For better and worse, the technology sector has been at the eye of the storm during COVID-19. Over the past 12 months, comms professionals in the tech 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 US 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 expanding role of US comms professionals to the troubling impact of home working on the mental health of America, the results are a fascinating snapshot of the most pressing obstacles in the COVID era – and provided the expert panelists 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 40%.
Managing the pace of change and keeping on top of real-time news and alerts was also seen as a significant challenge (32%). Meanwhile, balancing priorities among diverse stakeholders was significantly more of an issue in the US (42%) than for respondents to a parallel Kaizo survey in the UK.
However, the US (20%) is dramatically less challenged than the UK (47%) by the need to demonstrate earned media ROI, while other challenges include alignment with and increased demands from marketing or sales teams (30%) and increased scope of work (32%). 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 fulfill media opportunities (22%), complicated or lengthy approval processes (30%), managing remote teams to ensure business continuity and that KPIs are hit (30%), and board-level understanding of PR's battle to cut through the packed media agenda (30%).
The survey also shone a light on shifting sector attitudes, with only 26% citing a culture that is overly cautious or conservative in its comms approach (despite the US's litigious reputation), and 28% flagging up budget uncertainty and cuts. Meanwhile, detailed data in later responses indicated that US budgets were less robust than their UK equivalents.
#2. What do you believe are the top external challenges currently facing communicators?
In the second section, US communicators were asked to focus on wider challenges and their impact. The notion of the technology sector being perceived as a 'winner' from COVID was cited by 52% of respondents, while others cited increased effectiveness of competitor communications (42%) and a rise in audience distrust and skepticism (38%) – the latter figure closely tied to the earlier statistic concerning tech's 'winner' image during COVID.
Reviewing the data on the Kaizo Live show, Kristin Miller, global communications executive at Ping Identity commented: "What I found most interesting is that over half of US respondents saw the tech sector being perceived as a 'winner' of COVID as a top concern for 2021. While the technology space has been active in delivering solutions to people's problems, there are absolutely no winners when it comes to COVID. It's up to all of us to communicate clearly and with empathy when it comes to the global pandemic."
Other key external challenges included growing levels of disinformation (34%) and global economic uncertainty (34%). US concern over changes in media staff or media beats was relatively low (28%) compared to the response from UK professionals (41%), which is perhaps surprising given the US has suffered record media layoffs.
The survey also reflected on consumer factors, with audience information overload (cited by 22%), the decline in the consumption of traditional media (28%), and the shrinking earned media landscape (22%) highlighted as further challenges.
Miller flagged other emerging concerns. "COVID is not the only challenge for tech communicators in 2021," she said. "The elephant in the room is SolarWinds, and the rise of third-party cybersecurity supply chain attacks. All communications professionals need to make sure that third-party breaches are a part of their crisis communications plans moving forward."
#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 78% believing COVID-19 has meant they had increased board-level interaction, and 78% believing the value and positive perception of PR increased during COVID. 72% reported having had 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, alongside staff reductions, 82% 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, 74% say their role changed due to more content creation demand from sales/marketing teams, while 86% believe their role evolved to have a greater focus on directly supporting sales.
Interestingly, this last figure was considerably higher than in the UK (66%), perhaps showing the two countries' relative perceptions of the fluidity of the comms role.
Even so, the picture is not entirely positive. 76% feel increased stress and worry over long-term job security. This is far higher than the UK response (54%), which likely reflects US labor laws – but also mirrors the context of the US survey, which was taken as US infection figures rose and unemployment increased by 385,000 to 3.9 million. 86% say COVID has negatively impacted their work-life balance and working hours (despite an increase in home-working), while an overwhelming 80% say their mental health has suffered: far more than the UK response (52%), perhaps because the home-working culture is less embedded in the US.
With 78% reporting a negative impact on the mental health of their team, it seems the eclectic nature of the comms role could be starting to take its toll.
In brighter news, it seems there is at least an acknowledgment of human issues – the survey reports that 74% have a greater focus on purpose-led communication around issues, such as COVID support, diversity, and community.
Kodie Dower, media relations manager at NinjaRMM, put these findings in context, during the Kaizo Live discussion: "Digital transformation and adoption trends have accelerated in the last year, moving more aspects of life online while also raising the bar on what consumers expect of not just a product, but a company, too. Customers want to feel connected to brands and if there's one takeaway from this research, it's that authenticity and empathy need to be embedded into a brand's ethos. As we move into 2021, tech companies will only be under more scrutiny, bringing a greater need for strategic communicators to develop and align an authentic voice across all channels – PR, marketing, content, website, social, sales and HR."
#4. What are your budget expectations for 2021?
COVID's impact on communications budgets was another important strand of the comprehensive Kaizo survey. US comms professionals in the tech sector overwhelmingly predict their budget will change in 2021 (94%), 56% of respondents expect it to decline, while only 38% expect it to increase. The picture was more balanced in the UK with 47% expecting an increase, 49% a decrease, and 4% no change.
#5. How can agencies be better supported in 2021?
Kaizo's survey not only took the pulse of the technology sector at the end of an unprecedented year but also polled professionals on the support they felt was needed for a more positive 2021. In the US, the top three responses were: to deliver more creative campaign recommendations (48%); improve measurement to demonstrate value to the business (46%); and to better integrate reporting with marketing systems (42%).
While it has been known anecdotally that comms has undergone major change over the past 12 months, Kaizo's survey provides the most compelling evidence to date of the dramatic transformation of comms in the tech sector – and the positive and negative repercussions for professionals and their teams.
The survey results show powerfully that US comms professionals in the sector have concerns over their futures and worries for their mental health. But there is also heartening evidence that the comms role has grown, both in terms of remit and recognition, at every level throughout a business.
"Through the pandemic, communications professionals, 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, and removed some barriers, and let comms show how directly it can contribute to the wider marketing effort, and 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 both B2B and consumer brands. For a fresh look at a communications challenge, ask Kaizo here.