Consumers. Employees. Journalists. Investors. Politicians. Regulators. Activists. Influencers. Whether working in-house or agency-side, these are some of the key stakeholder groups with whom strategic communicators must establish and maintain relationships. From the content they produce to the crises they overcome — or help avoid entirely — and everything in between, all of that work is in the service of helping their brands connect with the audiences that matter.
One relationship that is particularly sought after is with an entity that is the ultimate arbiter of the role.
We’re talking, of course, about the direct line to the C-suite: the “seat at the table” comms leadership has craved for so long. The C-suite will grant — or deny — it, based largely on what communications professionals can help brands accomplish. Comms’ ability to prove what it is doing is working is a key part of that calculation.
Based on feedback from the 440 industry professionals across 10 countries who completed the survey that informs the Global Comms Report, presented by Cision in partnership with PRWeek, strategic communicators have made more progress on this front than any of the previous years of this study — and any prior to that.
Almost half of global comms professionals (47%) now report to the CEO directly, with 30% reporting to the head of marketing. This is a notable contrast from the 2020 report, in which 57% of respondents reported that comms was part of the marketing function.
And in the 2019 Global Comms Report (the last one fielded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), 67% of respondents reported that communications was part of the marketing function.
This year, though, it appears that difficult recent times have actually allowed the discipline to shine in a manner that has strengthened its position with the executive leadership in their organizations.
In last year’s report, 87% of global respondents noted the C-suite had sought their counsel more than in previous years. At the close of 2022, several participants responded with personal observations that directly support the data:
• “The turmoil in the world has put an emphasis on the importance of communications.”
• “In times of turmoil, PR has an even bigger opportunity to help brands build or restore trust. The function will be fine.”
• “Every year that goes by, the benefits of PR are gradually more known and embraced. It's been a slow but steady process. The past couple of years, though, it’s truly moved forward.”
In the U.S., the majority optimistic or neutral stands out as compared to other parts of the world, though APAC clearly has more optimistic respondents than elsewhere. Meanwhile, there is a chasm between in-house and agency respondents, with the former being far more bullish.
Air of confidence
If there’s one word that captures the prevailing sentiment of strategic communicators today, it’s “optimism.” Literally, as 58% describe themselves as “optimistic” about the position of comms in relation to the C-suite heading into 2023. Conversely, only 19% said they felt “pessimistic,” with the remaining 23% being “neutral.”
It’s also noteworthy this survey was conducted in the fall of 2022, a time of great turbulence politically, societally and economically. During this time of global uncertainty, where anxiety and pessimism tend to take center stage, strategic communicators are telling a surprising story.
That empowered sentiment is, in part, grounded in concrete numbers. Budgets increased for close to half (44%) of in-house strategic communicators in 2022 versus 2021, with almost the exact same percentage (43%) anticipating budget increases for the coming year. (In both cases, those percentages just about double those who say it decreased/will decrease.)
The positive feeling makes its way to agency professionals, too, as 47% report client budgets had increased in 2022 as compared to the prior year, with the exact same percentage anticipating them to rise again in 2023.
Cision CMO Putney Cloos sees the optimism and budget increases as reflective of an industry “that is having a significant impact in organizations, from how they have been navigating pandemic communications to their employees to social issues.”
“It also reflects,” she continues, “that comms is having more strategic conversations with the C-suite.”
Survey respondents back up Cloos’ sentiments.
“Comms has a seat at the table and a strong influence over other C-suite executives,” shares one leader who took the survey. “The C-suite has a significant amount of trust and reliance on the comms team,” notes another.
And comments such as this truly underscore just how far comms has come: “As director of comms, I am a member of the C-suite six-person leadership team.”
While still not widespread, the fact that some strategic communications executives are company leaders themselves is a testament to progress.
Making a mark at the top
The numbers shared earlier in this report about the direct line to the CEO that nearly half of our respondents now have is as clear a sign as any of the new reporting structures that have emerged, with communications standing on its own and, in turn, participating in corporate decision-making as it never has before.
At Danone North America, Gemma Hart, VP of comms and community affairs, reports to the CEO — and she greatly appreciates what that enables her to accomplish.
