Brand, reputation, image and understanding. The role of PR and communications is a global issue

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Public Relations and communications have been going through a bit of an identity crisis. Industry associations and commentators are continually wrestling with a convenient definition for what PR is, how it should be measured and its continued relevance in the social revolution.

But, navel gazing will only get us so far. Yes, we have to work out what we stand for and our value proposition as communications professionals, but we must also take into account what our clients are looking for in terms of services and what pressures and challenges they see themselves under in the shifting business and comms environment.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and, as we have seen in our series of Global PR Network blogs and offsites, every country has a different set of media and influencers as well as fundamental differences in economic, business and consumer forces. The world is distinctly unflat.

So, the combined agencies of the Global PR Network wanted to find out how exactly the sands are shifting across the world of communications. We conducted research across 12 countries, covering the USA, Latin America, Europe and Asia – surveying marketing, PR,communications and wider business stakeholders in varying organisations about their priorities, challenges and what they are looking for from agencies in the coming months in terms of service, approach and scale.

We received 124 responses, from decision makers in PR, marketing, sales and wider business functions who, in total, directly control of minimum communications spend $92m. Together, our respondents work in organisations with a total minimum marketing and PR spend of over half a billion dollars ($599m).

 

It is important to note that the numbers of participants by country and region varies, so we must be careful about drawing definitive conclusions from the research, but the findings do provide an important baseline of response to discuss the issues and repeat the research in six months’ time.

We want to thank every single participant who gave up their precious time for the research, but also to each of the Global PR Network partner agencies that work so closely to change the way that global public relations, marketing support and communications campaigns can be delivered across multiple regions.

What the research told us

Our research was split into three sections, covering:

  • The current issues and priorities for respondents in their role
  • Investment focus for the coming year
  • The key qualities respondents look for in an agency partner at local and global level

If we summarise some of the conclusions from the research and from qualitative feedback from in-country partner agencies, we can see some common themes emerge, as well some important nuances when thinking about different regions:

 

8 key takeaways from the research

 

  • It’s about brand as well as reputation.

 

Managing how customers talk about a brand, and engaging the customer base through comms, are seen to be an important or very important focus for 86% and 75% respondents respectively. This is on a par with managing media reputation (77%). This is true across the board for respondents.

This tells us that comms professionals need to become increasingly fluent in understanding wider brand awareness and sentiment. They should be thinking about the lifecycle of engaging a customer – not just capturing attention in the press, but continuing that sentiment as prospects turn into customers. Some regions are still very much focused on getting the basics right, but the importance of generating wider impact above and beyond column inches is widely championed.

 

 

  • Immediate investment priorities include PR, even if respondents don’t work in PR

 

Investment in public relations is a strong priority for 67% of respondents. And it’s worth bearing in mind that only 16% of respondents are PR professionals, vs marketers and business development managers. Content marketing (57%), brand messaging (56%) and social media (68%) are also all key immediate investment priorities for the respondents. Having traditional PR in the mix with the bright shiny objects of content, brand and social is reassuring. Areas of least priority for future investment among respondents include audience segmentation and behavioural analysis – which may be surprising given the emphasis that the comms industry is putting on data and analytics.

 

 

  • Budgets are OK – or at least that’s what client think

 

In many geographies, securing budget for communications is not seen as a huge challenge by client organisations. Exceptions include Spain, India and Brazil, where economic and market maturity issues have an impact. While agencies may feel they are struggling for an appropriate slice of the marketing pie, clients may not agree. If you’re finding a tension between the client-side perception and the agency experience, it may be worth getting round a table to discuss priorities within the organisation, and how delivering on those can best be funded.

 

 

  • PR and communications still has in internal image problem

 

Despite the relative comfort with budget level, the picture is less clear-cut with regard to clear senior support for communications, and accordingly the strategic direction in which comms needs to take the client organisation. Three quarters of all respondents see the need for clearer corporate direction when it comes to delivering truly strategic PR, with 60% looking for more support for communications within their organisation. Here’s a question to you – in your experience does PR and comms still struggle with justifying its relevance and impact at a strategic level? We’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

 

 

  • The war for talent rages on

 

Finding the right talent is a major priority for 62% of respondents. So, how do we as an industry overcome the barriers to attract the best people into the discipline and then make them feel valued? And how do we as agencies work closely with clients in helping support their teams? Does PR and marketing have an image problem as an industry or have people’s demands changed when it comes to choosing a career or an organisation? As Global PR Network member Girish Balachandran, Chief Strategy Officer at Avian Media, India says: “PR is seen as a second option for most professionals interested in marketing. Advertising still takes the cream of the crop when it comes to new talent entering the market. In India, PR suffers from a poor image problem.” And it seems it does across the globe

 

 

  • Advertising – especially offline – is losing out on investment

 

Offline advertising is only a priority area of investment for 19% of respondents, while online advertising (40%) is stronger, but still less important that two-way engagement channels. This reflects a wider decline in traditional “monologue” marketing: direct mail, display advertising TV advertising, etc. As consumers and customers, we demand a conversation; brands must deliver.

