It’s been a lousy couple of weeks for everyone including
folks in Marketing, particularly PR and Communications folks.
Investors are freaking out and employees are anxious and distracted.
Perky press releases about your wiz-bang new product just aren’t
getting anyone’s attention right now.  Go figure.

I’ve read a lot about what companies should be doing in a down economy.  A lot of articles focus on the obvious – cutting costs and increasing revenue.  Jason Calacanis says startups need to focus on execution, talent and customers (plus some other stuff).

I was reading a post by Tom Peters called “Leading Yourself in Really Weird Times” which focused a lot on communication.  Tom’s complete list of 44 Tactical Rules for Survival (and Success) in Loony times is the longer version and a great read.

Reading
Tom’s posts got me thinking that Marketing professionals have a real
opportunity right now to build trust with their customers by
over-communicating with them and being truthful in that communication.  In the middle of so much
uncertainty, your customers need to know what the real state of your
business is, how you are handling the economic downturn and what that
means for them.  Proving to them that you can take care of them when
things are bad will inspire an amazing amount of confidence both now
and when the crisis is over.

Investors and employees need to
trust what marketing has to say as well.  In hard economic times people
are looking for information.  If there isn’t any coming directly from
the company, or if they just plain don’t believe what’s coming from the
company, then rumors will take on an added significance.

Take for example the incident involving a rumor about Steve Jobs’ health last week.  It started with a post on CNN’s iReport (a site where anyone can post a “news” item, the post has since been removed) that contained the following:

“Steve
Jobs was rushed to the ER just a few hours ago after suffering a major
heart attack. I have an insider who tells me that paramedics were
called after Steve claimed to be suffering from severe chest pains and
shortness of breath. My source has opted to remain anonymous, but he is
quite reliable. I haven’t seen anything about this anywhere else yet,
and as of right now, I have no further information, so I thought this
would be a good place to start. If anyone else has more information,
please share it.”

This, as you might imagine got a few
folks rather excited.  Within minutes folks were Digging the story and
the news was spreading around Twitter faster than a Sarah Palin joke.
Silicon Alley Insider got in on it a few minutes later and posted a
story about the rumor (while waiting for a call back from Apple PR) and
then everyone was linking to that.  In the 25 minutes it took Apple’s
PR group to respond to the call, the Apple stock started to take a hit.  Apple responded by stating that Jobs was fine and everyone should just get back to work.

Wow.
That’s a lot of action based on one crummy little rumor.  A lot has
been written about whether or not SAI should have posted the link to
the story

and whether or not Twitter is evil because it gives a way to
spread these sorts of rumors very quickly.  That’s kind of like
blaming the messenger in my opinion.  The real story here is that the
world does not trust Apple to be honest about Steve Jobs’ health.
Why?  Because they were not completely honest about it in the past.
When Jobs underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, employees
and shareholders weren’t told about it until after the operation and a
full 9 months after he was diagnosed.

Say
what you like about the positives (such as building up hype before a
product release) and negatives of what the New York Times called Apple’s “culture of secrecy”, and whether or not that is gradually softening,
nobody
could argue that it has cost them in terms of investor trust.
Particularly right now when times are stressful, nobody believes a
thing Apple has to say about Jobs’ health and that’s how a simple
posting on a web site can drive a frenzy of Twittering and stock
selling.  If we trusted Apple’s communications then we would have
immediately questioned the report.

The
moral of the story is that now is not the time to hide your bad news.
While we are in the middle of this loony time, marketing needs to focus
on communicating often and truthfully.