Bellwether Survey 2020: Amid an era of constant evolution, agility will win

The third annual PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey took the temperature of the PR industry at a critical time and showed nimbleness will be key to survival.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

The 2020 Communications Bellwether Survey, award-winning and peer-reviewed as the most robust in the industry, reflects a communications profession at a critical juncture when its skills have never been in more demand. (For extra features and a deep dive into the data, you can purchase the premium edition here.)

It was conducted as cities across the U.S. were scrambling into various stages of lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Weeks after the survey closed, the death of George Floyd in police custody ignited more disruption, including nationwide protests around racial injustice, the removal of Confederate statues and calls for some brands to change their names.

To say communicators have been launched into uncharted territory is putting the challenges before organizations mildly, says Ray Kotcher, professor in the practice of public relations at BU’s College of Communication.

“Disruption always has been a reality in business, and in this century it has been disruption on steroids. Companies such as Amazon are the mother of all disruptors, and businesses on the opposite end are having their models turned upside down,” says the former Ketchum CEO. “But recent events have taken disruption to a whole other level. No company is immune to the societal and economic disruption. Communicators are being tested like never before.”

The results uncover why some companies are navigating these seismic disruptions better than others.

For the first time, participants were categorized into three groups — “high agility,” “middle agility” and “low agility.” This was determined by how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statements: “My organization’s corporate culture is agile,” and “The comms function in my company is agile.”

Respondents from high-agility organizations and comms functions reported they are doing better across every organizational measure, including preparedness for disruption, effective change management, advances in diversity, application of technology to PR and commitment to purpose and social value creation.

Arunima Krishna, assistant professor of PR at BU, says it isn’t just that high-agility organizations garner better scores from their employees, but also the margin by which they did.

“What struck me most is how different high-agility organizations seem to be from the rest,” she says. “For years we’ve been hearing about the importance of agility, but this year’s survey shows why it is important. We see telling and statistically significant differences in responses of those in high-agility cultures.”

Yet barely half of respondents (52.8%) are operating with “high agility.” Conversely, almost one in four — 24.5% — characterized their employers as having “low agility,” while 22.6% registered middling agility.

The survey suggests too many companies try to navigate today’s challenges without sufficient agility.

Agility in action

Survey respondents helped define what agility looks like in a corporate and comms setting in their open-ended responses.

“Companies have to get better at quickly assimilating info and pivoting,” said one. Another comms professional said companies “have to be flexible… to meet the new demands of customers during evolving technical changes.”

And another pointedly captured what makes it so critical: “Agility will win.”

Confronted by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, some organizations that didn’t think of themselves as agile do now.

With a 92-year history, General Mills understood itself to be a storied, trusted brand. But stakeholders didn’t necessarily think of it is as being quick-thinking and -acting, says Jano Cabrera, global CCO at the consumer-packaged-goods company and a former communications lead at McDonald’s.

“But once we found ourselves at this time, nobody thought in that mindset; everyone was like, ‘What do we need to do right now to continue to make food?’” he says. “And so decisions that would have taken months to discuss, such as changes to our supply chain in getting people our brands they want most as quickly as possible, were being decided overnight and implemented that same week.”

General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening
General Mills chairman and CEO Jeff Harmening
(Photo credit: Getty Images)

General Mills also moved with urgency to be heard on systemic racism after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, the food manufacturer’s hometown. Chairman and CEO Jeff Harmening published an essay on LinkedIn outlining steps the company is taking to fight systemic racism. He also spoke to media about working with more diverse suppliers, whether they “supply ingredients or communications.”

“We weren’t the only voice, but an early voice, and we have made a commitment to be an active voice in the months and years ahead,” says Cabrera.

He adds that an unprecedented environment has demanded even legacy corporations change their models. “The need for agility is being thrust on every corporation, but not all are weathering this period equally,” says Cabrera. “That’s because pressure doesn’t so much build character so much as reveals it. We’re finding out both individually and at the corporate level who has resilience, agility and a learning mindset.”

Walgreens Boots Alliance also quickly shared a thoughtful, detailed response that was crafted during a Sunday morning video call, including with the pharmacy giant’s CEO and Aaron Radelet, global CCO and SVP.

“When teams around the world see your CEO make a very specific statement that early on — and see you have a chief diversity officer and the diversity of our patient base and in who we hire — all that makes a big difference to building social value,” says Radelet, who explains such statements also set up companies to be held accountable and take real action.

For example, in early August, Walgreens released a new diversity and inclusion report.

In these examples, it is clear how agility in comms becomes important to achieve progress on diversity and building social value.

