicators, now is the time to market thyselves."

George McGrath feels that when he made his recent job change, it not only offered a career advance, it also allowed him an opportunity to broaden his communication experience. McGrath, who was formerly with Hill and Knowlton, joined its sister firm, Carl Byoir & Associates, Inc. in December.

Although he looks at his change in work environments as a positive move, he empathizes with peers who are struggling. He adds, "I think that the key to surviving in the 90s is to have a wide range of communication experience so you can sell yourself into a comparable range in another area. The days of limiting yourself to one area of expertise is long gone. job security is basically inside the walls of your own mind-the bankable knowledge that is worth something to a range of employers. Now is the time to take advantage of opportunities to expand your professional development.

"I'm in touch with quite a few people who are having to take the whole communication experience and start off in a new direction because they are simply unable to find other avenues", McGrath comments. "The Wall Street Journal classifieds and head hunting only take you so far. The real way to look for work is by networking, networking and more networking."

Marie Raperto, now an executive communication recruiter with The Cantor Concern, is proof of the networking adage. She met her current employer at a Christmas party and talked of her desire to become more involved with marketing and recruiting.

"My reputation in the community and my networking at a holiday gathering really got me this job," says Raperto, past president of New York /IABC. "Now I'm advising clients about how to network, how to use their contacts, how to custom fit resumes and fine tune their career directions."

She admits that the toughest time to look for a i ob is after you've just been fired and encourages her peers to he ready before the curtain falls. "Confidentiality is vital to your job search if you are still employed but see the tides starting to turn," she adds. "But when you still have a job is also the very best time to look, to get your name out and to extend your network of contacts."

The State Bank of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia is currently in a state of "potential merger" with another major Aussie bank. Susan Roberts, chief manager of communication with Victoria, describes the situation as "highly political" since pending legislation must be created and approved before the merger can occur.

"Perhaps if you call me in another year, I'll have a sob story to tell you," she jokes. "But at this point in time, we are working in a state of limbo, with the future unknown."

Roberts says that although her three-year position with the bank is not assured beyond any possible merger, she has difficulty imagining that she would be removed from her job.

"We are proceeding as if no job changes will be made, but of course we don't know for sure," she explains. "It's a bit stressful to work without any long-term direction but I guess I'm not able to think of working anywhere else."

David Jensen, ABC, now with public relations at Boeing in Seattle, Wash., took a more protectionist approach to his career once he saw the corporate threads begin to unravel. His previous employer, a Silicon Valley electronics finn, had barely survived a leveraged buyout and was showing signs of further expense slashing.

"The writing was on the wall and I left not wanting to go down with the ship, but it was extremely difficult," recalls Jensen, who had not been out pounding the pavement for a new job in 20 years. As part of management, he had terminated employment for many of his coworkers before finally deciding the work environment had deteriorated beyond repair.

"The first thing I did was get out my IABC directory and network like crazy," says Jensen. "Ultimately that's what opened the door to my job at Boeing. Even with glowing credentials, it took nine months of searching before I found something that met all my parameters and was the kind of challenge I could welcome as a career change."

Jensen encourages communicators to leave no stone unturned; to be as comprehensive as possible in networking sweeps; to send only impeccable cover letters; to consistently follow up on all contacts; and as a final word of wisdom from one who's been there, don't be discouraged.

Just because something ends doesn't mean that something even better hasn't already started to happen. You've got to believe in yourself."

When Lee Hornick decided not to relocate after J.C. Penney moved its corporate headquarters to Dallas three years ago, he did a lot of believing in himself. He was able to leverage his own communication experience with past clients and convince a major printing and a New York graphics company to work in unison, then launched his own innovative joint venture company, The Corporate Edge.

"As long as you have the skills and the confidence, you can pull it off," Homick says of his highly successful endeavor. "There's a real need for good consultants in this area, for quality people who know what they're doing. Companies are going to smaller communication shops because the bigger PR firms are just too expensive."

The Corporate Edge uses a number of free-lance writers and marketing consultants. Homick employs only four full-time consultants, but the startup organization technically has nearly 250 employees working for any given client.

"Basically I took my severance pay and invested it in myself and in this company of mine," adds Hornick. The first year was a tough challenge, just getting people to believe in the quality of your work. But once you have testimonial letters from satisfied customers, those presentations become easier. It's been a terrific experience."

Ian Hawkins, another media relations entrepreneur, first began Hawk Communications in Essex, UK 10 years ago after spending six months laying the groundwork with potential clients. He describes the work shift as having swapped an eight-hours-a-day job for a lifetime, `round-the-clock career.

When you go solo, it dominates your life much more than when you work for someone else. It can take you over if you're not disciplined," says Hawkins. He emphasizes the importance of working out realistic financial projections, a business and a marketing plan before taking the plunge.

"Some people need the big corporation and an office full of people to spark creative ideas," Hawkins adds. "Others need the independence even more, and they have the determination to make it on their own."

Hawkins says his conversion to working for himself wasn't an "on the road to Damascus" experience, but that a realistic look at his own future drew him to certain conclusions. He continues to network and canvass IABC connections as part of daily business procedure.

Either way, whether as part of the corporate scene or out on your own, the recession blues can still have an effect on your job. For an independent, losing a contract with one of those bread-and-butter clients can mean a mortal blow for your business. The choice is clear-it's about going under or going on, but the horizon does look a little brighter with the support of a network of professionals who've been there before.

Anne Marte Taylor is a free-lance writer in Walnut Creek, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Taylor, Anne marie
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:VNRs go abroad (sometimes).
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