Even before COVID-19 struck the UK, agency leaders told PRWeek's Top 150 survey that media relations was one of their highest priority areas for investment in 2020.
But this skill set, along with crisis comms experience, will have risen further up the list of necessities as companies and organisations struggle to adapt to the realities of the pandemic.
Industry leaders from multiple sectors, including consumer, healthcare, corporate comms and public affairs, were asked to rate their priority investment areas for the coming year, in order of importance.
Those who rated a proposed investment area as a '5' viewed it as a top priority while those who assigned it a zero had no plans to invest in it this year.
An average score was derived from all the answers given by approximately 150 respondents to the survey.
Priority investment areas
Respondents rated digital content production as their highest area of priority, giving it an average score of 4 in terms of importance.
The second-highest rated area for investment was media relations, with an average score of 3.7.
In third place was influencer engagement, with an average score of 3.2, while marketing services was in fourth place with a score of 3.1.
Commenting on the industry’s priorities, Jo-ann Robertson (above), chief executive of Ketchum UK, said: “The list of priorities doesn’t surprise me at all. The production of digital content is essential to most campaigns today, media relations is core and critical to our industry, and influencer engagement is still a relatively new growth driver for PR firms.”
The decline of ‘purpose’ and crisis comms?
Asked to rate cause marketing and crisis comms, agency leaders regarded these areas as less important areas for investment, with average scores of 2.6 and 2.5 respectively.
Meanwhile, they gave financial comms an even lower priority, with an average score of 1.
Gabe Winn (above), chief executive of corporate comms agency Blakeney, said he did not lament the potential demise of 'purpose' across the sector.
He told PRWeek: “Thank goodness the cynical ‘purpose-as-a-marketing-commodity’ bandwagon seems to be coming to an end. But there is scope for ‘purpose’ to be re-purposed; business will have to change in the next decade, and consultancies that help their clients to create change, rather than navigate around it, will prosper.
Winn added: “No one’s investing in financial PR because most big businesses now have their own people who do it really well, and the market is awash with specialists for those that don’t.”
Coronavirus heralds new priorities
The impact of coronavirus on every home and workplace in the UK is only starting to be understood, and this will almost certainly be factored into the investment plans of agency leaders, with crisis comms shooting back up the list, as well an increased focus on public affairs.
Scott Wilson (above), president, Europe and Africa, at BCW, said: “The COVID crisis is seeing government becoming involved in every single area of life and business, and this invariably means companies which are able to deploy a modern integrated approach to public affairs will benefit.”
Wilson said that, with government involvement in society at its highest level in decades, investing in BCW’s public affairs function would be a priority.
“This is one of the fundamentals of agency management: you invest in areas where the business is doing well and have identified strategic opportunities to grow further,” he said.
If PRWeek were to conduct the same survey of investment priorities now, in a COVID-19 world, it would receive different responses, said Paul Tanner (above), global head of healthcare agency 90Ten.
He said: “[They] reflected the world we lived in pre-COVID. A world dominated by the need for engaging online content, and influencers who can help shape public opinion and reach a wide variety of audiences.”
Tanner said that, outside the healthcare sector, issues and crisis management had been less of a priority at that time.
He added: “However, COVID has evened out that priority list quite considerably, all with the exception of digital content production and media relations, which have become more important than ever.”
Winn said companies were now counting the cost of failing to invest in crisis comms earlier.
He said: “COVID has shown just how unprepared most businesses were for something that could have been foreseen, and crisis preparedness and scenario planning will be key to corporate comms from now on.”
But Paul Cockerton (above), chief product officer at Clarity PR, thinks agency leaders may not have been barking up the wrong tree with their original investment priorities, even now that the world has changed.
He said: “It’s no surprise that agencies are turning to digital content and marketing to supplant earned media activities. This has been a trend for a while, but the onset of coronavirus has seen huge jumps in digital consumption and activity, particularly in countries which have been very strict on social distancing. The current crisis has also seen big jumps in social media use, and in particular video consumption.
He added: “Agencies are following their clients' ‘crowds’ – and while the news agenda continues and will continue to be dominated by COVID-19, smart agencies and clients will increasingly focus on talking directly to business and consumer users.”
Robertson said Ketchum would invest in data and analytics, as well as corporate reputation and a focus on healthcare comms.
Nonetheless, she agreed that any agency’s investment plans for 2020 would be very different to what was previously planned.
She added: “If you were to ask the same question today, I think you would see employee communications and crisis communications shoot to the top of the list.”
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