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Special report: Future proofing in-house PR teams

27th July 2017


This report was produced in partnership with

No longer do media relations define public relations.

Like that school friend you meet up with ten years later – public relations has changed. It has moved on. What used to define it doesn’t anymore. What used to be really important is now less important. Public relations has got new friends – nicer friends, more important friends and friends with more money!

Communications is an excellent career choice right now. Digital and social media have meant an increase in the number of channels organisations need to communicate through. Many of these channels and platforms offer the opportunity for organisations to engage directly with consumers and other stakeholders. At the same time reputation has rarely been so important.

Critical to the successful evolution and modernisation of public relations are senior in-house communicators. It is in-house communicators who are able to show off the capabilities and potential of earned and shared media to internal budget holders. It is these people who have the opportunity to create a portfolio of success and gain the trust of their employers, so they have the opportunity to spend the increased marketing budgets that undoubtedly want to come the way of earned media.

What we’re all hoping of course – is that they (you?) don’t screw it up!

This report examines

The journey of in-house PR teams from a department with a focus almost entirely on media relations to one which now has hundreds of channels and platforms to communicate through

Methodology

Three years ago 3 Monkeys Zeno (3MZ) partnered with PRmoment to conduct qualitative and quantitative research across senior in-house communications leaders. Our aim was to gain intel and insight into how these sector leaders were adapting to the ever changing world of PR and comms. What new demands were being made of them? How were they partnering with consultancies and agencies to support them? In terms of their recruitment, what new skills were they seeking? Was their scope of work increasing or decreasing? How were they regarded internally - did they have a seat at the boardroom table or were they still perceived as the poor cousin of other marketing disciplines?

The findings were significant enough for us to want to revisit this research in 2017 and are discussed in this report.

The quantitative part of this research was an online survey conducted amongst 73 senior client-side communications professionals between June and July 2017. The research was carried out by:

The rise and rise of public relations

Public relations longs to be accepted as a boardroom discipline. For many companies it already is. The suspicion is that, simply, if senior communications executives continue to do a good job and show return on investment, then they will gain the trust of the C-suite and communications will become a business attribution, revenue-generation tool, rather than an operational expense.

Oracle’s Chris Talago, VP PR and communications JAPAC and EMEA, believes: “Overall, public relations is becoming more valued. One of the challenges for the profession at large has been demonstrating commercial impact. With a move to more digital environments and greater applications of technology to measurement, we’re moving into a phase in the profession that’s going to allow us not just how to shape campaigns, but also prove our value to the board.“

Talago adds, “in an ever-more connected world, reputational issues are more important, and I think that’s broadly understood by the boardroom, but they also want to understand the impact of what you’re doing.”

Peter Cross, director, customer experience at John Lewis argues “that reputation is as important as ever and the change in the media has put an even greater value on credible editorial endorsed content.”

Do you think PR is becoming more or less valued as a business discipline?

“With a move to more digital environments and greater applications of technology to measurement, we’re moving into a phase in the profession that’s going to allow us not just how to shape campaigns, but also prove our value to the board.”
Chris Talago, VP PR and Communications JAPAC and EMEA

Is PR taken seriously at board level?

An indication of how PR teams spread their time across strategy/planning, content and activation is shown below.

On any typical working week, roughly what percentage of your time is spent on the following types of activity?

The graphs suggests that broadly public relations teams are spreading their time fairly equally between strategy, content and activation.

The growth and evolution of in-house PR and comms teams

It terms of how in-house teams spend their time – everything has changed, but nothing has changed. The task percentages below illustrate why public relations is a sector that is predicted to grow over the next few years. In addition to its core activities such as strategic communications and content creation, good public relations professionals possess the right mix of skills to help organisations communicate more effectively through digital and social media.

However, as Francis Thomas, head of corporate affairs, London Midland, points out: “The history of communications tells us that human beings keep inventing new ways to communicate, but we don’t drop the old ones. Video did not kill off the radio star. More people are listening to radio than ever before. We’ve got video, we’ve got the internet, we’ve got social media. We keep adding and adding to the number of channels.”