“You need a strong level of CEO buy-in for our function to be an effective business partner,” she emphasizes. “We’re very fortunate to work so closely with our CEO. He is very explicit in his expectation that comms helps drive business strategy forward.”
It is a responsibility being felt by more and more communicators — one that comes from the very top of the business.
Survey respondents were given 11 factors to choose from when asked what they believe is the CEO’s (either their own or that of their clients) biggest priority as it relates to communications’ impact on their business.
The only option that more than half of respondents placed in the top three (at 54%) was: “building sustainable growth and value for the brand.” After that, the next top answer was the “ability to respond to changing dynamics and opportunities in a timely manner” (46%).
It’s also worth noting that direct bottom-line results such as “customer acquisition/engagement” (34%) and “driving sales/revenue” (33%) scored about the same as “defining and distributing the brand story” (35%) and “crisis preparedness and/or response/execution” (34%).
It is becoming clearer that communications professionals are increasingly being seen as impactors of “hard” business numbers, just as much as they are of the more traditional metrics for which they have always been sought to affect. The turning pointThough communications wasn’t always considered by the C-suite to be a driver of growth and value, Hart cites the pandemic as a turning point when her function became a connective tissue within her organization, as the need for information became the way forward for companies, whether in protecting their employees from COVID-19 or repositioning their financial outlooks to investors.
“The fact is,” she explains, “we have more information than ever before. The need for access to information is greater than before, so there is heightened transparency.”
Such greater visibility is also enjoyed by Cigna CCO Melissa Skottegaard, who takes great pride in her relationship with CEO David Cordani. “I am definitely meeting with him frequently, as well as all of the business leaders,” she reports. “We have earned our seat and more.”
When asked to reflect about how the discipline of communications has evolved, she explained, “The relationship I have with David has become very different over the past few years in that comms has become a trusted adviser,” notes Skottegaard. “We’re now sought out on all sorts of business matters, from board to employee issues, from COVID-19 and social justice to the media.”
In the context of another key relationship — between comms and marketing — Skottegaard notes they are, “two sides of the same coin because we come at things very differently. That separation creates some healthy tension.”
Agency leaders have noticed a change with their clients too.
“Comms is a strategic management function, but some CEOs in the past would only reach out to the CCO/comms team or PR agency when an issue or crisis was happening,” points out Julie Batliner, president of Carmichael Lynch Relate. “With COVID, the Great Resignation, the racial justice movement, the war in Ukraine — and the convergence of these issues — comms has been propelled for its strategic value. That has notably strengthened our relationship with CEOs.”
Is comms becoming an increasingly more challenging job? Clearly it is, based on how many said “a lot.” However, that sentiment is strongest in the U.S. (among regions) and at PR agencies (as compared to in-house). Meanwhile, among industry sectors, those in Arts/Entertainment/Media feel this the least.
The balance of art and science
The work of strategic communicators has always been based on human relationships — the “R” in “PR” — and creativity. However, the discipline has long trailed other corporate functions in their embrace of and ability to best take advantage of data and analytics.
This year’s report shows definite signs that is changing. And, in doing so, it offers a logical explanation as to why comms’ position with the C-suite is stronger than ever.
The data suggests that comms professionals are also embracing how science and technology can even further improve their performance on content development — the art side of the equation.
Respondents were given 11 functions over which comms has purview and often uses tech tools to assist, including news/media monitoring, press release distribution, reputation management and social listening.
It is noteworthy that the top scorer (25%) among them was “content ideation/strategy/creation (software, AI, keyword, research).” That was followed very closely by “data analysis/insights” (24%) and “impact/ROI of PR efforts” (21%). (No other option exceeded 8%.)
Communicators are relying on technology and data (read: science) as much in the creative process of producing content (read: art) as anything else.
“Data is what I live and breathe,” says Skottegaard. For her, it’s not limited to the company’s ability to navigate a media issue. It has also helped with the production of Cigna’s leadership platform, Loneliness in America, which it introduced back in 2019.
“We’ve been using data to continuously reinvent our platform,” she reports, “maintaining our incredibly high readership of this content with information people are looking for about loneliness, such as what it looks like and how to handle it. It is a great example of how we use data proactively, as opposed to reactively.”
