From the editor-in-chief: Latest survey of top marketers confirms PR’s growing influence

The latest IPA Bellwether Report offers real encouragement to PR professionals, particularly those who work on the marketing communications side of things, at a time when we’re all in dire need of some positive news.

From the editor-in-chief: Latest survey of top marketers confirms PR’s growing influence

The latest edition of this long-established survey of 300 marketing heads "taken primarily from the UK’s top 1000 companies" was released today and confirms two very positive trends for PR previously identified by this writer.

The first is that PR budgets have been cut less than other forms of marketing.

In the final quarter of 2020, for example, the survey reveals that, despite the net balance of marketers cutting their budgets being -24 per cent (40.4 per cent reported a decrease in available funds in Q4, while only 16.4 per cent saw an increase), the net balance of firms actually cutting their PR budgets was just -8.5 per cent.

This compared favourably to a balance of -21.8 per cent cutting main media advertising, -26.5 per cent cutting sales promotion and a whopping -62.9 per cent cutting live events budgets.

So once again, PR activity was the least likely marketing activity to be cut in what was a tough economic quarter for many companies dealing with an increasingly locked-down country in the run-up to Christmas.

As long argued here, it does seem organisations still need to communicate with their audiences even if they cannot justify promoting products and services to them as much as previously.

An example of this would be the hotel group that feels it needs to keep customers aware of new properties or future plans for its resorts, despite its hotel properties being closed for now and the foreseeable future.

The report, co-ordinated by the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), forecasts UK adspend to have fallen in total by 17.8 per cent in 2020, while GDP and consumer spending are down by 11.6 per cent and 15.6 per cent, respectively.

The IPA doesn’t speculate on what the decline in PR spend may have been in 2020, but one can predict that it would be less severe than these high double-digit falls.

The second, and even more encouraging, trend is that, when asked about their 2021/2022 plans, a net balance of +12 per cent of firms expect their total marketing budgets to be upwardly revised in the next financial year; the biggest quarter-on-quarter confidence boost in five years.

And while main media advertising is set to grow more – at a net balance of +4.6 per cent of marketers increasing budgets – PR is not far behind at +3.2 per cent predicting growth.

Comparatively, sales promotion is expected to see a further decline (-3.7 per cent), and live events another big drop (-30.9 per cent).

This suggests that PR, unlike events, will bounce back relatively quickly. An example is the fashion retailer that will gradually increase brand advertising as shops open again in spring/summer 2021, gradually ramping up its product PR simultaneously.

Generally, the report forecasts “robust adspending growth in the next few years, in light of the development and approval of COVID-19 vaccines”, predicting adspend growth of 6.9 per cent in 2021 and 6.2 per cent in 2022.

Again it doesn’t make any predictions about the growth in PR spend, but one would hope for a similarly robust recovery.

And of course this doesn’t include PR spend that comes out of corporate affairs or internal comms budgets, which is believed to have held up even better than marketing PR.

One is well aware that many PR professionals were previously heavily involved in live event activity and that the picture is rather gloomier for that area.

On this, the report says: “Given the current COVID-19 restrictions in the UK, that could last for several more months, it is unlikely that categories such as events spending will start to grow. The recovery in those areas is more likely to begin in 2022, when we hope that the current economic climate is nothing more than a distant memory.”

In the wider context, 2020 was an awful year for marketing generally. The Bellwether Report for Q2 2020 showed a negative revision in budgets of -55 per cent, the biggest drop in 11 years.

But there is growing evidence that 2021 and 2022 should eventually feel much better, with earned media, in particular, continuing to outpace other activities.

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