These are the main findings of exclusive research undertaken by PRWeek in association with Brands2Life. The survey canvassed the opinions of comms directors in the in-house, private and public sectors, asking them how they cope with their changing roles, and what this means in terms of their relationships with PR agencies.
The broadening of remits was most evident when comms directors were asked to rank their responsibilities. Two of the three highest-ranking tasks named were corporate reputation and internal communications. Furthermore, when asked to rank the comms challenges they faced, ‘trust and reputation' emerged highest, followed by stakeholder relations and ‘integrated communications'. Interestingly, comms directors were least concerned about ‘global 24-hour news' and the ‘tabloidisation' and ‘fragmentation' of media.
These findings reveal it is the less measurable variables that keep heads of comms awake at night. ‘What this
research reflects is that the task facing communications heads is increasingly complex,' says Giles Fraser, co-founder of Brands2Life. ‘The role of PR chiefs is to manage many different bodies, from staff to third-party
lobby groups and online audiences. It has become a much more challenging environment.'
Fraser's comments support recent research by the Centre for PR Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. ‘We asked senior comms people how they spent most of their time – internal comms and talking to a more diverse group of stakeholders were the tasks [highest on their agenda],' says former CIPR president Anne Gregory, who is a professor of PR at the university. ‘The penny has finally dropped that communications must be more integrated,' she adds.
Sally Sykes, PR director at pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, says she is ‘heartened' that communications directors are ranking issues such as trust and reputation more highly. ‘These are much more strategic issues than, say, "media fragmentation", which is a tactical challenge,' she says. ‘In the pharmaceutical industry, reputation is the most important challenge and there is a clear recognition that reputation isn't a quick fix – it's about building long-term public confidence.'
In the Brands2Life research, comms directors perceived customers to be the most important ‘stakeholders'. Nearly half of all respondents ranked customers as their most important audience. Significantly, the next most important group was employees. Media came third, with local communities next in line, alongside company shareholders.
Customers are key
PRCA director-general Patrick Barrow says he is particularly reassured that the influence of the media is ‘fading'. ‘I'm glad PROs are not having their policies dictated by what the media may or may not say,' he says. Sykes adds: ‘The average CEO already spends a lot of time talking to shareholders or customers so we are seeing heads of comms move out of this hand-holding role to embrace a more rounded, modern approach to PR – where it's not all about the media or media relations. ‘The world in which most of us operate is one where we're seeking to deliver a consistent message across a range of stakeholders. I believe that PR is going to continue to go in that direction.'
But if heads of comms are more concerned about internal communication and diverse stakeholder relations, the research also reveals a disparity between theory and practice.
Despite previously ranking media as a low priority, comms directors ranked media relations, followed by corporate communications, as the two disciplines that took up most of their time. Internal communications was third (cited by 76 per cent of respondents), despite the fact that the same respondents had previously identified employees as a more important group than the media.
Jon White, fellow of Henley Management College and CIPR trainer, suggests heads of comms are grappling with their historical responsibilities while trying to encompass new ones. He believes the profession is being held back by the fact that corporate comms is perceived to be synonymous with media relations. ‘Media relations is now only a small part of PR. Comms directors need to broaden their perception of PR. This research shows they are starting to do this, but their confusion about what they do and think they should do is of real concern,' White says.
The Brands2Life findings suggest that certain stakeholder groups, such as analysts and NGOs, are seen as less
important targets. The latter is surprising, given the importance respondents attach to reputation management. Both groups were ranked at the bottom of the priority list when respondents were asked to name stakeholders in order of importance (customers were number one).
The low importance of analysts in particular tallies with the fact that only 27 per cent of respondents cited ‘financial/investor relations' as part of their remit. ‘Having analysts at the bottom of the priority list of stakeholders really concerns me,' says Professor Gregory. Also, when asked to rank the attributes necessary for their job from a list of nine options, ‘financial experience' garnered the least votes. Only 19 per cent of respondents listed it as a prerequisite at all. Meanwhile, so-called ‘softer skills', such as ‘mental agility', were cited by the highest number of respondents, with 92 per cent ticking it as a requirement.
Many experts believe comms professionals are in pole position to move into the chief executive role,but rarely do so because of a perceived lack of financial acumen. ‘It's a no-brainer that PR is vitally important to a business. What concerns me, and other researchers in this area, is the capability of practitioners,' says Gregory.
