Communications Bellwether Survey 2022: PR in pole position

The fifth collaboration between PRWeek and Boston University portrays an industry that has the ear of the C-suite but faces new expectations to deliver value.

Interested in the 2022 PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey Premium Edition? Click here for more information.

The PR function has never been in a better position to flex its influence across multiple facets of an organization.

That’s the big headline from the most comprehensive annual review of the industry, back for its fifth year.

The 2022 PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey offers a wealth of data-supported insights to inform this hypothesis, from in-house comms functions, PR agencies, educators and tech suppliers.

From the shakeup in skill sets required for the profession to prosper to how organizations approach pressure to speak up on social and political issues, the fifth annual survey benchmarks where the industry stands and where it is going. 

This is based on the responses of almost 1,500 comms professionals who took the 2022 survey amid the Russia-Ukraine war, the foreshadowing of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and seemingly never-ending workplace challenges related to COVID-19.

PR pros report feeling valued, both by their organization and executive leadership (4.03 and 4.04, respectively, on a 5-point scale).

Two out of three participants agreed the comms function is involved in important business decisions. An almost equal amount, 65%, said their advice was valued in making these decisions.

“The function capitalized on the pivotal moment the pandemic provided in 2020,” says Arunima Krishna, assistant professor of PR at Boston University’s College of Communication. “The latest results show comms has continued to grow in importance, and this gives a strong indication that its influence is here to stay.”

Another measure that has steadily risen since the fielding of the first Bellwether Survey in 2018 is that almost three out of four client-side respondents indicate the function is today seated at the top management table.

“The seat before my arrival wasn’t there,” says Jennifer Smoter, SVP and CCO at UnitedHealth Group, who joined the healthcare and insurance company in March 2021. “Demonstration of business acumen, understanding of external forces on our business and focusing our team not just on performance measures but also on effectiveness, has allowed me to be at the table. We have to show our worth as business leaders with communication expertise to keep it.” 

What the PR function does with that seat and its increased expectations and accountability is what will count moving forward.

Because, somewhat counterintuitively based on the main data, one eyebrow-raising result from the survey suggests the function is not yet weighing in on some matters. Respondents reported not really being involved in management discussions around crucial business issues such as supply chain, inflation and even Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Torod Neptune, SVP and CCO of Medtronic, says it requires hard work to take your seat and exploit it to its full impact, especially when you historically haven’t had it.

“We’re making very tough decisions to prioritize high-value work within our function, which is creating tension because leaders in the company are used to seeing us prioritize things I would suggest are of lesser value,” says Neptune. “I am focused on how we use our seat at the table to influence, guide and course correct for the organization, and not just sit.”

One role he sees communications playing at the highest level is keeping the organization accountable, on behalf of all its stakeholders.

“We’re poking, prodding and trying to be drivers of that in conversations across the enterprise. It’s not easy work,” he says. “But a barometer of how well we are deploying the influence we have gained is the degree to which we’re involved in very tough, challenging conversations about the business.”

PR agency leaders are also being asked to evolve their counsel.

“Our clients very often have large, strategic roles, but today they are in the spotlight with their management teams and boards as never before,” says AnnaMaria DeSalva, global chairman and CEO at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “Our work as advisers is evolving. Today, we address the convergence of opportunities and issues that span commercial growth, risk management and reputation.”

Comms is firmly in the room with other C-suite leaders. However, the work has just begun in showing the room how much more value it can offer.

Drivers of engagement

Corporations face a multitude of challenges with a tired and fed-up workforce, as evidenced by the Great Resignation and resistance to RTO efforts. The survey found this is where comms really showed its value in the past year, with employee engagement a key focus of work for almost 62% of pros. Effective engagement of employees also ranked a strong fourth in a list of skills deemed critical for the profession to keep flourishing.

As a high-ranking CCO at a Fortune 100 company, who requested anonymity, told PRWeek, “Employee comms has been an increasing priority. It required me to upgrade talent in this area.”

Agency leaders have also recruited and trained around employee engagement. “This is an area of our business where we have seen a significant uptick in client work,” notes Jim O’Leary, U.S. COO of Edelman.

