When Sustainability and Cost-Cutting Collide

9 years, 7 months ago

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Sustainability has become a mantra for many organisations, but with few corporations immune to the impact of the difficult global economy, are some of the tenets of sustainability being forsaken amid the pressure to cut costs? Christoph Schwartz considers



Sustainability is the new credo of many enterprises. It not only engrosses corporations, but the entire PR agency sector.

Companies that claim to have sustainable programs in place cite a range of key initiatives such as social programs, environmental programs, product development programs, biodiversity, corporate governance, community engagement or corporate citizenship.

Emphasis is increasingly being placed on sustainability. Sustainability has become a paradigm shift fundamentally changing the way companies are viewed from outside. While the notion of ‘sustainability’ may have become all the rage, is it also changing the way companies are internally managed?

We don’t think it has. How can sustainable corporate management reconcile with diminished customer services moved to the anonymous world of the Internet? Is sustainability consistent with increasingly restrictive purchasing policies? Can sustainability function when many suppliers work on the brink of bankruptcy with price pressure forcing them to deliver faulty systems? Is there anything sustainable about service providers having to save on well trained staff to survive the ruinous consequences of predatory pricing?

PR takes a hit

This trend is spilling over into the PR agency sector. We have already seen how a ‘generation internship’ has been turned into a media issue; and how budget reductions make it all but impossible to bill the hourly rates of experienced staff. The result is that young, inexpensive and inexperienced employees are forced to take on responsibilities they are not up to.

This is hardly improving the quality of agency work, though we agencies have the task of communicating sustainability as a quality and the positioning of our clients. Against this background we still have to work sustainably in order to retain our credibility. While responsible agency management should encourage cost awareness and efficiency, we also know that a fast and cheap approach alone will not be sustainable in the long run.

Though we find ourselves in times of budget cuts and reduced resources as communication agencies we have to act sustainably. This, in the interest of our clients and to be able to function as a constructive part of our clients’ sustainability chains!

We need well trained, creative staff with experience and competence. We need the right mixture of Senior Consultants supported by junior staff members who are increasingly entrusted with greater responsibility. But even more importantly than that, we need to be able to strengthen the bonding between senior management and our staff, offer them a perspective, and steer their development as tomorrow’s consultants.

The changing age pyramid alone will make it hard enough for us to recruit agency-worthy young blood. We’ll be competing for graduates positioned to decide between strategic corporate consulting and communication agencies – similarly demanding occupations but with massively different pay structures.

Losing touch

A second aspect of sustainable working is to be found in the area of agency management. Too many agencies have lost touch with traditional values such as diligence, meticulousness and precision. Possibly precisely because some clients fail to grant their agencies the time (and budget) for such a work approach, but exactly the mind-set needed as the basis for sustainable working.

Greater diligence must be the name of the game because, if the foundations on which we base our work are no longer dependable, how ever will we be able to provide quality work, fundamentally and sustainably over the long term? Admittedly it’s also many clients’ lack of knowledge that prevents them from recognising the broad quality spectrum in agencies’ working practices. If junior employees at the customer’s end are to manage an agency, how on earth can sustainability be promoted and monitored, even demanded?

Regardless of the angle from which the present situation is viewed: Diminishing budgets mean that PR services may have lost out in companies’ esteem – either due to a shift towards social media, to more marketing- and online services, or simply due to them being struck without replacement. The coming months will show whether the cause lies only in overall budget reductions and is thus attributable to the global economic crisis, or whether we agencies will generally have to sell ourselves more sustainably.

That would then not only include stopping further price declines but also improving the integration of social media into public relations. It’s no longer about simply offering social media in addition to PR, but recognising and offering social media as an integrated part of public relations work and using its tools within public relations.

Who is better positioned to do this than us public relations agencies? It is we who understand our customers, who develop our customers’ messages and who ultimately communicate the content. Maybe it is, after all, the social media which – despite their fast pace – serve as a catalyser for the sustainability of communication for our clients because, as we all know: the web never forgets.


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The Author

Christoph Schwartz

Christoph Schwartz is Managing Director and founder of Schwartz Public Relations in Munich/Germany and member of the Development Board of the international PR network Eurocom Worldwide.

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