Ben Smith, Founder, PRmoment.com
In a special report PRmoment and Kaizo have teamed up to identify the channel priorities of communications directors in the UK. Enjoy…
Business communications today are fast-paced. Both customers and consumers have multiple touch points with organisations. These ever extending and expanding points of access cross numerous channels such as digital, social, and video accessed through multiple, often mobile, devices as well as traditional print and broadcast.
This increase in channels has coincided with a broadening in the core purpose of the public relations function to include reputation management, employee retention, crisis mitigation, impact on sales, stock price, and stakeholder engagement, amongst others.
So how have priorities changed for in-house PR and communication teams, has social media become the dominant channel? Where does print fit in? Based on the quantitative results from over 75 in-house professionals alongside in-depth interviews with senior communications executives in the public and private sector, this report outlines channel priority changes of in-house PR and communications teams and highlights their views on the complex inter-relationships that exist.
In truth it’s complex, and trying to rank them in order of importance misses the inter-relationship between communications channels; stories are broken on one channel and then followed up with a related theme and different content on another. Additionally, the importance of paid activity with both influencers and social media for achieving reach has further confused the overall picture.
The key findings of the report:
- The inter-relationships between online, social, print and broadcast channels have changed the nature of public relations work
- Online traditional news sites are the highest priority channel for senior in-house communicators with, surprisingly, print newspapers the second most prioritised channel
- With the growth of ‘fake news’, national journalists are still seen as the most critical influencers of public opinion, but specialist bloggers and influencers are also highly prioritised
- The value of social influencers is complicated by the increasing level of ‘pay for play’ promotions
- Social media priorities are dependent on budget availability due to ever diminishing natural reach for pure earned content
- Social media is still managed separately by over 40% of respondents’ businesses and Twitter is the most prioritised by respondents
- Less than half of respondents measure outcomes such as awareness, yet 95% have it as their number one objective
- Public relations professionals are required to develop new skills to thrive across digital and social media platforms.
Changes in the way we communicate and consume information still represent a huge opportunity for the industry, the question is are we ready to grasp it?
The channel priorities of communications directors
This report highlights channel priority changes of in-house PR and communications teams. It uncovers the inter-related nature of the channels across digital, print, broadcast and social. It is far too tempting to think of these channels in competition, to try and rank them in order of importance but this is not the reality of the relationship between communications channels; stories are broken on one channel and then followed up with a related theme and different content on another.
The achievability of coverage also comes into play. For example, BBC News may be a high priority but how achievable is it on a regular basis? One surprise of the research results is the retained priority of the print media, especially when considering how content is shared digitally.
Alex Aiken, executive director of Government Communications argues: “Public relations is developing all the time, identifying new approaches to reaching audiences with new tools and techniques. And this expansion means that it is converging with other disciplines such as marketing, for example, in the use of ‘nudge’ techniques to change behaviour.“
Have channel priorities changed for in-house communicators?
The priority of channels for communications professionals has changed in recent times. As Joe Hanley, vice president, communications EMEA at Medtronic points out: “We live in a world where people consume content and information over various different channels from traditional media through to online, social, shares and search – thus your communications strategy has to respond to that diversification.”
‘Ten years ago social media didn’t exist. The digital media was in comparative infancy. So all communications channel priorities have changed and they had to change.’
Alistair Smith, Managing Director, Corporate Communications Group, Barclays.
The insight into how the channel diversification has impacted the day-to-day activities of PR and communications professionals is interesting. Paul Wooding, director of public relations, EMEAI at Western Digital, says, “There is a lot more focus on multi-channel, rather than each individual team concentrating on their own channels. That can be difficult to communicate internally because of some company structures, but companies have been forced to become multi-channel, and that’s a good thing because it has meant that internal teams are not able to defend their turf, the nature of the comms landscape is driving the integration.”
Digital has changed the practicalities of public relations as Tania Littlehales from Marks and Spencer points out: “The PR team has always served multiple channels, but there are even more multiples now! Print media, long and short lead, some broadcast and obviously offline and online magazines and blogs. So how you divide a story has changed, including where you break it.”
Santander prioritises traditional and online media; although social is becoming more and more prevalent, but it is still important to have editorial newsworthy earned media from a third party.
Andy Smith, head of media relations at Santander UK, says: “The amount of noise out there means that earned content is more important than ever because it signposts to consumers that this is something they need to engage with.”
How strongly do you prioritise the following channels?