While respondents overall feel progress on diversity has been relatively slow (3.38 on a 5-point scale), highly agile corporate cultures are way in front on diversity than low-agility cultures (3.84 versus 2.88). Respondents in highly agile corporate cultures also better understood the importance of social value creation alongside financial value creation (3.71 versus 2.88).

Social-value creation can also help drive a brand’s purpose. In their qualitative answers, respondents said communicating an authentic purpose is a top priority.

“Purpose and values will continue to be more important to how and what is communicated,” wrote one, while another emphasized its importance in the wake of the global pandemic. “Brand purpose after COVID-19 will become even more important [given] reputation and trust becomes even more crucial.”

Employees at agencies reported their corporate cultures to be the most agile (3.97), versus in corporate (3.50) and government (2.80).

“As a communicator, agility is make-or-break,” says John Saunders, president and CEO of FleishmanHillard.

The challenge for agencies is in keeping up with a media environment in constant flux and disruption, so they can act with agility on behalf of clients.

“We need to continuously reconfigure our core skills in new ways to address client needs at an ever-changing pace. Influencers are acting as newsmakers, reporters are starting their own outlets and social platforms are revising their rules,” adds Saunders. “If communicators don’t understand the different roles — and keep up with the changes — their ability to execute will suffer.”

How it can flourish

As with previous years’ findings, almost 56% of client-side respondents said their PR and marketing functions were either somewhat or completely integrated. Highly agile organizations reported being more integrated than low-agility organizations.

Of the respondents who said their functions were fully integrated (5 on a 5-point scale), 54% were in the high-agility group. For those who said their functions were completely separate (1 on that scale), only 34% were in this group.

At Xerox, chief communications and brand officer Anne Marie Squeo integrated communications and marketing in a manner they weren’t when she joined the company in March 2019 from IBM.

“It eliminated a lot of tension that often exists between marketing and comms teams. I am now convinced this is the right model, no matter what kind of company it is,” says Squeo. “We have a unified sense of purpose and can act more quickly.”

Cross-functional teams are also the norm at Frito-Lay North America. For instance, its multi-pack business unit includes a group with PR, marketing, sales and supply chain people, who, before stay-at-home orders, sat together in the office.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Joan Cetera, VP of comms at the PepsiCo-owned snack manufacturer, says this enables agility to thrive. “We are most agile when we are working with internal stakeholders from the start, because a big part of agility comes back to knowledge-sharing,” she adds. “It enables us to provide input in real-time, versus a lot of what I’ve seen in my career, which is things getting turned over to comms when they are already 80% baked.

“That is not being agile because then comms asks the questions that needed to be asked from the start and can potentially slow down a project. That way is a lot rockier, too, because no one is thrilled at then having to revisit it.”

Her comments speak to one of the many eye-opening findings in the survey. Organizations in highly agile corporate cultures were far more receptive to employee feedback and differences of opinion. Employees in highly agile organizations also reported feeling far more empowered (4.01) than those in low-agility workplaces (2.05).

Jennifer Temple, CCO at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, believes empowering employees goes a long way to unlocking agility.

“If they feel supported and backed, they’ll feel empowered to make decisions in the moment, and that leads to agility,” she says. “I have also impressed upon my team that we should have a plan. In some ways, it’s ironic — that the comms team that has committed to developing a plan winds up being the most able to react on a moment’s notice and recalibrate.

“Developing a plan forces you to look at all stakeholders and potential scenarios. So while sometimes we have to toss a plan out the window, the dedication and discipline around developing a plan is hugely empowering,” adds Temple.

As one CCO remarked in the survey about COVID-19: “We were prepared for a crisis. Our emergency response team rehearses scenarios a few times each year. However, the velocity of this crisis was far more intense than we ever could have imagined.”

But imagine a company’s response with no plan at all. As Melissa Waggener Zorkin, WE’s global CEO and founder, says, agility and preparedness go hand in hand.

“Agility is rooted in preparedness, and communicators need to ensure they work with stakeholders to move from a ‘just-in-time’ mindset, to one of ‘just-in-case,’” she says. “Investing time and resources into preparedness strategies and comms plans ensures businesses can keep pace.”

Employee comms gets its due

The PR function in high-agility organizations also benefits from being responsible for change management and comms (4.10), much more than medium- and low-agility organizations (3.50 and 3.20).

Effective change management, of course, starts from within. When asked to rank 11 constituencies — from most important to communicate with during the pandemic to least — 66% of respondents put employees at the top.

During COVID-19, companies had to galvanize their workforces behind a common goal, such as protecting each other and customers by wearing masks and social distancing, or accelerating other parts of their business, such as online delivery.

The study saw written responses such as “internal comms is everything”; “make sure all internal stakeholders are on the same page”; and “more focus on employee comms and customer comms, less focus on media relations.”