More respondents ranked ‘strategic planning' as their most important skill, followed jointly by ‘mental agility' and ‘intellect', then ‘media knowledge'. The emphasis on strategic thinking was also highlighted in the survey when respondents were asked to give their opinion on how the role of corporate communications has changed over the past five years.
Typical comments included: ‘Communications has become core to the company. It embodies all aspects of how the company interacts with stakeholders, from marketing messages to internal/external messages.' One comms chief said: ‘PR is starting to be taken seriously by the board.' Another commented: ‘It has become a more corporate role and it is more aware of brand management'. Negative responses to the question – of how the role of corporate communications has changed over the past five years – focused on comms directors' workload and the fact that PR is seen more as a firefighting role than a positive one.
The good news is that the majority of chief executives understand how important PR is to the company's
performance. Forty-six per cent of respondents said their chief executive ‘completely' understood the importance of PR; 45 per cent said that their chief executive ‘partially understood', and only seven per cent had chief executives who understood ‘a little' or ‘not at all'. But while Fraser welcomes the fact that PR appears to be gaining more credibility internally, he is concerned that this development is not being accompanied by the appropriate resources to do the job well. ‘It is clearly encouraging that management sees the value in getting the story right, but communications directors seem to have more and more on their plate and not necessarily the resources to go with it,' he says. ‘I get the impression that some boards are overly optimistic about what communications can achieve, too. We need more education on what PR can do.'
In general, the survey feedback seems to suggest that the PR profession is at a turning point: it is increasingly being recognised as a pivotal role in an organisation, but it could do more to prove its worth. ‘PROs need to demonstrate their value and establish credibility,' says Barrow. ‘That ultimately comes down to the relationship that PROs have with the CEO and the most senior directors,' he adds.
Although the survey shows that the CEO is more aware of PR's value, only 20 per cent of respondents had managed to secure board-level positions. The results also reveal that PROs are less likely to make the board of those companies with the largest turnovers. Only 16 per cent of respondents were on the board at companies with turnovers in excess of £10m.
Access to the top
However, experts such as White believe that having access to the CEO is much more important than being on the board itself. In fact, he even argues that a board-level position can be a ‘limitation' for a comms director, and that getting on the board has become an unhealthy ‘obsession' in the industry: ‘The role depends on freedom of movement. The problem is, if you're known to be working at board level, you are identified with senior management and it may be harder to make easy contact at working level. The most important thing is to have access to and influence over the board.'
While the Brands2Life survey casts no doubt on the fact that in-house communications directors are recognised more and more for their strategic contribution to a company, the same cannot be said of PR agencies. Most
respondents said they were equally or more reliant on agency support than they were two years ago, but the feedback suggests this support is tactical rather than strategic. When asked why they hire PR agencies, the most popular response was ‘more hands on deck', which was cited by 75 per cent of respondents. This was followed by ‘media contacts/relationships' at 70 per cent. PR agencies were valued least for their ‘business experience', which was only given as a reason by 20 per cent of the respondents.
The PRCA is well aware of the trend to commoditise PR in the agency sector. In fact, at its annual conference in
May, consultant and former PRCA chairman Jackie Elliot asked the agency-filled audience: ‘Why have we started fragmenting into tacticians; creating niche operations which are commoditised and transactional?'
Barrow says the survey reinforces his suspicion that as heads of comms divert their attentions to more ‘strategic-thinking' roles, PR agencies will be seen as the suppliers of day-to-day hands-on skills. ‘If PR consultancy is to gain a must-have position around strategic thinking, it must have more confidence. It must problem-solve, rather than simply put more hands on deck,' he says.
Gregory agrees, believing that ‘the power balance between consultancies and in-house teams has changed; it
used to be the consultancies that were regarded as housing the exceptional practitioners, but now the people at the top of corporations are the ones of exceptional calibre'.
As Fraser says: ‘We have to be as good at presenting the value of what we do to clients and colleagues as we are at selling it to the media. That means showing them how we can measure what we do. He adds: ‘The PR title comes with a bit of baggage that doesn't always do justice to our work, but we need to prove that we are the best people
to get the message across. If we do, then well-done PR will not be considered a commodity.'