 

 

  • Agencies must understand business as well as products

 

The major attributes that respondents are looking for in an agency partner include business understanding (a massive 94% rating it as important or very important), creativity (83%) and proactivity (88%) as well as the prerequisite of product/service understanding (94%). As an industry, our value statements are littered with claims to being “true business partners” or “working in partnership with the business”. But it is imperative that we support our own story with action and demonstrable business understanding. “Consultancy” must go hand in hand with “agency”.

 

 

  • Value vs cost – where do agencies deliver best?

 

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that 82% of respondents feel that it is important or very important that an agency should demonstrate value for money. But 50% of respondents also think that an agency choice should include their ability to save them money. As an industry, the concept of cost vs value is something the Global PR Network feels needs to be debated further.

 

View from the Global PR Network:

 

Tom Berry, CEO, Chameleon, UK says: “We have been talking about the changing role of PR for years – how storytelling is just as important as selling a story. And now this research suggests that managing media reputation, brand and directly engaging a customer base through communications are key priorities across all regions.

 

“No matter how important PR and communications is seen in terms of investment priorities, the reality remains that we have an image problem as an industry. Finding the right talent, whether in-house or in agency is a constant challenge. There still is a divide between marketing and PR in terms of attractiveness as a career choice. And if 60% of people in organisations with a combined multi-million dollar spend on communications are still lacking wider business support for their work, then we will continue to face an uphill battle.”

 

Pedro Cadina, CEO, VIANEWS, Brazil says: “The research highlights some key global trends. It’s encouraging to see that brands are looking to invest in content marketing, brand messaging, public relations and social media. It’s also important to identify the areas they are concerned most about so that campaigns can aim to answer these issues. Key concerns for clients globally include managing reputation and engaging their customer base. For communications consultancies, this creates a great opportunity, by knowing the client’s greatest worry you can build creative strategies to ease them, that’s how to stand out amongst the competition.”

 

Natacha Favry, Founder and Managing Director, L’Agence RP, France says: “The role of PR is changing, consultants now need to become content developers and be the source of news for journalists. Our clients expect the very best content and they are looking to us to produce that.

 

“French companies are increasingly realising the power of communications, which is obviously great! Where as a few years ago brands saw PR and communications as something for a few innovative companies to deploy, they now see it as the best way to stand out from the crowd.

“One of the trends we are really welcoming in France, is the desire for external consultants to be part of the in-house communications team. Brands expect their consultancy to have a thorough understanding of the market, the product, the technology and the sales cycle. They are expecting much more from us than simply knowing how to do PR and social.”

 

Girish Balachandran, Chief Strategy Officer with Avian Media, India says:  

“In India, the market is still maturing. In general, global multinationals operating in India recognize the importance of having consistent and compelling communications a lot more than Indian companies do. But, as the economy grows, companies are realizing the importance of communicating more and to wider audiences. And to do it meaningfully with tangible outcomes.

“But PR is seen as a second option for most professionals interested in marketing. Advertising still takes the cream of the crop when it comes to new talent entering the market. In India, PR suffers from a poor image problem – ‘lobbying’ is still a dirty word. We’re all seen as “spin doctors”. The only way to attract the best people is to create more role models and heroes within our trade. We need to be able to articulate how our work helps improve lives.

“Most PR agencies in India struggle with the basics – good writing, spending time reading more and building thoughtful, intelligent relations with the media. We mustn’t forget traditional channels; with the increase of owned and paid content, the need for credibility and endorsement from earned media has become even more valuable. It’s not an either/or situation but the need to be consistent in messaging and storytelling with multiple stakeholders and audience groups that makes comms complex. And fun!”

 

Björn Eichstädt, Managing Partner, Storymaker, Germany says:

“In Germany, clients are increasingly looking for value for money from their agency. Sometimes, an internal hire can be an expensive move, so they may look for a local communications agency to support the EMEA Marketing or PR person to execute in different regions.

 

“At the same time, more is expected from a communications consultancy – above and beyond being able to execute well on a local campaign. Clients want their consultants to understand the bigger business issues and have a real in depth understanding of the product, this is a recent change. 10 years ago brands used to look to consultancies for communications advice, now the remit is much larger.

 

“When clients are looking to select an agency, they are looking for proven experience and increasingly, specialists in specific areas. I think this is a good thing, agencies should be scrutinised to see if they have the right skills. From industry to industry, there can be many differences, knowing one sector really well, for example technology, is a good thing and should be celebrated.”

 

Mikael Westmark, CEO, Westmark Information, Sweden says:

 

“The study makes it clear that finding the right talent is a truly global challenge for the PR and communication industry. To address this challenge, we must also take a much broader view on how we put together our teams and realize that networked virtual organizations are a very effective alternative to the traditional global agency model.”

 

About the Global PR Network

 

The Global PR Network’s mission is: to deliver unrivalled communications excellence through our local understanding, global reach and trusted relationships.

 

If you want to know more about the research, or would like a chat about how the Global PR Network can help you deliver global communications excellence, please email us at theresa.meredith-hardy@madebchameleon.com or visit us at www.globalprnetwork.com

 

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