Comms directors survey: What keeps comms bosses awake at night?

PRWeek and Brands2Life asked the country's top in-house professionals about their concerns and plans for the year ahead. Alex Black analyses the key results

What is written at the top of a comms director’s to-do list? And what is he or she fretting about on the commute to work?

To answer these questions, PRWeek teamed up with Brands2Life to poll some of the country’s most powerful in-house comms professionals.

The results, analysed on the following pages, reflect the times in which we live, but although an air of caution has been adopted almost across the board, this research shows there is much to be optimistic about.

For a start, our survey found that nearly three-quarters of respondents believe the business community takes PR more seriously than five years ago. A further 67 per cent also say their role is now more strategic than it was in 2003.

And, encouragingly, we found more and more aspects of digital marketing are falling under the comms director’s control.

Brands2Life co-founder Giles Fraser bel-ieves the results show the influence and responsibilities of comms chiefs are increasing, and they are being asked to oversee many aspects of the business.

But it is in the digital arena that the PR profession is making its greatest strides. More time, resources and, crucially, money, are going into this area. Many comms directors are now firmly in control of their company’s digital strategy.

Of late, Fraser says his agency has seen clients investing in digital marketing and PR in a ‘major way’, and this can only inc-rease. ‘With comms bosses preparing for leaner times, it is the PR function’s central, driving role in the growth of digital comms that bodes well for this industry’s continuing health,’ concludes Fraser.

Has your comms planning been affected by the credit crunch?

72% yes

19% said: ‘My use of agency support will reduce in 2009’

11% said: ‘I have already been asked to reduce headcount’

A glum statistic this. The good news is that, aside from the ten per cent who say that their planning has not been affected, the industry is not burying its head in the sand. Just under a third of respondents said that their plans for this year had also been adjusted in light of the financial conditions. This suggests that there will not be any sudden ‘jolt’.

Do you sit on your firm’s operational board?

51% yes

49% no

Half and half is not bad, but the ‘yes’ needs to rise if the industry is to continue to gain gravitas. The number of comms directors on the board in the technology sector is about two-thirds. This jars when placed alongside the figure from the financial services sector, which is just 20 per cent. Expect this figure to rise next year once financial bodies realise how vital reputation is to their survival.

How has your role changed over the past five years?

67% said: ‘It is more strategic’

50% said: ‘I have broader responsibilities’

34% said: ‘There are higher expectations’

Though the strategy responsibility is about the same as last year’s survey, the number of comms chiefs saying their role has higher expectations has dropped by around 15 per cent. This shows that CEOs now have a better grasp of what PR and comms can actually do. Other responses include ‘more international’ (16 per cent), ‘longer hours’ (13 per cent) and ‘tighter budgets’ (20 per cent).

What are the key challenges facing your company?

65% said: ‘Integrating comms across the business’

57% said: ‘Communicating with diverse stakeholders’

43% said: ‘Executing an online strategy’

Here, then, are the three biggest headaches of a modern-day comms director: trying to get the company speaking with the same voice, trying to reach everyone you need to at once, and making sure your web presence is second-to-none.

Other concerns include maintaining trust (47 per cent), managing news in a world of 24-hour media (28 per cent), and maintaining a share of voice (22 per cent).

What percentage of your budget now goes on digital PR or marketing?

11-20% according to 38% of respondents

0-10% according to 31% of respondents

over 50% according to 7% of respondents

Well over a third of the industry is spending up to a fifth of its marketing budget on digital PR, and just under a tenth spends a whopping 50 per cent on it. Surprisingly, 53 per cent of comms directors from the financial services sector are in the ‘11-20 per cent’ bracket. Fraser says this reflects his agency’s experience of generating around ten per cent of his revenues through digital techniques.

What aspects of digital marketing fall under your remit?

78% said: ‘The company’s website’

51% said: ‘Management of our social media presence’

32% said: ‘Search engine optimisation’

Websites and online social media naturally fit into the comms director’s orbit because they are content-rich direct comms channels. But five years ago, not many comms directors would have been able to tell you what SEO stood for, never mind run their company’s SEO functions.

Only 13 per cent said they had no responsibility for any digital aspect of their company’s strategy.

What digital innovations have you introduced in the past year?

40% said: ‘Blog monitoring’

34% said: ‘Social media campaigning’

31% said: ‘Posting videos on YouTube’

The number of comms directors who have overseen their firm posting video content on YouTube has doubled in the past year. The amount of respondents undertaking video podcasts has jumped by 10 per cent.

The number of companies implementing blog monitoring and RSS feeds has dropped slightly, but there may now be many companies that do these things as a matter of course.

What noticeable skills are the young people entering the industry showing?

57% said: ‘The ability to pick up new ideas’

46% said: ‘Real initiative’

27% said: ‘The ability to articulate an argument’

The next generation is not phased by being asked to pick up new ideas. Nor has this stripped away people’s ability to take matters into their own hands. An ability to get a point across is present in just under a third of newcomers to the industry.

But Brands2Life’s Fraser says the comms directors’ belief that 75 per cent of graduates lack writing skills is ‘worryingly, about right’.

How do you assess the impact of media relations campaigns?

66% said: ‘We measure the quality and quantity of articles in focus media’

50% said: ‘Brand awareness research’

24% said: ‘Analytics such as Google analytics’

Fraser is not surprised cuttings still rule when it comes to evaluation. ‘We all need to invest in proper measurement if we are to continue to demonstrate the business impact of PR,’ he cautions. He is buoyed by the number of comms bosses using analytics, and he expects this figure to rise as company bosses see how PR contributes directly to sales leads, and ultimately the bottom line.

Do you rely on agencies more or less than five years ago?

23% said: ‘More’

18% said: ‘Less’

53% said: ‘The same’

From an agency point of view, these findings are encouraging, even if the 18 per cent that said ‘less’ is something of a concern.

The biggest rise in respondents answering ‘more’ came from companies with turnovers in excess of £1bn.

This is positive news. The flipside is that losing an account from a huge company is a devastating blow to a struggling agency.

How would you summarise your PR agency’s main contribution?

51% said: ‘Proactive media relations’

50% said: ‘Creative input’

43% said: ‘Handling overflow work’

This question has provoked a markedly different response from the one from last year’s sample. Although ‘creative input’ remains at the same level as in 2007, ‘capacity to handle overflow work’ has dropped by nearly ten per cent. At last, the culture of dumping a firm’s ‘dirty work’ on agencies seems to be diminishing. A third of comms directors now rely on agencies for ‘strategic input’.

Which stakeholders take the industry more seriously than five years ago?

73% said: ‘Business people in general’

35% said: ‘The media’

18% said: ‘The general public’

PR is clearly being taken more seriously in the business community. Seventy per cent of respondents also said company boards take what the industry has to say more seriously than five years ago. When it comes to public affairs, though, there is work to do. Only 30 per cent of comms directors said those treading the corridors of power in Whitehall took the industry more seriously.

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