It is intriguing that in-house communicators still place such a priority on the established media brands, be those online or in print. PRmoment asked EE’s head of communications Howard Jones whether he was surprised by the dominance of online newspapers and print newspapers and the apparent low priority of broadcast media and social channels. Jones answers: “As an in-house PR team we spend less time on broadcast opportunities, but ultimately it is broadcast opportunities that will deliver the best results. However, you have fewer stories that are suitable. If reach is your goal, BBC News is your goal. There is no question of that. But how many times in a year do you have a story with the potential to be on BBC News? Not very often. Much more likely is that you build relationships with the media that has that sweet spot of reach and attainability. And that is online nationals. That is where you will get the most effective and efficient return on the relationships that you’ve built and achievable coverage in terms of the kind of stories that you are going to have.
“For Facebook earned content, as in not paid-for, you’ve got a big challenge to get any reach. Facebook is geared up for money, if you don’t have money you are not going to achieve big reach. That is the way the platform is set up. That limits you to one-to-one communication with specific customers. That can be a role for PR, but you’d like to think you’ve set up your customer service team to do that work and PR steps in when it’s getting difficult or it’s a high-profile individual. Twitter is quite similar in that if you want to get reach you probably need to put some spend behind it but it’s quicker and easier to have interactions and more people are likely to see your posts without any spend.
“90% of articles read from a newspaper are read from a mobile device, only 10% on a printed newspaper so I don’t understand the preoccupation with the printed form.”
Daisy Wallace, Head of PR, Virgin Trains
“LinkedIn is the one where you are likely to have more meaningful conversations, but it’s less likely to be with your customers and more likely to be with your influencers. “
Daisy Wallace from Virgin Trains argues: “90% of articles read from a newspaper are read from a mobile device, only 10% on a printed newspaper so I don’t understand the preoccupation with the printed form.”
Thinking specifically about influential invidividuals with an audience, how strongly do you prioritise each in your media strategy?
Medtronic’s Joe Hanley adds: “I’m not surprised that the digital newspaper brands are the highest channel, but I am surprised the print newspaper channel is so close behind. The way people consume content, consume news, consume opinions, the ease with which people will share online content does not transfer to the print version.
Newsprint is important but if you’re talking about channel priority and extending reach into social and digital channels via shares and likes it’s interesting that people still value print so highly.”
Santander’s Andy Smith points out that while “Santander still prioritises national media, national media is different than what it was five years ago. You’re just as keen to get into The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed as you are to get into the editorial on the more long established media. It’s less about the channel, more about the editorial profile of the media brand. The media brand has to be sufficiently powerful to mean it’s worth you spending the time engaging with.”
When considering the impact of paid-for posts on consumer behaviour Smith adds: “Bloggers and vloggers need to be aware of how their audience will respond to knowing that they have been paid to produce a piece of content. And this is where you need to be aware of how different age demographics will behave. As a consumer I switch off when I see advertising copy, if it says promoted content I just think “I’m not going to look at it, I want to seek out the editorial views” but other people, possibly millennials, may not have the same view.“
“Bloggers and vloggers need to be aware of how their audience will respond to knowing that they have been paid to produce a piece of content.”
Andy Smith, Head of Media Relations, Santander
Considering the recent publicity around fake news (or poor journalism/propaganda as it has been called previously) it is interesting the see that in-house communicators still rate the influence that journalists retain on the public:
How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
Digital and social media has the potential to change the relationship between journalists and their readers. PRmoment asked James Turner, founder of delineate, whether it is now more of a two-way street when it comes to who is influencing who?
“With the news cycle speeding up, online editorial leads print editorial. Inevitably digital insights showing the popularity of specific news content has created a direct real-time relationship between journalists and their readers.“
The integration of public relations, communications and social media
The internal structure for managing the integration of PR and social seems to differ between organisations. However, there are some interesting trends.
Do you manage your social media separately to your earned media activity?
“From a trends perspective, in terms of the growth, it’s all YouTube.”
Howard Jones, Head of Communications, EE
“For EE the comms team does not influence the budget for paid and social, but we do influence the content, we make sure that it’s aligned“ says Howard Jones.
Barclays’ managing director, corporate communications says the integration between PR and social “varies across our businesses. In our consumer businesses there is quite a lot of co-ordination. It depends on the objectives of the communications. At a group level, where we are dealing with corporate strategy and financial performance there is relatively little co-ordination with our marketing colleagues.”