What percentage of time is spent on the following types of activity?

The increased scope and responsibility of public relations has changed the profile and contribution of communications leaders. Lewis Marshall, UK and Ireland country communications manager, IKEA Group, points out that “my role as the communications manager has become a lot more inward facing into the business. My role now sits within the management team of the company. Trying to balance the day-to-day operational function alongside helping steer and advise the business is probably the biggest challenge that I have. We’ve recently introduced a deputy role and that will focus on leading the comms team and its output, and my role will centre on supporting and guiding decisions made within the business and what the communication needs for those are.”

“The history of communications tells us that human beings keep inventing new ways to communicate, but we don’t drop the old ones”
Francis Thomas, Head of Corporate Affairs, London Midland

When asked about the increasing number of channels that need to be prioritised Oracle’s Chris Talago states: “It starts with the ability to understand where your audiences go and what they want when they get there. For us (Oracle) it starts with primary and secondary research that allows us to make that prioritisation.

“That’s really important because it’s not just about the increasing numbers of channels and platforms, it’s also about the increasing number of products and services that we have to push. The prioritisation comes down to where we can get most impact for the dollars available – and that comes back to research and analysis of programmes. Specifically where do we put our money? A lot of it is into media, analysts and social media.”

The need to be able to see the wood as well as the trees is echoed by Francis Thomas, head of corporate affairs at London Midland. “My job is to protect the reputation of London Midland. And if you think about who influences your organisation’s reputation, then you focus on working with those audiences. So I have a hierarchy of how different stakeholders influence and can raise or lower the pressure on the company, depending on what we’re doing. So right at the top are customers. They have to come first. A great pressure would come if we have a bad relationship with the secretary of state for Transport. And in between you’ve got rail-user groups, you’ve got local politicians, you’ve got local and national media, the Department for Transport, MPs and you need be mindful of how all of those relationships relate to each other and how you relate to them.”

What is your team’s areas of highest priority?

For an organisation like John Lewis, Peter Cross believes: “Digital and social has meant that the number of ways to talk to customers has multiplied. That’s the forensic lens isn’t it? You have to look at these things from the perspective of the customer, whether it’s directly through social media or indirectly through a journalist. The battlefield has got more intense and faster though, especially when you are juggling so many deadlines and content mediums – your job is more complex and pacey and requires a new level of skill.”

Cross adds: “But you can’t overestimate the value of relationships. It’s too easy to think about all digital and social in a mechanical way, but people are still people and relationships count for a huge amount. The value of networking and relationships is still critical.”

“Digital and social has meant that the number of ways to talk to customers has multiplied.”
Peter Cross, Director, Customer Experience, John Lewis

The responsibility for social

Thankfully the “who owns social debate” seems to have matured and the discussion is now focused on identifying areas of responsibility and collaboration. IKEA’s Lewis Marshall believes that key to a collaborative approach to social channels is process. “For me it’s all about process. How do we have a balanced point of view from the comms and marketing side? I would say that marketing seems to always have more budget than the PR side, but I think it’s all about having shared voice in terms of the objectives.”

Oracle’s Chris Talago adds: “We separate it out by what we’re wanting from social. So at the reputationalawareness level, that’s part of the PR team, at the demand-generation part of the sales funnel, that’s part of the marketing team. Integrated comms is a team sport so you need to know what number you’ve got on your shirt.”

Imagery, video content and influencers

Specifically, imagery, video content and influencers have become a vital part of most campaigns. Claire Foster, deputy head of news at Direct Line Group, says “Brands need to think about imagery – video content is also obviously massively important… having the right video content to go with your story – so something that is short, something that works on social, something that has subtitles (because no one has their volume up!).” Some of the most interesting current campaigns involve the use of influencers. Many of these campaigns are innovative, not just in the campaign creative, but also in the use of influencers.

