Reputation Management and the Business Environment in Lebanon

Having experienced one of the worst economic downturns Lebanon has ever faced in its modern history, I was able to observe the various tactics that firms and businesses resort to in order to survive such a situation and stay afloat.

A number of businesses closed down, while other long-standing industries were on the brink of bankruptcy, with what that entails in terms of laying off workers and worse yet, defaulting on their payments.
Amidst the entire chaotic business environment, only a limited number of senior management and decision-makers chose to utilize the power of public relations in order to create awareness and strengthen the profile of their organizations and products among their target audiences.

As a public relations practitioner, I believe the decision taken by various corporate communications executives to resort to public relations is probably one of the best decisions they have ever made under such circumstances. The power of public relations can effectively identify any organization’s stated goals and objectives and implement a customized program that addresses those needs in a timely and pro-active manner.

There is no law in business that penalizes a company for implementing restructuring plans (in layman’s terms – sack) a number of employees due to budgetary constraints, but where the unwritten law is strikingly clear, is when financial troubles spill over to where it significantly affects the growth and reputation of the organization and its products.

Unfortunately in Lebanon, the economic conditions have created a panic in the ways and means of surviving a crisis situation of this magnitude. Many corporations have been driven primarily to maintain the flow of their products or services into the market. However, what they neglect to focus on is the communications strategy that will aid their sales and marketing force to generate interest among the public for their brand verses the competition.

This is where public relations plays a major and primary role. Corporations in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region need to stop thinking of public relations as a luxury – aimed at creating stars out of corporate executives! – but rather as a necessity that can impact positively on the image and reputation of the corporation and its products or services.

It is not unusual to come across corporate executives who favor advertising as a marketing tool as opposed to public relations. However, it is also common to find decision-makers opting for neither, preferring to rely solely on their sales team and the strength of the brand name. This kind of old-style management is precisely the one being affected financially with every arising economic instability in the market.

Lack of planning and forward thinking are forcing corporations to cut down their workforce – especially their sales team – in order to survive, thus leaving the brand name with no support.

Unfortunately there are many case studies in Lebanon that characterize the latter example. However, one case that comes to mind is about a major manufacturing company with an image problem and weak product lines. The focus of its new management centered only on its internal restructuring plans, while neglecting the essential need to strengthen its corporate reputation and raise the profile of its products among the target consumers. Shortage in operating funds led the company to steer away from an effective public relations strategy plan and opt instead to keeping a low profile in the market.

It is clear that this company has made a difficult decision. However more importantly, the choice taken was based on a perceived short-term solution. Public relations, in this case, should have been a long-term strategy that would have created press interest in the restructuring efforts and the new direction of the management team. Aside from that, public relations tactics were guaranteed to better highlight the company’s products in the press and among the target groups – thus instilling confidence in the new direction of the company.

It is unfortunate that public relations practitioners do not possess a magic wand in order to make corporate executives adopt the tactics of the fastest growing discipline in the communications industry. What some corporations fail to realize is that professional public relations agencies focus on providing a remedy and finding a cure for any situation. They work with the client’s interest as a top priority.

While it is not always a sound business decision to take on an ailing account with below minimum fees, it is however the case – with some professional agencies – that challenging accounts possess a special interest for them. It is easy to manage a leading company’s account, where the public relations program can focus on maintaining the client’s lead in the market, however, it is intriguing to manage a problem-ridden account and be a part of its revival and success story.

Overall, the power of public relations can positively assist ailing and prosperous organizations alike in Lebanon and the region, to take a leading role in the market. It is not repetitive to keep mentioning that public relations is now a perceivable discipline that can be applied in many cases and at different levels.