Social has become a broad channel and it is interesting to consider the priorities of different brands on the various channels. EE’s Howard Jones says: “From a trends perspective, in terms of the growth, it’s all YouTube. For example, for EE’s Wembley Cup sponsorship the dominant channel is YouTube. Facebook is big, but the numbers from YouTube are phenomenal. For Bafta, as a big piece of sponsored activity, the executions are there in all channels: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, but where you really drive big engagement and a new segment in terms of our audience is YouTube. And that’s where we are evolving to focus the most. That said if you’ve got a brand campaign I don’t think you can miss one of the big four channels: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. And having a view on how to use Snapchat is almost compulsory now as well. But I really don’t think you can afford to miss Facebook, Twitter or YouTube in whatever your execution is from a brand perspective.”
Hybrid organisation models seem to be developing that work for specific markets, with specific objectives and are of course tailored to a particular budget.
Western Digital’s director of public relations, EMEAI Paul Wooding, says “WD doesn’t spend a lot on display advertising, our sweet spot is the broad sweep of influencer and content. We do a lot of stuff on LinkedIn, not much paid but a lot of influencer work.”
Wooding adds, “earned media relations for the consumer side of the business is still critical for us. We’re talking product reviews and these days product reviews bleed into influencers, perhaps paid reviews for example, if there are opportunities for bloggers to do paid-for objective reviews. Although I should add that at Western Digital we are exceptionally aware of the compliance and legal rules in this area.”
Medtronic’s Joe Hanley argues that it comes down to the evolution of PR skills. Organisations need “to take a look at their channels and audience and leverage the investment for paid and take it into earned and owned. The determining factor may be that if I’m doing a paid-for space it may potentially rule out the earned because if you are partnering on a paid-for content with a media owner, unless it’s really hot, the media owner’s competitors won’t want to touch it – competition still rules.”
Which social channel do you find the most successful?
Virgin Trains’ Daisy Wallace sums it up nicely when she says “Different social channels have different goals. Twitter is primarily a customer services tool. Facebook is for brands and for sales. LinkedIn is for B2B, Instagram and Pinterest are for creative content. So it depends what the strategy is and what the challenge is.”
Thinking specifically about social media platforms, how strongly do you prioritise each in your media strategy?
Quite how Google+ remains such a priority is a mystery, but other than that priority ranking would seem to make sense, bearing in mind the survey sample was primarily UK-based.
The inter-relationship between the social channels needs to be considered when judging the priority in-house communicators place upon each channel. As Barclays’ Smith points out: “A very high proportion of the social media coverage of large corporates comes from journalists who are writing for newspapers and magazines… when we have done analysis on the most influential people talking about Barclays in social channels, the majority of those people are journalists.”
Owned media strategy
The algorithm changes made by Facebook have emphasised the advantages of brands owning their own digital real estate – owned media. Virgin Trains’ Daisy Wallace believes “there is probably an obsession currently with earned and paid content, these are valuable, but owned content also needs to be prioritised. Having a rich content mix is important.”
Alistair Smith adds: “Barclays is very conscious that we should maximise the use of our owned media. Our estate gets a hell of a lot of eyeballs, so we are always working on ways to make better use of that. I think we make a very good job of it from a marketing viewpoint, we could be better from a corporate comms perspective. “
The graph below shows the priority across organisations’ own media channels:
Western Digital’s Paul Wooding believes that brands may have lost momentum in this area in recent years: “I don’t know many brands that are doing it really well, the exceptions being consumer brands like Red Bull and GoPro. For me it’s more about the channels you own through a third party than the real estate of your own website. I think LinkedIn is under-played.”
Twitter, Google and Facebook are the most dominant paid-for channels for in-house communicators.
Thinking specifically about social media platforms, how strongly do you prioritise each in your media strategy?
Measurement KPIs across prioritised channels
The modernisation of public relations has rightly increased the need for robust resource attribution. Digital channels enable far greater transparency and reliability into the performance of each channel. As Western Digital’s Paul Wooding points out: “The ability to analyse traffic from earned media from specific channels is important, that’s become a key metric for us. It enables us to understand which social media channels are driving traffic back to our site.”
Clearly measurement KPIs should be linked to the objectives of your organisation’s communications.
The objective priorities of in-house communicators:
"The ability to analyse traffic from earned media from specific channels is important, that’s become a key metric for us."
