Comms Directors Survey 2009

Comms directors are coping with slashed budgets and tightening their grip on social media, according to this year's PRWeek/Brands2Life survey. Claire Murphy reports.

You do not need to be told times are tough. But the results of this survey of 102 communications chiefs quantifies exactly how the recession is affecting senior in-house professionals.

Half of all communications directors have had to slash ten per cent or more from their budgets over the past year. The inevitable cuts in spending have affected attendance at events, the production of paper-based content and external agencies particularly hard. In addition, 41 per cent of comms departments have been forced to shed staff.

It is no surprise that 'doing more with fewer people' is the issue uppermost in the minds of comms directors, very closely followed by the need to impress management with PR's contribution to business success. Never has the need for smart quantitative measurement tools been greater.

In-house departments are also under pressure to escalate their take-up of digital PR techniques. In many cases this means sustaining the investment in external agency support, and has led to a vast expansion in social media campaigns.

This diffusion of channels could well lie behind the nominated biggest comms challenge - ensuring a consistent brand message.

'It has always been hard to control a brand message but it's ten times harder with the accelerated explosion of online and social media usage,' says Giles Fraser, co-founder of Brands2Life.

'These results show the management of brand conversations in the blogosphere and in social media are climbing up the agenda of comms heads. The creation of effective digital and social media brand communication strategies will be one of the top priorities for all of us.'

Meanwhile, possibly conscious of the ever-more cynical public attitude to Government and big business, half of all in-house departments are spending more time on CSR projects.

What are the key comms challenges facing your organisation?
62% - Ensuring a consistent brand message
54% - Executing an effective digital strategy
52% - Maintaining public trust

Comms directors are clearly balancing a sprawling range of objectives. Also cited by more than 40 per cent of our respondents was 'communicating with an ever-diverse range of stakeholders' and 'integrating comms activities across the business'. The biggest change over the past year was in the effort to maintain a consistent brand message, which was only cited by 38 per cent last year. Investor relations also took on more prominence - 38 per cent named it this year, up from ten per cent last year.

How much has your budget changed in the past year?
50% - Have lost more than 10% of their budget
17% - Have lost less than 10% of their budget
17% - Have seen no change in their budget

Half of the 67 per cent who experienced budget cuts this year have seen more than 20 per cent sliced from it, an eye-watering sum that helps explain the severity of some of the cuts they have instigated (see overleaf). But there is some good news. Thirteen per cent of comms chiefs enjoyed a budget increase of up to ten per cent, and nearly half of those working in healthcare got to maintain 2008's budget.

What are the most pressing issues facing your in-house team?
52% - 'Doing more with fewer people'
46% - Demonstrating how PR supports the business
39% - Lack of time to contribute strategically

The most interesting change was the huge increase in people saying demonstrating the value of PR to their business was a key issue - in last year's survey it was named by just 18 per cent. This is not surprising, given the economic climate, but does illustrate the heightened value of evaluation techniques that go beyond media coverage. Further down the list of pressing issues, 23 per cent cited 'journalists with an agenda'. This rose to 36 per cent of those in financial services, reflecting the past year's banking stories.

Are you spending more time on CSR than a year ago?
52% - Yes, more time
36% - No change
12% - Less time

Given the pressure on time that a reduced headcount is bringing to comms departments, it is encouraging that many comms directors have been able to sell the reputational benefits of CSR programmes internally. When asked about allocating budget to CSR, the percentage of comms directors reporting a rise was only 24 per cent but even this seems relatively resilient.

HOW I SEE IT - ROBIN O'KELLY, HEAD OF CORPORATE AFFAIRS, T-MOBILE

I've always put a lot of effort into demonstrating the value of the PR function - if you wait for the bad times before you start, that's too late. It remains difficult of course to quantify PR's value but I do try to regularly have those qualitative conversations with management so they understand how our work enhances something going on elsewhere in the business. Like everyone else, we have pressure on budgets and I'm spending a lot of time looking through plans and working out what's going to be most cost-effective. We generally report on a quarterly basis but I recently sent up an interim report showing our share of voice and favourability ratings.

HOW I SEE IT - SIMON HENDERSON, DIRECTOR OF CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY, CENTRICA

The time we spend on CSR projects has certainly increased in the past year. It is now built into our mainstream activities to a greater degree, as the business realises its value. We launched our Green Streets programme, which was a terrific social experiment to see how much energy neighbours could save, and Generation Green, a similar initiative that encourages schoolchildren in 9,000 schools to save energy. CSR has also taken up more time because issues such as climate change and fuel poverty have been so squarely in the media eye. We've been responding by trying to tie our work into that news agenda.

What have you reduced your spending on this year?
63% - Paper-based content
51% - Conferences and events
44% - PR agency

What is vulnerable to cuts in the future?
75% - Conferences and events
74% - Paper-based content
70% - PR agency

The pressure on budgets, coupled with greater environmental awareness and the ubiquity of email, has hastened the death of chunky press packs, a development that must please account executives. The amount of clients reducing their spend on agencies over the past year is significantly higher than the previous year (11 per cent) and double the number that planned cuts a year ago. Seventeen per cent of comms directors have entirely cut their spend on agencies over the past year. Cutting back on in-house staff has been the next option. Four in ten comms directors had to make staff redundant over the past year. Cuts have hit hard in the financial services sector, with 68 per cent reporting a cut in in-house staff and 77 per cent having reduced spending on paper-based content.

What percentage of your PR spend is allocated to digital activities?
0-10% - According to 43% of respondents
11-20% - According to 27% of respondents
21-30% - According to 22% of respondents

According to these responses, in-house departments now devote an average of 15 per cent of their budgets to digital work, a slight increase from 13 per cent last year. Healthcare communicators, however, are dedicating a quarter of budgets to digital, reflecting the significance of online conversations in this sector.

Do you or your department have responsibility for the following digital activities?
69% - Social media
69% - Website
56% - Audio/visual production

Although this question confirms only a minority of comms departments get involved in Search Engine Optimisation (27 per cent), it does show most now have a firm grip on the social media landscape. Last year only 37 per cent of comms directors said their departments worked on social media campaigns, a figure that has now almost doubled. The Twitter phenomenon has also established itself on the agendas of comms departments. Thirty-one per cent of comms director say their firm monitors Twitter, while 29 per cent 'actively' use it.

HOW I SEE IT - STEVE KIRK, COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER, HONDA

For the recent launch of Insight, our hybrid electric car, we decided to engage the social media community for the first time. First, we found the most influential people who were talking online about cars and the environment. We invited them for test drives and along to the kind of 'experience' days to which we'd usually only invite journalists. We ended up with good content online, with bloggers taking their own pictures and video footage. Engaging with the digital world adds to the pressure to keep our messaging consistent across a growing number of channels. But we've established more contact with our opposite numbers in the US and Japan.

HOW I SEE IT - KELLY DAVIES, PR MANAGER, CONFUSED.COM

Consumers are becoming savvy to the power of Twitter. They know they can post a tweet complaining about a company and, if that company is using Twitter well, they will get it resolved almost instantly. As a customer, I love that. As a company it means you have to be top of your game. I check Twitter every couple of hours. I am definitely spending more time now, than say a year ago, checking digital channels so we can identify issues and nip them in the bud. I envisage our customer services team becoming more integrated with Twitter as it becomes more popular and we're looking for a PR agency that can help us manage the opportunities and threats.

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