Foster adds: “It’s amazing the different ways that people are engaging with influencers and if you don’t have someone in your team who knows how to engage with influencers and what the right strategy is, then you can’t make the most of this channel. Some of the best examples I see in this area use micro influencers and then layer up the campaign.”

What type of skills are most useful in an in-house team?

Overall, there seems to be a trend of in-house teams building up the skills of their teams in both consumer-facing companies and business-to-business companies.

John Lewis’s Peter Cross says: “We have built creative expertise internally. Not just within the comms team, but as a broader customer-facing team. Be that for creative events, creative writing, etc. I think the days of PR sitting on its own may be limited because whilst the comms team can bring a huge amount to other teams, it is equally very dependent on other teams. We work in a matrix way, and the interdependencies are even more critical. So, for example, internal communications is close to HR, brand experience is close to customer data and CRM and the external comms team is close to traditional marketing. So there are a lot more touch points and you are constantly trying to make those relationships closer and closer.”

Wendy Watherston, head of PR, national communications at Grant Thornton UK LLP, discusses this example of increased collaboration in a B2B market: “Grant Thornton has increased the size of our in-house PR team because for a business like us, we’re trying to communicate, often quite complicated, issues across lots of markets and having people on the ground is really important. The other element we’ve added is in having a dedicated resource on the content. It’s something we all get involved with, but having someone who is focused on that content asset internally has helped us.”

It would be wrong to suggest that the size of in-house communication teams are increasing across the board though. In most cases, although a small increase in head count is common, it is the skill set of the PR/ communications team that is seeing the most significant change. As London Midland’s Francis Thomas says “The size (or our team) hasn’t changed for three years. The skill set has changed because we keep evolving. The biggest challenge we face as communicators today is pace. You’ve got to be thinking all the time about how to respond in real time. That means immediate photography, that means having copy prepared so it can be sent immediately when events start to happen, thinking about video content and making sure that other stakeholders who may be party to the event are equally prepared and get their message out – it’s all about creating a crescendo of news in what is an increasingly crowded market place.”

“The days of PR sitting on its own may be limited because whilst the comms team can bring a huge amount to other teams, it is equally very dependent on other teams”
Peter Cross, Director, Customer Experience, John Lewis

Internal collaboration – The communications flows of PR teams

Any successful organisation is a series of inter-related parts which co-ordinate their efforts towards a united goal. No one department can work, or should work, in isolation and this is especially true for modern public relations. The touchpoints within an organisation for the communications team are varied, but in an increasing integrated communications environment, the co-ordination is vital. One of the themes of this report is that in-house communications teams and marketing teams are structured more closely than ever. As Oracle’s Chris Talago says “There is barely a day that goes by when we’re not talking with marketing, planning with them, or working out how we work closer together.”

What other departments do you work most closely with and how often are you in contact?

This theme of an ever-closer working relationship between the communications department and the marketing team is echoed at IKEA says Lewis Marshall: “One of the biggest changes we made was becoming much more integrated (with marketing.) Understanding that we have the same sorts of objectives around building the brand or activating consumers and stakeholders – but that we’re responsible for different channels. So there was a big acknowledgement to move towards one communication strategy for the brand rather than having a corporate comms strategy and a marketing strategy. But the integration journey still has a way to go and I’d identify it as one of our biggest opportunities.”

The reality is that in-house marketing and communications teams do, in the end, compete for budget, so there is a tension there. As Perveen Akhtar, senior comms manager, BT/EE points out “It should not be a battle between PR and marketing. These days you must have collaboration.” Akhtar goes on to say however, “Creative ideas are not the exclusive domain of advertising people and ideas require collaboration to execute.” On occasion, there is a perception that the integration of public relations and marketing is happening at a slower pace in business-to-business markets than consumer markets. However, as Grant Thornton’s Wendy Watherston says “In B2B markets the integration between comms and marketing has moved massively. It’s getting closer and closer and I think that’s right. It’s highly complementary – and having comms in at the front end helps create a campaign design that is highly desirable for the audience.”