Paul Wooding, Director of Public Relations, Western Digital
When considering the impact of influencer relations the following KPIs are prioritised:
How do you measure the impact of influencer relations?
More has been written about AVEs than anyone needs to read, but it may be reassuring that it is the least popular measurement criteria in our survey, or it may be worrying that nearly one in five in-house communicators still use AVEs!
Have the changes in channel priority meant a change in communications teams skill sets?
Has the plethora of channels meant that in-house PR teams have had to reskill or hire new people?
“The comms team now has capabilities that it didn’t used to, particularly in regards social media. But this has been more about having additional skills than bringing in people with additional skills,” says Barclays’ Alistair Smith.
Medtronic’s Joe Hanley adds: “The digital capability and social media nouse you need in your team has increased. Even as a generalist you have to have that social and digital awareness as part of your core capability. But as a comms team you may still have to partner with or employ a specialist to get those that have channel-specific knowledge – so Twitter, Facebook, YouTube etc. And those specialists are becoming increasingly important within the team.”
Tania Littlehales from Marks and Spencer adds: “We haven’t recruited separate digital roles, we don’t have a digital press officer for example. Our people have a mixture of different types of titles they are responsible for, short lead, long lead, etc. This would include our Instagram feed, which has been a massive change in recent years. It means that if we want to we can break things through Instagram and clearly it’s a lot less about words and a lot more about visual impact. Our team need to know what makes a good photo and what makes a good post.
“Video has changed things as well, everyone must be able to shoot video. Within the PR team people have upskilled and are able to create great video. And this changes the dynamic of the relationship between the PR team and the journalists/influencers. Often the fashion press will connect with the Instagram personal accounts of our press officers and they often use our photography and the videos that our press officers have posted from Instagram or Snapchat.
“So the line between professional and personal use has got increasingly blurry. There are informal networks and friendships between the two. “
Has the role of PR changed?
As social media has matured, the way brands inter-relate with the social channels has also changed. These trends are still developing, but Littlehales believes: “depending on the type of work a client wants, you may have to go back to a situation where you return to retainer relationships with agencies because it has to be an integrated relationship – otherwise it’s not going to work.”
The channel priorities of PR and communications professionals have changed. But the inter-relationships between these channels mean that they are not and should not be seen in isolation, they are not mutually exclusive they are mutually supportive.
One of the reasons public relations as a sector remains relatively buoyant in difficult global economic times is because creating content for most of these additional channels is something that comms and PR people, assuming they are good at their jobs, already have the skillset for. That said, the pace and need for change differs by sector. As Barclays’ Alistair Smith points out, “Vast amounts of corporate PR have changed, but a lot has stayed the same. The tools at our disposal have changed and increased, but the objectives of the corporate communications function of a PLC are the same as they were. What you now have are channels that allow you to engage with a lot of stakeholders in an unmediated way.”
“Depending on the type of work a client wants, you may have to go back to a situation where you return to retainer relationships with agencies because it has to be an integrated relationship – otherwiseit’s not going to work.”
Tania Littlehales, Head of Product PR, Marks and Spencer
Western Digital’s Paul Wooding, however, warns: “PR has to avoid being stuck in the middle. PR tends to get the lower budgets, yet in-house PR is fundamental to most conversations within the business – from reputation, to sales, to branding. So we have to use that position and that influence. PR people need to be bold, be strategic and make good recommendations no matter what the channel is. And have the capability to be able to deliver or lead those recommendations, when required. Otherwise you risk losing more budget and being squeezed down into a purely earned media role – and that’s not a place anyone wants to be.”
“Vast amounts of corporate PR have changed, but a lot has stayed the same. The tools at our disposal have changed and increased, but the objectives of the corporate communications function of a PLC are the same as they were. What you now have are channels that allow you to engage with a lot of stakeholders in an unmediated way.”
Alistair Smith, Managing Director, Corporate Communications, Barclays
This report aims to shine a light on the prioritisation of the increasing breadth of channels that public relations professionals target and prioritise.
In terms of who took part in the research, the graph below describes the demographic and the methodology.
Which sector(s) do you work in?
Which of the following best describes your seniority?
Which of the following types of customer do you serve?
Invitations were sent to a mix of PRmoment subscribers and an additional sample of industry contacts from Kaizo and delineate. The qualitative element of this research included 10 telephone interviews with senior communications professionals in February 2017.
Report author: Ben Smith, founder, PRmoment
If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.
Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.