Communicating Recession

January 4, 2009 at 5:34 am Leave a comment

As someone with a degree in communication studies, I have never pretended to have a deep understanding of economics.  In fact, I freely admit to being the type of person who has not balanced my checkbook since the invention of on-line banking.   However, I have become increasingly fascinated with the communication surrounding the turmoil in the economy.

Whether in the mainstream media, presidential debates, around the dinner table, or at the water cooler, you cannot avoid talk about the economy and it seems no matter who you are talking to, the news is all bad.

While driving to my parents’ house in Burleson, TX on Christmas Day I passed this sign that said, “Sorry Not Hiring.”  The sign was posted outside of a natural gas well.  We live in North Texas, and for those of you who are not familiar with the area, the business of drilling natural gas is good business.  In fact, it is one of the reasons that our local economy has been somewhat sheltered from the slumping economy.

At first I was taken aback by the sign.  Why would this company feel it was necessary to advertise that it was not hiring?  The large gray sign seemed to echo the sentiment that everyone was feeling; the outlook is bleak, hope is gone, and there are no jobs.

But here is the thing; here in our area, the outlook doesn’t seem so bad, there is some hope, and people are hiring.

I work for a school district about 45 miles north of where that sign is posted.  About three weeks ago I went on a tour of a large manufacturing company that our district plans to partner with as part of our new career technology school.  Their vice president of manufacturing was explaining to us that over 50% of their employees are within two years of retirement and that they cannot find enough qualified employees to hire as their replacements.

Qualified employees must have a high school diploma or GED and the ability to read instructions in English.

Starting pay is over $10/hour.

They have other positions for people with two year and four year degrees that start at $17/hour.

I understand that things are tough.  I understand that real people are losing their jobs and that real families are losing their homes.

But I don’t understand how relentless talk about instability in the markets is going to make the markets more stable.  It is human nature that fear breeds fear and both political parties and the mainstream media have been preying on people’s fears. If we continue to communicate ideas like “no one is hiring,” we may very well make people give up their job search in favor of a welfare line.

As our family and friends got together this holiday season the stories around the tables were the same.  Everyone agreed that times were hard and that we were all blessed.  We might know someone (or know of someone) down the road who had lost their job or had to sell their home, but none of our families were directly affected.

Which brought me back to the big gray sign and led me to this question; Are we communicating the recession as it occurs or did we communicate the recession before it occurred?

It is no secret that the presidential election was the biggest story of 2008, if not the decade.  With that election came a lot of talk about the economy.  With the mortgage crisis looming it was only a matter of time before the economy took center stage.  However, I’m not sure anyone knew that it would get so bad so quickly.  Once the sub-prime mortgage market slid out of control and the Wall Street started slipping, the auto makers were not far behind.

We certainly have no way of knowing for sure, but I wonder if the stock market would have become so volatile if, “Are we headed for a recession?” wouldn’t have been the top story on the news every night during those highly watched broadcasts leading up to the election.  I’m sure that if you ask an economist there is a lot more to it, but from a casual by-stander a lot of people play the market with their heart (just ask my mom who buys and sells stock based on which food her cat likes best).

As I pondered the big gray sign I thought about circumstances that might lead that company to post the sign.  Maybe they had a lot of openings one week, had filled them all quickly, and were tired of telling people there were no more openings.  The sign would be a way to save them a good deal of time.  However, in this economy, that is not what people like me would assume when driving by.  That is why I think we all have a responsibility to watch how we communicate during this economy.  Although our intention may be to communicate something specific (not hiring) to our organization or target audience, it may have a larger impact on our community.

Keep this in mind as you communicate with your employees in the upcoming months.  Take every opportunity to communicate positive information about the economy such as job growth, increased sales, promotions, etc.  Maintain an upbeat atmosphere in the office.  People tend to be discouraged and overwhelmed.  The news media is showing mostly negative news right now.  Take this opportunity to be the positive force in your employees’ day.  They will be glad you were hiring.

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