“It should not be a battle between PR and marketing. These days you must have collaboration”
Perveen Akhtar, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications, BT/EE

Watherston adds: “Everyone looks at it from a slightly different angle – marketing, BD, digital, social, and the media. It’s not just about how do we want our audiences to feel about the brand, it’s about how we want them to engage with us and what do we potentially want them to do.”

The size of in-house PR teams and the role of agencies

The graph below shows a fairly even trend when it comes to the increasing size of in-house teams relative to the amount of work that is outsourced to an agency. Lewis Marshall from IKEA believes that it is the way agencies need to work together that has changed. “A few years ago there tended to be a lead agency and the others followed, but now I feel it’s a much more collaborative process. Obviously IKEA has to facilitate that collaboration, but it’s more about leading the agencies to act and behave as a team or as an extension to the IKEA team.” Over the next 5 years do you see yourself increasing the size of your team or outsourcing more work?

Chris Talago discusses why Oracle uses agency support: “The reasons for using an agency have become more pronounced. At the macro level you’ve got scale, risk and skills. In terms of scale, a lot more of what we do as a brand involves turning activity on and then turning it off and that brings with it a difficulty in scaling quickly enough and scaling in an orderly enough fashion in a way that’s meaningful.

“Second is risk. Fifty% of what we do is delivered through the in-house team and fifty percent is delivered through the agency. The variety of skills that are required mean that it’s incredibly difficult for an in-house team to recreate all of the skills that you need and to do that is incredibly risky – to have that many people on staff.

“For the agency the difficulty is the number of skills that are now required. Those have always been the reason for engaging with agencies – digital and the variety of content we are now expected to produce has given those requirements an even greater focus.”

If you outsource more, what is this likely to be?

For Francis Thomas at London Midland, the reasons for using agency support are even more stark. “We work with agencies for two reasons; reach and capacity.” He continues, “Where there is a gap in network or skills – agencies are fantastic at filling those gaps. You need to recognise that agencies have a role to play – but that mustn’t make the in-house team lazy. You’ve got to keep learning as an in-house team.”

Wendy Watherston from Grant Thornton says: “Grant Thornton uses agencies and it’s great to get that outside opinion, and that remains valuable. And that’s across strategy, content creation and activation.”

Perveen Akhtar from BT/EE points to the need for an out of organisation perspective as one of the primary reasons for using an agency: “I think large brands should look to get an external perspective. There is a danger that inhouse teams become institutionalised and don’t get that external view of the world. There was some criticism of a brand earlier this year that put out an ad and one of the arguments for the reason that advert got made was because it was produced by an in-house team and didn’t have an external agency perspective.”

The last 5 years has seen a shift from in-house teams having a retained agency(ies) to more project based relationships. In the future do you forsee?

However Peter Cross from John Lewis explains why it is that John Lewis has increased the size of its in-house teams: “I love external creative stimulation that agencies bring, but for us the building up of our in-house team has been a critical part of our journey. That trend ties into speed, authenticity and giving the media direct access to the organisation – so transparency, which is one of our values. We want journalists to have a direct line to the key stakeholders within the company. It’s also capability building. When you’re building communications capability you are preparing the organisations for all the new things that are going to happen in the future. If it’s all outsourced, as communications changes, you are potentially missing out on a lot of stuff.”

What type of insight do you want from your agency partner?

PR’s talent crisis

Public relations is a difficult sector to recruit in. There is no shortage of jobs, but there is a lack of available and suitably skilled talent within the sector.

How difficult is it to recruit into your team?

According to specialist PR recruiter Colette Brown, joint-founder at Prospect Resourcing, the recruitment challenges are not specific to in-house teams. “There is a lack of talent, that’s true, but it’s not specific to in-house roles, it’s across the industry so agencies feel the pain equally when it comes to the skills gap. There is actually more of a desire from a certain level to actively move in-house, but there is definitely a disparity around salaries. At one time, in-house appeared to be a better option financially, but increasingly the amount of experience required for the salary paid, doesn’t match the agency world.”