Likewise at Ogilvy PR. “Some organizations are growing their internal comms team faster than external comms,” says Julianna Richter, global CEO of the firm. “The growth has been exponential, and we need experts on the client side as well as in agencies if we’re to best understand how to engage employees.

“They are not the same audience as a consumer or investor,” she explains. “An employee looks for different types of information, and in different formats.”

Asked whether the Great Resignation has had an impact on their organization, more than half of respondents agreed, with 26% in “strong agreement.”

In written responses, PR pros described some of their work in response to its impact. One spoke of efforts to turn the tide against high turnover, particularly among workers in manufacturing and distribution.

“Communications partnered with HR to enhance recruitment, even buying billboards and social media advertising,” said this respondent. The pro also said comms is supporting employee engagement “with incentive programs, motivational speakers and gamification.”

Another respondent said their company hired an internal comms manager to create a new employee engagement strategy, particularly for non-wired employees, who account for two-thirds of their workforce.

“We’re also exponentially growing our internal digital content to focus on a newly honed corporate narrative that focuses on corporate citizenship,” shared this respondent. “Internal comms strategy is probably our biggest focus in the next two years as we get everything aligned and ramped up.”

Dell Technologies is another company where it is a top priority. 

“With the Great Resignation still impacting companies, the employee is in the driver’s seat,” notes Jennifer “JJ” Davis, SVP, corporate affairs for Dell.

“Internal communications has become more in demand as a comms specialty, and our CMO spends a great deal of her time on culture and internal comms,” she says.

When to take a stand

In May, Lockheed Martin hosted President Joe Biden at its facility in Troy, Alabama, where workers have been manufacturing Javelin anti-tank missiles for Ukraine to defend itself against Russia.

“It’s pretty incredible when you get the president of the U.S. wanting to come to your facility,” says Dean Acosta, SVP and CCO at the aerospace, arms and defense company. “It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase what we do and tell the story around our Javelin system.”

But, in a lot of cases, companies are standing up on issues that don’t directly affect their operations. The survey asked client-side participants whether their organizations had taken a stand on 11 sociopolitical issues and the extent to which comms was involved in the discussion.

The results indicate organizations take a stand on issues that directly impact their employees, possibly propelled by employee resource groups (ERGs).

For example, more than four out of five client-side participants reported their organization had taken a stand on racial equality, almost 73% on gender equality, and nearly 62% on LGBTQIA+ issues.

But BU’s Krishna says the results also indicate “organizations may feel compelled by employees to make a statement even when it doesn’t directly impact their workforce’s physical or mental well-being. Employees want their values reflected in what the company says and the actions it takes.”

That may help explain results around the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Half of respondents said their organizations took a stand on it, despite only 23% indicating their business being directly impacted.

However, the communications lead for the Fortune 100 stalwart has a different take. “If you don’t have business in Russia, this was an easy one to throw some rhetorical support behind Ukraine,” he says of companies responding to pressure from a minority of vocal employees.

“Most employees don’t expect or want their employer engaging,” said the comms lead. As big companies look to retrench on weighing in, “dealing with internal activists will become more challenging,”

Many companies are formalizing a process to determine whether to make a public stance, rather than doing so on an ad hoc basis.

“If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing,” says Davis. “Our approach is the same no matter the issue. We ask ourselves a set of questions to determine if we stay silent, weigh in reactively or lean into an issue because it is core to our business strategy.”

“It’s a diverse set of voices and expertise in the room. We have a working team and executive council we involve when needed. Guiding management on how to navigate today’s social and political environment is a big part of a CCO’s job,” she underscores.

Medtronic established a global reputation issues management team, consisting of representatives from strategic areas of the company, which Neptune co-chairs.

“This organization takes the first pass at what’s been established in an algorithm as an incoming issue, where we’ve been challenged or asked to have a point of view and weigh in,” he says. “It is a very strategic analysis of the issue, based on where we have authority, credibility and earned the right to have a point of view, versus where we’re being pressured to have a point of view.”

