My Recession Wake-Up Call: It's Time to Change, or Die

Last Updated Jan 24, 2011 6:44 PM EST

By Dian Griesel, CEO, Investor Relations Group, New York, N.Y.
Until several years ago, my investor and public relations marketing company, IRG, took a traditional approach to marketing, relying heavily on press releases, phone calls and snail mail. But my younger employees urged me to branch out into new media. While I didn't want to give up our old-school marketing techniques, I knew that without adding new media to the mix we were going to fall behind the competition.

So we decided to build a new website, hire and train social media staff, and build a fully equipped film studio. The total investment would be $500,000.

In 2007, just as we were getting started with our new media initiatives, the economy tanked. Our revenue dropped 80% -- from $6 million to $1.8 million. We laid off eight employees out of 30, and didn't have a lot of spare cash. But at that point it was change or die, so we went ahead with the investment. I didn't know much about new media, and the learning curve was steep, but in the end it paid off.

Make it personal
We made at least one crucial mistake when I decided to bring my PR firm into the 21st century: We outsourced the development of our new website. It turned out to be a terrible idea. The result was professional, but generic. It failed to give a sense of who we are. So we cut our losses, scrapped the whole project, and recreated the website ourselves. It cost us an additional $25,000, but we were now in complete control of our message.

Considering our website debacle, I knew I wanted our approach to social media to be personal -- we couldn't outsource the task of connecting with our customers to a third party. So we decided to set up company Twitter accounts for our employees. They have their own followers and create the content for their tweets on behalf of the company. We use social media as a way to generate genuine human-to-human connection. For example, I often like to start the day by tweeting a motivational message, or sharing a piece of business advice.

The basic ground rule about communicating via social media is to always keep it positive. No one wants to hear about your crummy day. As long as employees stick to that idea, I don't think they can do too much damage. At first it was stressful knowing that my employees were sending uncensored tweets to our clients and potential clients. But in the end, I was glad that the job of shaping my company's message was in the hands of my employees -- whom I trust -- rather than in the hands of faceless strangers.

Share, share, share
The more you give away, the more people think you have to offer. The worst thing a company can do is to guard all of its trade secrets. After I published my book "The 101 Platinum Plus Rules of Engagement," my competitors all told me I was a fool to give up that much hard-earned wisdom in one book. But the publishing of the book coincided with a $1 million boost in revenue. I believe the two were definitely connected.

This rule applies to Web content as well. The vast majority of what we film in our studio, we give away as free content on our website. We have posted more than 20 interviews with leaders in the corporate and financial industries. Some of those videos cost us $30,000 to produce and film and many of them contain priceless pieces of advice. So why give them away?

All this free content helps us in two ways. It not only lands us new customers, but it shows current clients that we are capable of handling not only their traditional PR needs, but their social and new media campaigns as well. Over the past year we've increased the amount of work we do for most of our existing clients by working to develop new media campaigns for them.

We're back on track
It wasn't just investing in new media that saved our company -- it's the way we use it. We continue to employ traditional marketing methods, like press releases and phone calls. But we also use new media as a way to provide our followers, friends, and fans with useful content, rather than to bombard them with meaningless advertising. We humanized the process by giving our employees direct lines to our client base. The result? We've grown from $1.8 million in 2008 to $3 million today in annual revenue, and we will bring on two more full-time employees this year.

Dian Griesel has contributed and appeared in articles for publications including the New York Times, Vogue, Investor's Daily and Crain's Weekly.
--As told to Harper Willis