Posted on April 11, 2014 in Archive

Keep calm: UK survey shows current digital PR troubles


Just as the publishing world is undergoing a fast and furious transition to digital, so too is public relations and the communications sector. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that digital has vastly changed the way that corporate communicators are able to reach their audiences. So how are these modern communicators faring in their attempts to connect?

This information comes to you thanks to a survey conducted between November 2013 and January 2014 by CorpComms magazine and Mynewsdesk, that asked in-house communicators in the UK about the digital challenges they faced.

Interestingly, when respondents were asked to identify their occupation title, 41% were forced to respond ‘other’ because their job titles didn’t fit into traditional titles such as like ‘PR manager’ or ‘Head of Communications’ – instead, many identified with titles relating to marketing, corporate affairs or had the word ‘digital’ included. From all of the respondents who qualified to take part in the survey, most companies were responsible for a mixture of business-to-business and business-to-consumer communication, with a large percentage of ‘other’ respondents including business-to-government communication in their role. That alone should tell you something about how the PR game is changing.

It’s also rather telling when you look at the daily responsibilities of the average in-house communicator. Unsurprisingly, social and digital media is up (92% claimed they post at least daily to social media like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram), traditional online advertising is down (just 16%). In my view, there is a simple explanation for this – social media and digital activity is replacing online advertising. Seriously, if you have a good enough social media base, online advertising can become slightly redundant for some companies.

So what are these communicators having trouble accomplishing? The following statements were agreed with by over half of all respondents:

  • “It can be a challenge to publish and disseminate content in the most effective way” (Conversely, only 1.6% strongly disagreed, effectively answering that they find it easy)
  • “It is not easy to work out which channels provide the highest engagement for different levels of content”
    (2.6% of respondents thought this was a load of rubbish, compared with 60.7% who replied with ‘agree’ or higher)
  • “It is a challenge to identify and engage with the most important influencers”
    (1.9% strongly disagreed, while 60.1% replied with either ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’).

Furthermore, most respondents have not been trained for the communication channels that they are in charge of. No wonder these communicators are having troubles – they are effectively flying blind! That’s not to say that they are bad at their jobs – it just seems as though the industry is evolving so quickly that people classically trained in marketing or public relations are having to jump in head-first and figure it (being social media) out as they go along. As a matter of fact, 64% of respondents claimed as much. Clark Kokich (chairman of digital agency Razorfish) declared as far back as 2012 that “The focus has really changed… It’s less about advertising and more about creating an experience that transforms what it means to be a customer of a brand. And that change has really caused a lot of consternation in marketing because none of us were trained to do that.”

The split between platform use and returns doesn’t seem to have balanced out yet, either. Generating word-of-mouth no longer guarantees results in a world that is saturated with advertising and PR. Like I said earlier, some companies have managed it, but right now that seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.

What does all this mean, now that your brain has been addled by statistics and marketing terms? It means that in-house communicators are struggling to keep up with all the platforms available to work from, while digital demands are continuing to grow. The fact that these respondents come from a range of sectors really speaks to the universal problems that PR and marketing in general is facing- finance, tourism, property, environment and agriculture, engineering, you name it.

Admittedly, it is difficult to know where the line is sometimes with communicating digitally – particularly on social media, I’m sure most readers have encountered businesses who either post too much, or fail to engage their audiences by not posting enough. This is still a very young industry, so if any PR and marketing companies out there have found a golden solution to how to run things, they are probably keeping it to themselves.

The PR industry is doing its very best to be the change it wants to see in the world. But with professionals claiming that there’s not enough money, time, resources, knowledge, development or support, it seems to be having trouble keeping up with itself.