For better and worse, the technology sector has been in the eye of the storm during COVID-19. Over the past 12 months, comms professionals in the sector have weathered unique challenges and pivoted to find innovative solutions. They have overseen seismic shifts in everything from communications strategy to working practices that will shape the sector for years to come.
Kaizo, an independent PR and content agency for B2B and consumer brands, set out to gauge the impact on the UK sector to date and explore the roadmap through the year ahead. To do this they polled 50 UK comms professionals working in technology businesses.
From the UK sector’s budget projections to the mental health of its professionals, the results are a fascinating snapshot of the most pressing challenges in the COVID era – and provided the expert panellists at a recent Kaizo Live event with much food for thought.
#1. What do you believe are the top internal challenges currently facing communicators?
Communicators were first asked to look within their companies to identify the key internal challenges they faced – and the results were revealing. Overall, managing communication of changes in business strategy driven by market forces was the greatest challenge, cited by 49%.
Managing the pace of change and keeping on top of real-time news and alerts was also seen as a key challenge (41%). Meanwhile, balancing priorities among diverse stakeholders was significantly less of an issue in the UK (29%) than for respondents to a parallel Kaizo survey in the US (42%).
Other key challenges cited included measuring impact/proving the ROI of earned media (47%), US respondents were far more comfortable with ROI demands, with only 20% citing this as a challenge, perhaps reflecting the less fragmented media market when compared with the pan-EMEA roles typical in the UK. Also featured were alignment with and increased demands from marketing or sales teams (33%) and increased scope of work (29%). This last statistic reflects the growing remit of the comms role, which has frequently been dubbed ‘the Swiss army knife of marketing’ during the pandemic.
Further challenges included securing time from spokespeople to fulfil media opportunities (37%), complicated or lengthy approval processes (27%), managing remote teams to ensure business continuity and that KPIs are hit (23%) and board-level understanding of PR’s battle to cut through the packed media agenda (21% UK).
The survey also shone a light on shifting sector attitudes, with 21% citing issues with a culture that is overly cautious or conservative in its comms approach, and 17% flagging up budget uncertainty and cuts. It was encouraging, however, that detailed data in later responses indicated UK budgets were more robust than their US equivalents.
#2. What do you believe are the top external challenges currently facing communicators?
In the second section, communicators were asked to focus on wider challenges and the impact. The notion of the technology sector being perceived as a ‘winner’ from COVID was cited by 37% of respondents, contrasting with the US where 52% find this a concern. Others cited increased effectiveness of competitor communications (43%) and a rise in audience distrust and scepticism (43%) – the latter figure outweighing concerns over tech’s ‘winner’ image during COVID.
Other key external challenges included growing levels of disinformation (43%) and global economic uncertainty (35%), no doubt caused at least in part by the ongoing post-Brexit trade shifts and pandemic restrictions. UK concerns over changes in media staff or media beats were relatively high (41%) compared to the response from US professionals (28%). The COVID crisis is being blamed for over 2,000 job cuts across UK news organisations. Despite Brexit, only 27% of respondents directly described operating in a changing political landscape as a challenge.
The survey also reflected on consumer habits, with further challenges including audience information overload (cited by 39%), a decline in the consumption of traditional media (33%) and the shrinking earned media landscape (35%) – this latter figure again reflecting the UK's smaller media pool and the consequent relatively larger impact of closing titles.
#3. How has COVID impacted comms job roles?
The Kaizo survey results leave no doubt of the pandemic’s disruption to comms professionals in the tech sector, exposing both challenges and opportunities at work and personal pressures. Many statistics are encouraging, with 76% believing COVID-19 has meant they have had increased board-level interaction, and 72% believe the value and positive perception of PR has increased, during the pandemic. 78% reported having increased budget resulting from the reallocation of physical event’s budgets – even if this was perhaps only a short-term boost.
