Comms Directors Survey: We've turned the corner

The results of the annual PRWeek/Brands2Life Communications Directors Survey show that the recession has prompted more efficient, effective campaigns. Claire Murphy reports.

One word shines through the results of our fifth annual Communications Directors' Survey; measurement. It has always been good to be able to report to your manager a link between PR and business performance, but now it is essential.

Among the tightest squeezes on budgets that most PR chiefs have ever experienced, nearly eight in ten report that they have ring-fenced spending on measurement, even while 30 per cent have cut spend on external agencies entirely. But the majority still look at media coverage to measure the quality of their work (with one wag reporting 'happy CEO' as his or her best indicator).

The need to prove effectiveness also lies behind this year's big new digital obsession - search engine optimisation. So no surprises that executing an effective digital strategy has grown to become the most pressing challenge for comms directors.

'In the past few years the role has become increasingly strategic, as social media's influence permeates all aspects of the communications waterfront,' said Brands2Life co-founder Giles Fraser.

The signs are that the budget and resource squeeze could be about to ease. Redundancies fell over the past 12 months and almost 40 per cent of PR heads are expecting budget increases of anything up to 20 per cent this year. The only fly in the ointment is that a majority expect the public sector cutbacks to adversely affect the amount of money they will be given.

'Most of the survey's conclusions are good news for PROs - more responsibilities but signs of budget growth,' says Fraser.

Watch Brands2Life's Giles Fraser and Cisco's Heather Dickinson discuss the survey at prweek.com/uk

HOURS

Given all the redundancies, it comes as no surprise comms directors are having to pitch in with remaining work. Sixty-four per cent of comms directors say they are working longer hours, compared with 52 per cent last year.

STAFF

In-house redundancies fell over the past 12 months - 27 per cent of comms directors reported losing staff members, compared with 41 per cent last year. But if in-house staffing levels have stabilised, those that are left are being expected to take on work that might previously have been handled by agencies. Thirty per cent of in-house departments entirely cut their use of agencies over the past 12 months, up from 17 per cent the year before. Forty-three per cent of comms directors reported reducing their spend on agency support. Sixty-five per cent predicted further cuts to use of agencies (although this figure is lower than last year's predicted cuts in use of agencies).

HOW I SEE IT - Heather Dickinson, Head of European PR, Cisco

Our department had ten people two years ago and we're now down to five. The work has definitely returned - we've launched a whole raft of products recently - but we haven't been able to get our headcount back. But I honestly think we wouldn't need to return to our previous staffing levels; the recession has forced us to work much more efficiently. We move faster now and, with the help of our agency, we're better at responding to the news agenda by finding angles we can sell in to journalists. We've become more nimble and proactive.

CSR

As we move out of recession, a sizeable minority of comms directors are earmarking CSR work as an area worth boosting spend on. Thirty-five per cent reported increasing their budget for this area during the past year, compared with 24 per cent last year. But 42 per cent reported no change in CSR budget.

BUDGETS

Last year's survey found 33 per cent of comms directors lost 20 per cent or more from budgets. This year, the losses have levelled out somewhat. Twelve per cent lost 20 per cent or more, 41 per cent coped with a budget loss of up to 20 per cent, with 22 per cent keeping the same level of budget. A lucky 25 per cent of heads of comms enjoyed budget increases, well up on the 17 per cent who saw boosted budgets last year. Going forward, there is more cause for optimism. Thirty per cent believe their budgets will remain the same, while 39 per cent believe they will start to rise again.

PUBLIC SECTOR SQUEEZE

Government cutbacks are expected to impact on the customers and hence the income of their companies, according to 66 per cent of comms directors, who are predicting a knock to their budgets as a result. Twenty-five per cent expect their comms resources to be 'significantly' affected.

MEASUREMENT

In an era of eagle eyes poring over every piece of expenditure, measurement techniques have become comms directors' new obsession. Seventy-nine per cent report they have ring-fenced their evaluation budget. For the majority (60 per cent) coverage, volume and key messages are still the main measurement method, with 47 per cent tracking levels of brand and company awareness. The reviled advertising value equivalents (AVEs) are still quietly used by 39 per cent of comms directors. But digital techniques are being increasingly used - 45 per cent measure click-throughs from a URL mentioned in content.

HOW I SEE IT - Lauren Branston, Communications director, Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland

Coca-Cola marketers can produce a one-number score for the effectiveness of advertising, so it's really important that communications can operate to the same standard. We've concentrated this year on looking at our key measure of trust and how projecting messages about our attitude to environment and health feeds into that.

If we can maximise our trust scores then consumers are far more receptive to our marketing messages. We've also got much sharper about measuring how people receive messages about our brands and how that interacts with what they hear about Coca-Cola as a company. We're then able to work out the best combination of activity to prompt the most positive views. All of that insight feeds back into business planning.

DIGITAL

The dominance of digital marches relentlessly on into the PR world. Executing an effective digital strategy is now the key communications challenge for 64 per cent of companies - even more important, say comms directors, than keeping public trust. In line with this, comms directors now devote an average 18.65 per cent of their budget to digital (up from 15 per cent last year, and 13 per cent the year before). But this is still significantly less than the 37.9 per cent of marketing budgets devoted to digital (according to the Internet Advertising Bureau's latest Search Marketing Barometer). The most popular new digital activity is search engine optimisation (SEO), employed by 44 per cent over the past year. Forty-one per cent of comms directors are getting involved in paid-for search engine marketing. Although 49 per cent of comms directors think they should have control of SEO, only 39 per cent actually do.

HOW I SEE IT - Amanda Brown, PR & communications manager, First Direct

We introduced a social media newsroom this year (newsroom.firstdirect.com). It means we can easily post up small pieces of news and our own angles on stories. There's also a Flickr feed so journalists can easily download pictures, and a Twitter feed. We're about to introduce a 'comment' facility on each post in the newsroom. All of this means we post far more content than we ever used to push out on press releases - although as it's now posted on Twitter it is less obtrusive - which automatically raises us up the search rankings.

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