Comms Directors Survey: Managing the chatter

The PRWeek/Brands2Life annual survey of comms directors reveals that integrating PR activities across the business is their biggest challenge. Claire Murphy reports.

Office talk: PRWeek's survey of comms directors
Office talk: PRWeek's survey of comms directors

This year, one crucial theme is woven through the results of our sixth annual survey of comms directors - the challenge of how to manage the flood of messages about an organisation that circulate through social media.

This effect is compounded for some comms directors by a sense that their department is no longer the gatekeeper of corporate messaging. Integrating comms activities across the business is reported to be the biggest challenge by a clear majority.

'Most firms now have a reasonably clear idea of what they want to achieve in the digital and social media space. The challenge they face now, as this survey illustrates, is how they execute that strategy when so many functions want to use these channels,' says Giles Fraser, co-founder of Brands2Life. 'How do they resource and co-ordinate without adding cost or reducing effectiveness?'

The explosion of digital comms channels means that comms teams are struggling to maintain control over what is typed, blogged, messaged, tweeted and texted.

So, despite a continuing precariousness hanging over budgets, comms teams have spent the past year extending their use of social media monitoring. And Twitter has been significantly embraced by comms directors over the past year, with far fewer now reporting cynicism over its use.

All this chatter has only increased the need for smart, focused comms ideas that will attract the attention of these disparate audiences. The survey proved very revealing as to where comms directors go for these ideas - and where they find them. But it seems that although the comms director turns first to his or her own team and PR agencies, the most reliable deliverer of good ideas is the firm's advertising agency.


The survey found a clear leap in social media monitoring and campaigning this year. This is mirrored by a shift in attitudes towards Twitter - only 16 per cent of comms directors reported that their firm did not have an official Twitter account, down from 37 per cent last year. Just eight per cent felt Twitter was 'overhyped and of little benefit', a big fall from 20 per cent last year.

Almost half of comms directors reported that their teams were using Facebook to get in touch with journalists.


In the past 12 months, 'Follower Fever' hit comms departments. Despite the jury being out over how to translate volume of followers to a blog, Facebook page or Twitter account into long-term brand awareness, it makes for a healthy-looking number to report to the CEO. It also acts as a useful measure of the relative attractiveness of content - something that will only become more pertinent as increasingly large chunks of budgets (currently 18 per cent) are directed at digital comms.


Budgets are no longer being cut back at the vertiginous rate of the past two years. Fifty-one per cent of comms directors reported a budget cut this year, a percentage broadly the same as the year before (with 67 per cent reporting budget cuts in 2009 - PR's annus horribilis). But, as the graph shows, many comms directors were disappointed this year - this time last year only 31 per cent thought they would have to cope with a smaller budget in 2011, but as it turned out 51 per cent had to.


I'm not surprised that so many comms directors find the issue of integrating comms activities across the business so important.

We all have to deal with the fact that there is phenomenal crossover now between different audiences that a few years ago, we might have been able to deal with separately.

Thanks to social media, there has been a convergence of audiences' access to information. Employees can broadcast messages that analysts can pick up and so it looks amateurish if an organisation has not co-ordinated its comms from the start.

There is also the issue of compliance. There is an increasing number of corporate guidelines, not just in the financial sphere, that means just one rogue spokesperson in a distant geography could create real problems. But this as an opportunity rather than a threat. It's a demonstration of how broad the scope of the comms director is now and how we can be a critical resource.


Unlike our colleagues in marketing, who can pay for their media, we in comms have to rely on third parties to carry our messages and thus must create compelling material to convey those messages.

It is interesting this survey indicates that ad agencies are coming up with the best ideas.

I wonder if it is because ad agencies are often dealing with bigger budgets and are used to creating the kind of large brand repositioning jobs that can effect fundamental change in a business.

PR agencies are more likely to offer a menu of options that might be more linked to what they think the comms director can afford.

But I believe the best ideas come from collaboration - it's tough for a person to have that 'Eureka' moment, so here at Halfords I encourage an environment where we all add to each other's thoughts to create an idea that is greater than the sum of its parts.

How much has your budget changed in the past year? (asked in 2011)

Decrease 51%

No change 27%

Increase 22%

How much do you anticipate your budget will change in the next year? (asked in 2010)

Decrease 31 %

No change 30%

Increase 39%.

To see the full survey click here

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