Walgreens strives to be as transparent as early as possible with employees, says Radelet. He points out the decision in July to share that CEO Stefano Pessina would be stepping down and become executive chairman despite not yet having a successor in place, after the drugstore chain’s shares fell 30% in the prior 12 months.

“Some other companies would have done a secret search and then announced the leadership change, but we wanted to be up-front,” explains Radelet. “Each message you put out there, especially a big one like that, layers onto the trust you’ve built up with your employees over time.

“Employees and other audiences eventually forget the details of an announcement, but they remember the feeling that ‘This company is honest and transparent.’”

Barri Rafferty departed her CEO role at top-five global PR firm Ketchum this summer to lead the corporate comms function at Wells Fargo.

“I’ve never seen a time where we have had to so quickly adapt to employee needs more than when COVID-19 hit,” she says.

That led to new policies for essential workers at Wells Fargo, such as providing an in-home backup childcare benefit, daily reimbursement for childcare and time off to arrange childcare.

“It took agility for us to address the fact that people were facing an obstacle in getting to work and, circling back to comms, communicating that new value and capability effectively,” adds Rafferty.

Organizations with highly agile corporate cultures tend to involve the comms function in the development of corporate policy (3.64) much more than those with low agility (2.91). This could become a growing trend, given increased focus on employees during this time and the elevated importance of internal comms.

“I’ve always said internal comms should be similar to external in terms of how we use video, infographics, Q&A, human involvement of senior executives, because people don’t digest information differently as employees,” says Rafferty. “They have similar attention spans.”

To connect with displaced workforces, companies of all stripes have ramped up their use of online tools for remote collaboration. At PepsiCo, CEO for the North American foods business Steven Williams has been holding biweekly chats via Zoom with other leaders.

Some chats have also functioned such as AMAs (Ask Me Anything.) “They’ve had great turnout,” says Frito-Lay’s Cetera. When the pandemic is over, she says there should be no going back to the old way of doing internal comms.

“We have set a new precedent with employee comms and can’t go back from that,” she explains. “Agility has put us in a different place of frequency and transparency. We don’t want employees saying later, ‘Wow, whatever happened to those great Zoom chats?’ To me, that is not success in moving forward.”

The tech gap

Despite the rapid digitization of business processes, technology continues to be underutilized in PR. Results only inched up in a positive direction versus previous surveys when it comes to tech being used to drive PR. Respondents also reported low levels of applying new tech such as AR, AI and VR and the comms-tech stack to their work (2.61 and 2.92).

No wonder respondents cited “faculty with technology” as a competitive advantage. “Companies that know how to use tech best to serve clients will outperform others and attract more clients,” said one. Another said a key concern is “the ability to work remotely and provide virtual access to comms tools.”

Temple would like to measure comms’ impact as it pertains to questions such as, “Do people trust HPE?” “Are they confident in our products and performance?” and “If the world lost HPE, what do people think the societal impact would be?”

But she says “it is still hard for our industry to demonstrate our impact like that. We could do a much better job of collecting data that would inform and act on those answers.”

FleishmanHillard is evaluating ways to harness new tech and get at those answers.

“Just as COVID-19 is accelerating the digitization of operations and shift to e-commerce for many organizations, it will also accelerate the speed at which PR firms adopt AI and other new technology,” predicts Saunders. “We’re looking at new ways to use AI to provide better real-time insights to our clients, who need these more than ever given the speed at which consumer sentiment is changing.”

General Mills is experimenting with chat, real-time question-taking, live polling and other interactivity to layer onto remote working tools.

But Cabrera stresses the solution isn’t more Zoom happy hours. “If I get invited to one more, it is a hard ‘no.’ The elephant in the Zoom room is that these can be exhausting,” he says, noting people trip over each other and awkwardly wait for someone else to speak. “We should all be figuring out how to use technology to create a kinetic learning environment, not social distance from each other.”

It is a new world. And as several PR pros point out in response to the survey, organizational agility could be the principal factor in dictating how companies emerge from this fraught time.

“The results conclusively show agility is sine qua non for communicating amid dramatic change,” says Don Wright, Harold Burson professor of public relations and chair for the department of mass communication, advertising and PR at BU’s College of Communication. “It significantly influences positive organizational and comms outcomes, and we can see in the qualitative answers this is what is needed to prepare for a post-viral world.”

You can purchase the premium edition of the Bellwether Report, which includes extra features and a deep dive into all the data, here.

Methodology: At 2,058 responses, this year’s Bellwether Survey yielded a record number of participants. It was distributed to PRWeek subscribers, PRSA and Page members and key contacts of the BU research team. The survey was fielded from March 25 to May 9.

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