If difficult to recruit, why is it difficult?

The rise of the employer brand

Organisations are increasing their investment in internal communications.

Do you anticipate you internal comms team expanding or retracting over the next 3-5 years

Why is your internal communications team expanding?

The known unknown: measurement

The quest to reliably evaluate the impact of its activity remains a source of doubt for the sector. It seems illogical that PR people believe that advertising executives are more able to measure the impact of their campaigns than PR professionals – but that is probably a debate for another day.

The measurement trends identified in this survey are that the vast majority of in-house teams are measuring their communications and 79% are measuring both their communications outputs and their communications outcomes.

Do you currently attempt to measure your communications?

Intriguingly 34% of respondents believed that measurement should be included in the agency fee. This would seem to raise the question of conflicts, as the agency could in effect be marking their own work. Chris Talago from Oracle explains his thinking on measurement: “Ultimately it is my responsibility to be able to tell my stakeholders whether we are achieving our goals. So as a brand I need to be able to measure the impact of what we do – whether that’s the commercial or reputational impact. That’s on my patch. With my agency hat on - I would say it’s a foolish agency that isn’t able to measure its contribution to that impact. So agencies have a vested interest in being able to determine the value that they bring.”

“Ultimately it is my responsibility to be able to tell my stakeholders whether we are achieving our goals.”
Chris Talago, VP PR and Communications JAPAC and EMEA

Do you measure your communications outcomes, outputs or both?

Claire Foster, from Direct Line Group adds “Measurement is really important. (As a sector) we really need to watch our social reporting, that we are still looking at outcomes and not just outputs.”

The current media environment

“The media landscape for the last six months has been the hardest of my career”
Claire Foster, Deputy Head of News, Direct Line Group

One trend that we did not include in our quantitative research, but that did come out in our qualitative interviews was the impact the current media environment is having on public relations teams. The turbulent social, political and economic environment means that many PR teams are seeing fewer stories being covered by the mainstream consumer media. Claire Foster from Direct Line Group says: “I’d say the media landscape for the last six months has been the hardest of my career because of the amount of news – from politics to the awful terrorism we’ve seen in the UK. Something that Direct Line tries to do well is to be reactive and empathetic. A lot of brands might make the mistake of going out with something whereas if we feel it’s not the right time for something we’ll pull it back. And this year there has been a lot of things we’ve felt we just haven’t been able to do.”

Conclusion: the future of in-house communications teams

Public relations as a discipline is always likely to remain responsible for the reputation of an organisation. The sector is evolving its contribution to the commercial objectives of organisations by taking advantages of the opportunities presented to it via digital and social media. This evolution remains work in progress, but public relations has come a long way in a short period of time. The trend towards integrated campaigns and the resulting need for closer coordination of a range of organisational departments means that the organisational structure of companies is likely to become more of a matrix, with decreasing barriers between departments and ever greater co-ordination between teams. As John Lewis’s Peter Cross says “whilst the comms team can bring a huge amount to other teams, it is equally very dependent on other teams.” The suspicion is that public relations will continue to thrive, but as it plays a more critical role across wider elements of the organisation, the structure of in-house communications teams may have to adapt to this new reality.

As Perveen Akhtar from BT/EE says “I think it’s a broader question of how PR people survive in this new integrated world. The whole industry is evolving. Those that are smart realise the structure and requirements have changed. They are the ones that will be successful.”

Report Author: Ben Smith, Founder, PRmoment.com

Who responded

In terms of who took part in the research, the graphs below describe the demographic and the methodology.

Including you, approximately how many employees are in your PR and communications team?

Which one of the following best describes the sector you currently work in?

Who do you report to?

Is your business or organisation’s primary audience:

Which one of the following best describes your current job title?

This report was produced in partnership with

Written by Ben Smith+, Founder, PRmoment.com



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