Armando Azarloza, CEO of The Axis Agency, a multicultural comms and marketing agency, says his firm wouldn’t produce creative that isn’t rooted in data and research.
“You can be as creative as you can be, but your creative is only as good as your research,” he advises. “Content is king in today’s world, but data is what ultimately drives our creative process and cements the direction we take with the content.”
And for those who worry a reliance on science will negate the artistic qualities and nuance that comms professionals bring to the table, fear not.
Yes, science brings an added element to the practice, but it will always need human intelligence and sensitivity in order to have any impact.
As Cloos notes, communicators often think with their heart — putting compassion and empathy to the fore — and that can’t be lost, even as they embrace technologies such as AI and keyword research.
“Data needs to be looked at through a human lens,” she explains. “We can’t lose sight of the humanity comms brings to companies. All that data and AI can’t be leveraged outside the context of a very human relationship.”
Maintaining what has been earned
While the journey to reach a desired status within an organization may be difficult, even harder is the work to maintain that position. (In the world of sports, for example, you will often hear how it’s even tougher to defend a championship than it is to win it the first time.)
Pride. Emboldened. Communicators should feel both very strongly right now, as evidenced by this report’s findings. However, the more you achieve, the greater the pressure — and the obstacles — to keep progressing.
For example, over the past few years, brands have increasingly come to understand that they must ongoingly assert their voice and own their own stories in the public sphere, lest they lose control of their own narratives. The potential for individuals and influencers to be supportive or disruptive is significant. With this unique ability to affect consumer opinions and behaviors, it’s critical that comms teams understand how best to identify strategic communications partners and nurture those relationships.
As highlighted in the accompanying sidebar, “Obstacles to influence,” there are many factors that continue to challenge communicators in this regard. In fact, only half (exactly 50%) of survey respondents give themselves a grade of “good” or “excellent” when it comes to identifying and collaborating with “the right” influencers.
The good news: Communicators are increasingly ready to put data to use to optimize performance of their campaigns — both related to influencers and more broadly. In fact, 79% of respondents answer affirmatively when asked if comms is relying on data and analytics more now than it was at this time last year.
More specifically, when asked to choose the three functions they would most value in an “ideal suite of tools,” it’s notable that “Identify and communicate with influencers” was in the top three, chosen at 38%, along with “measure impact of earned campaigns” (48%) and “Ideate and create compelling content” (43%).
That willingness to rely on data will be a crucial ingredient as comms seeks to maintain the “seat at the table” it has earned. That reality becomes crystal clear when considering that 61% of respondents still identify “inability to measure impact effectively” as their top challenge.
And this weakness is one that needs to be strengthened for the sake of comms’ continued ascent in the business world. It speaks to optimization. It speaks to the ability to deliver on goals. It speaks to efficiency and agility.
Yet again, communications teams are in the best position to tackle all these, especially when they lean in to data and analysis, and demonstrate their value at the highest levels of their organizations. Clearly, our respondents feel confident in this regard, as evidenced by the following sentiments some of them shared with us.
• “We have received assurances that comms will be higher priority for budgeting in 2023.”
• “We just had a large town-hall event and were highly recognized by our CEO and other leaders. They are confident in us.”
• “We've seen amazing results this year with key pivots we've made in strategy — those wins have brought new business, so the C-suite is more vested.”
• “As our attribution tracking and ROI validation has improved, so has our ‘street cred’ with the C-suite.”
Budgets are increasing. The expectation they move the needle on the bottom line and be involved in business decisions is more obvious. Both direct and indirect lines to the C-suite (and the CEO, in particular) have never been more evident.
In the six years of this Global Comms Report, never has it been more appropriate to say than it is in 2023 that comms has “arrived.” However, having “arrived” is not the end game by any means. Much progress must still be made. In truth, the increased recognition and standing at the highest levels of business only amplifies that truth.
That mandate has existed for all six years of this report. It existed before that and will remain in the coming years. However, the opportunity to meet that objective, as well as the tools to help do so, are there for strategic communicators in ways and at levels they have never been before.
“Finding the right influencer to work with” and “cost of partnerships” are clearly the two biggest challenges across the board – regionally, by organization type and by industry sector.