“This group wargames, if you will, these issues,” adds Neptune. “It has been an important mechanism for us to bring order to crisis response, as decisions can sometimes seem random.”

However, in the end, he says “the last mile of the conversation winds up being very closed doors with tons of conversation within the leadership team. But the reputation issues management team does a lot of the heavy lifting.”

Some brands may not be doing enough anticipatory planning. The Bellwether Survey was in the field when the draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked. However, fewer than 16% of both client- and agency-side respondents reported any involvement in discussions about reproductive justice.

What lies ahead

Of all the things on the plate of the comms practitioner, it is curious to see battling against misinformation and disinformation isn’t one of them.

For all the media attention, only 44% of client-side and 49% of agency-side participants reported it having an impact on their (or their clients’) business.

Brad Staples, CEO of APCO Worldwide, wonders if this is because disinformation and misinformation is the “new normal.”

“Organizations have become more accustomed to dealing with ‘fake news’ and approach it with more confidence than they used to,” he says. “In some sense it is concerning, because it shows how much of a distorted reality we face at the moment. But it may also be reassuring if it demonstrates that businesses, with the help of the comms function and agencies, have learned to tackle those issues efficiently.”

Or, it just may mean other problems are a higher priority.

“Concern about misinformation and disinformation is not in the top five issues clients are coming to us with right now,” says Richter.

That doesn’t mean PR pros shouldn’t be ready to address it.

“It hasn’t gone away, it’s just on a simmer right now,” she says. “To stick with the analogy, it will probably heat up depending on what happens in the world in the next couple years.”

Those hard-to-predict events will dictate all the demands placed on a newly empowered PR function with a strict mandate to deliver business transformation and provide C-suite counsel. But the fifth Communications Bellwether Survey shows PR is in pole position to win the race.

Crisis overtakes writing in skill stakes

Participants in every PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey rank the skills important to future-proof the profession and, every year, writing has come out on top. But this year writing has been supplanted by “the ability to handle crises,” with a 4.74 median on a 5-point scale.

As Dean Acosta, CCO at Lockheed Martin, notes: “Writing is still important, it’s just we’ve been hunkered down in crisis mode for an unprecedented time. Crisis skills are very top of mind.”

Jim O’Leary, U.S. COO of Edelman, agrees, noting: “People value new skills right now, including issues management counsel and the ability to manage teams around a crisis.”

The second-most important skill, “listening,” also trumped writing for the first time (4.63 versus 4.59).

Arunima Krishna, assistant professor of PR at Boston University’s College of Communication, says this doesn’t mean “social listening,” which was listed separately.

Rather, it is listening outside a social media context, says Krishna — like a CCO taking in what is being said by another C-suite leader. Or an agency getting client feedback on a brief.

APCO Worldwide CEO Brad Staples says: “Listening in PR amounts to being able to identify and anticipate butterfly effects and chains of events. A good PR professional in this day and age can make a quick connection between an event in one part of the world and its consequences in another.”

Tech proficiency was once thought the primary skill set of tomorrow’s comms pro.

But respondents don’t see know-how around innovations such as gaming, VR and AI as must-haves. Only 38% of PR pros consider AI a key skill for the future, despite its increasing application to comms work.

Verizon Communications CCO Jim Gerace notes plenty of young talent is tech-savvy but some lack interpersonal skills.

“I’ve employed plenty of young people who can navigate social media and score points for the team, only to come face to face with the CEO in the parking garage and they can’t put two sentences together. Likewise with developing media relationships,” he says. “Fundamental comms skills are critical and can make a world of difference when you’re competing with an aggressive competitor for someone’s attention.”

UnitedHealth Group underwent a process to identify the most important competencies for its comms function. “Rather than skills, a development program helps our team advance as business partners so they can secure and maintain a seat at the table,” says Jennifer Smoter, the healthcare company’s SVP and CCO.

It identified vision and strategy formulation, critical thinking, ambiguity comfort and agility as the competencies. Smoter says this will drive “how we develop our people in roles and prepare them for an evolving comms function.”

Interested in the 2022 PRWeek/Boston University Communications Bellwether Survey Premium Edition? Click here for more information.

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