Liquid or glue? Communications is in flux

PRWeek and BU's latest landmark survey of the communications industry uncovers many essential themes that should inform modern practice.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

I am never sure which of the following statements best describes the role of the CCO in an organization: the glue that holds everything together or the liquid that flows through all parts of the enterprise. Both contain elements of truth.

PRWeek’s second annual Communications Bellwether Survey, produced in partnership with Boston University, puts these definitions under the microscope and analyzes the state of the CCO nation.

With 1,633 respondents and its associated supreme academic rigor courtesy of BU's Arunima Krishna, Don Wright and Ray Kotcher, the survey has quickly become the de facto overview of a sector in constant flux and facing intense disruption – disruption that is reflected in the overall state of global business, government and society.

We’ve already spent a lot of time talking about purpose recently, and this will be the theme of our annual PRDecoded: Purpose Principles conference and inaugural Purpose Awards in Chicago on October 16-17.

Suffice to say that purpose shouldn’t be confused with just taking a stand on social issues, which PR pros who responded to the Bellwether Survey thought risked being surface-deep and not aligned with all parts of an organization. As Johnson & Johnson’s medical device comms lead Sandy Pound says: "It can’t just be a tagline."

The survey found that the integration between communications and marketing is here to stay. However, it’s a landscape in which the CCO position is being eliminated completely at companies including Cargill and GE or where the CCO is taking on extra responsibility with the eradication of the CMO role at brands such as McDonald’s, J&J and Uber.

Each enterprise is different depending on the individuals involved and the situation the business finds itself in.

Our survey showed many CCOs know perfectly well they must evolve quickly to react to the disruption in their organizations, but they are frustrated by the inertia of corporate culture and out-of-touch leadership that stops them revolutionizing their functions.

They know authenticity, transparency, ethical behavior, storytelling and a 24/7 always-on mentality are right in their wheelhouse and crucial parts of the modern communications mix.

One area where the survey for the second year running suggests the communications industry needs to do better is in the application of new technologies, in which the PR profession is still lagging behind the marketing function.

For the agencies that support the in-house CCO function, the landscape is even more disrupted. Almost three out of four agency respondents and two out of three from the client side agree this is an era of agency disruption.

In our feature to accompany the report Google’s VP of global communications and public affairs, Corey duBrowa, states that "a PR agency should be counselor, idea generator and creative engine."

In-house PR pros are looking for fewer, more strategic agency partners, and they are targeting extraneous fat with the help of their procurement departments.

It is this that is causing the likes of duBrowa to be more catholic in their choice of external suppliers, choosing third-party counsel more on the basis of the firm that comes up with the best and most integrated ideas, rather than based on narrow definitions such as communications, PR, public affairs, marketing or creative.

Whether the profession acts as liquid or glue or both, the PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey is an indispensable benchmark of an industry in flux, and is essential reading for every PR pro.

And the Premium Edition of the survey dives even deeper into the data and uncovers more trends and themes shaping the communications sector – I highly recommend you download a copy here.

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