The story gets stronger: takeaways from the 2019 PRWeek/Cision Global Comms Report

New platforms are amplifying brand messages. Traditional media-engagement tactics remain part of the playbook. These factors combine to bolster earned media's prowess to the C-suite.

Maybe every generation of PR pros believes the discipline is more important to companies than it was during the one that came before it. However, this era’s sentiment is supported by new data that shows earned media significantly grew its slice of the media-budget pie in 2019.

Its portion was almost on par with paid media, according to the third annual 2019 PRWeek/Cision Global Comms Report. Of the 527 global respondents, on average 34% of the overall media budget is devoted to earned media, just a tick under the 35% given to paid media. Owned media is allotted the remaining 31%.

Looking at U.S. respondents only, earned media’s prevalence is even more apparent. Notably more budget goes to earned (39%) than paid (31%) — the latter of which has seen its share growth plateau since 2018 and now sits near owned media, which has 30% of the spend in the U.S.

Credible results

In interviews with PRWeek, in-house counsel in the U.S. attribute the results to a number of factors, chief among them the much-needed improvement and adoption of analytical and measurement tools that the PR function is customizing to its specific business needs. This has helped give comms new credibility and respect from the C-suite.

"It drove me crazy that we might generate 800 legitimate media stories from being at an auto show and then stand in front of our executives and say something like, ‘We had 28 billion impressions!’" says Jim Trainor, director of comms at Hyundai Motor America. "It was pretty meaningless because nobody could really get their head around the number. They’d be like, ‘So, is 19 billion impressions crummy?’"

With an advancement in tools, Hyundai has invested in a software solution that gives more calculated, realistic and, thus, meaningful numbers on media impact. The solution accounts for factors such as a story’s timing and placement.

"In the past, we would place a story on and say we reached 1.2 million people," adds Trainor. "Now, we might more accurately say we reached 300,000 consumers."

While the number is lower than media impressions, "when you explain why to the C-suite they go, ‘Hey, this isn’t just some made-up crap and every possible impression added up,’" he explains. "The C-suite is very into math and results. So, they are like, ‘Woah, the PR team has traditionally been afraid of numbers, but they are finally talking the language that sales, marketing, finance and everyone else speaks.’ A lot of respect comes with that."

Meanwhile, analytics are helping inform corporate decision-making on positioning and issues in which to step in front of or back from.

Comms drive decisions

Johnson & Johnson monitors and analyzes everything being said about the company in the media across 100 different languages. This aggregated content is presented to Ernie Knewitz, VP of global media relations, in a real-time dashboard on his corporate devices.

With roughly 4,000 media stories with mentions of J&J every week, the analytics system often helps support or inform "a lot of our decision-making," he says. "Fact: Data drives decisions. In investments, R&D, marketing, even baseball lineups. It also helps companies understand the conversations going on and where the brand sits in that conversation. That is important to know when shaping messages."

For the third year in a row, respondents say the two biggest challenges in their positions are tightening budgets (21% choosing it as their top challenge, 57% putting it among their top three) and inability to effectively measure comms’ impact (20%, 54%).

Megan Tweed, EVP and U.S. head of performance communications at Edelman, says it will take fundamental change management for many comms departments to deal with both challenges.

"One of the biggest things for comms is to reorient itself around audience," she advises. "For years it has been around the media and reporters with audience being secondary. Marketing has wrapped itself around technology and strategy with the idea of providing a centralized view of the customer. The more that comms can contribute performance data to that view of the audience, the more chance they will see their investment grow and opportunities to play alongside marketing in a very accountable way."

And this doesn’t take a huge investment into measurement and analytic tools, Knewitz points out. "Maybe 15%" of his comms budgets goes to this area.

Instagram comes of age

The 2019 PRWeek/Cision report also ascertains the media channels most important to PR pros — and reveals one that is getting much more attention this year. In the past two surveys, global respondents clear-ly put Facebook and Twitter on top when asked to identify the social channels most important to their broader content strategy. Very little changed between the first and second year. This year, it’s a different story.

While 72% of respondents place Facebook among their top three channels this year and 35% choose it as their top channel — by far the most popular choice — those numbers are notably down from 77% and 44% in 2018.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s year-on-year movement is scant, with 55% placing it among their top three channels both years, while only ticking up year on year from 13% to 14% in those who chose it as their top channel. All that was good enough to be the second most popular channel in 2018. Not so this year.

Overtaking it in the number-two position is Instagram, which celebrated its ninth birthday this October and reached 300 million users this past August, representing growth of 50% in the past nine months alone.

Instagram sits among the top three channels of 57% of this year’s respondents, up from 45% last year. Meanwhile, 22% choose it as their very top channel, up from 9% last year.

Emily Horn, director of corporate communications at HP, says the technology company has enthusiastically added Instagram to its content mix. HP uses the photo- and video-sharing site "to connect with people about our core brand commitments, such as sustainability and diversity, but also to launch products and drive sales through organic and paid media."

"And the global reach Instagram gives us is crucial," she notes, adding that it has become "a primary social platform for HP, especially given our common love of capturing moments and making emotional connections."

Traditional approach still working

While comms people continue identifying new channels and tools to tell their stories, when it comes to media engagement, traditional journalists remain prominent.

Among respondents, 61% say their engagement efforts are focused on traditional journalists/media (up from 58% last year). In turn, 39% is devoted to "newer" influencers (down from 42% last year). This finding, coupled with the fact that 67% of respondents say the press release is a major tool their brand uses to communicate with media, shows that both traditional media and tactics are alive and well.

Newspaper circulation may be at historic lows and broadcast media fragmented. However, Knewitz notes that "mainstream reporters have increasingly become opinion leaders and still set the agenda for a lot of public and social discourse. Social media reacts to their coverage. That dialogue often starts with mainstream journalists. You see it in reverse, too, with mainstream reporters covering what is being said on social. There is real synergy between traditional and social media."

Like J&J, Hyundai works with influencers, but has kept a strong emphasis on relationships with traditional journalists. That is reflected in how often the automaker puts out news releases. "We still write five to seven news releases a week," says Trainor. "They serve a lot of purpose."

He notes thousands of journalists have signed up for the automaker’s news alerts, representing media from Reuters and Bloomberg to Car and Driver. Hyundai also makes sure the release includes a lot of snackable content that can be posted on social media, such as video, photos, memes and so on.

"Even if they just see, as an example, that our Santa Fe vehicle won an award in an alert on their mobile phone from the headline of one of our releases, then I’ve reached them," Trainor points out.

PRWeek partnered with Cision on this survey, which was sent via email to both communications and marketing professionals in seven countries around the world: the U.S., Canada, U.K., France, Germany, Sweden, and China (including Hong Kong). A total of 527 senior-level professionals, from both agencies and in-house, completed the online survey, conducted by Bovitz, between July 11 and August 12, 2019. Results are not weighted and are statistically tested at confidence levels of 90% and 95%.

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