Widespread ignorance about the ways in which social media and search engines actually work stands in the way of progress, warns the research by the European Public Relations Education and Research Association and the European Association of Communication Directors.
While 75 per cent of people in comms agreed "activities should be adapted to external algorithms of search engines or social media platforms," fewer than one in three stated that their "communications department or agency uses such approaches".
The European Communication Monitor 2016, released this week, draws on the views of more than 2,700 comms professionals in 43 countries, who were surveyed in March this year. Three in five respondents worked in-house, while the rest were agency staff or freelancers.
"The communication profession lacks analytical skills to make sense of big data and time to study such data. These limitations were confirmed by nearly half of the respondents," the report states.
An analysis of how informed people really are when it comes to understanding how to use big data reveals that more than one in seven (17 per cent) are "pretenders".
An "alarming lack of skills and knowledge" is hindering PR professionals from "profiting from the massive amount of structured and unstructured data available for public communication today", the report claims.
Commenting on the findings, Ralph Tench, professor of communication at Leeds Beckett University and one of the authors of the European Communication Monitor, told PRWeek: "The core competencies have traditionally been around the written work. Media relations was king and the cornerstone of the practitioner's skill set. Not any more.
"With increasing sophistication of measurement tools and instruments and the obvious expansion of new media landscapes, more and more data is available and it is creating a real challenge for practitioners to manage and understand," he said, going on to argue that PR practitioners who are data-savvy will be increasingly prized employees.
It is not only big data where there are challenges. The report states that only a minority of organisations have specific strategies targeting bloggers and other social media influencers and says that "many communication professionals have not fully grasped the concept of influence and opinion leadership in social networks".
When it comes to the proportion of people who are able to use social media properly, it states: "Only 65.2 per cent of the respondents report high capabilities for delivering messages via social media – which means that one third of the professionals have a low or average competency base in this area."
In terms of other issues facing the profession, the "strategic alignment of communication and organisational goals" is cited.
The report also highlights the continuing gender gap when it comes to pay. "Salaries reported by female practitioners are lower compared to male communicators, both for top positions and other hierarchical levels," it says.
"There are 23.1 per cent of male communication heads and agency CEOs who make more than €150,000, but only 13.8 per cent of female leaders in the same salary band. There are also 30.6 per cent of women compared with 20.4 per cent of men who earn less than €30,000 on the top level of the hierarchy," it adds.