With comms professionals stepping into the marketing gaps left as face-to-face contact dropped, 74% believe that COVID has led to their role expanding with an increased focus beyond earned media (for example, owned, paid, social/influencer relations and internal comms). 72% reported that their role now has increased focus on ROI and analytics, while the same number say their role has changed due to increased content creation demand from sales/marketing teams, and 66% believe their role has changed to have a greater focus on directly supporting sales.
Interestingly, this latter figure was considerably lower than in the US (86%), perhaps showing the two countries’ relative perceptions of the fluidity of the comms role. “I think it’s that realisation, that communications really is the glue for an organisation,” said Penny Still, senior director of corporate communications for EMEA and CALA at Juniper Networks, on the Kaizo Live panel. “It’s been a rude awakening for those that had not already worked that out, to make sure that you are fully on top of your game."
Even so, the picture is not entirely positive. 54% feel increased stress and worry over long-term job security: a concerning figure reflecting a four-year UK unemployment high (even if it pales in comparison to the professional concerns of the US workforce, at 76%). 70% say that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their work-life balance and working hours (despite an increase in home-working). 52% say their mental health has suffered, though this is considerably lower than the US response (80%), perhaps because the remote working culture is more deeply embedded here. “I think a lot of UK folk found the idea of working from home just a little bit easier," notes Still, "and the discipline and the self-discipline, and making sure that you felt you were in a professional space, came just a little bit more naturally than it might have done in the US in some cases."
While the 51% of UK respondents who reported a negative impact on the mental health of their team is far less than in the US (78%), perhaps reflecting labour law differences, clearly comms leaders need to work to safeguard their own, and their team’s mental health.
In brighter news, it seems there is at least an acknowledgement of human issues – the survey reports that 78% have a greater focus on purpose-led communication around issues such as COVID support, diversity and community.
#4. What are your budget expectations for 2021?
COVID’s impact on communications budgets was another important strand of the comprehensive Kaizo survey. While comms professionals in the tech sector overwhelmingly predict their budget will change in 2021 (96%), 49% of respondents expect a decline, while 47% expect an increase. This is considerably more optimistic than in the US, where only 38% expect their budget to increase, and 56% anticipate cuts.
#5. How can agencies be better supported in 2021?
Kaizo’s survey not only took the pulse of the tech sector after an unprecedented year but also polled professionals on the support they felt was needed for a more positive 2021. In the UK, the top three responses on the support needed from agencies were: to provide more proactive insights and market intelligence (53%); to understand the brand’s business better (43%); to improve integration of reporting with marketing systems and to make more use of the latest tools and channels (41%). In the US, the top brand demand was for agencies to deliver more creative campaign recommendations.
While it has been known anecdotally that comms in the tech sector has undergone major change over the past 12 months, Kaizo’s survey provides the most compelling evidence to date of the sector’s dramatic transformation – and the positive and negative repercussions for professionals and their teams.
The survey results show powerfully that UK comms professionals in the tech sector have concerns over their futures and worries for their mental health. But there is markedly greater optimism than their US counterparts, hopes for a recovery in the sector’s budgets and heartening evidence that the comms role is growing, both in terms of remit and recognition, at every level throughout a business. Also speaking during the Kaizo Live broadcast, Iain Mackenzie, head of communications at Graphcore, observed these findings shine a light on a comms sector evolution that has long existed but been massively accelerated by COVID. “Certainly, there are an immediate set of challenges because of COVID,” he said. “But it’s not something that’s happened in isolation.”
“Through the pandemic, comms professionals in the tech sector, in house and agency side, have shown their ability to see the big picture, then step up to manage rapidly evolving situations," said Stephanie Macleod, director at Kaizo. "2020 threw out many challenges, but it also accelerated change, removed some barriers, and let comms show how directly it can contribute to the wider marketing effort. Plus how resilient our multi-skilled teams are. 2021 is already showing that bold creativity, adaptability, and the agility to seize opportunities are going to be key to success this year."
Kaizo is an independent PR and content agency that creates and converts opportunities, opinions and sales for B2B and consumer brands.
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