The big PR study: 14 takeaways for the PR professional

USC’s public relations center released its annual study of executive-level communicators. Here’s what you need to know.


Budgets are up at PR/communication departments, and they’re spending many of those extra dollars on social media, search engine optimization (SEO), and measurement.

That’s one of the big conclusions from a study by the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center. This year’s Communication and Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices (GAP VII) study, the biggest to date, surveyed 620 senior-level corporate communicators.

“[The study’s findings] indicate an industry in transition from ‘old school’ to ‘new school’ approaches to managing the PR/Comm function,” the report said. “Companies that embrace ‘new school’ best practices are more likely to be associated with success variables.”

The so-called new school approach includes social media and measurement.

“As expected, social media monitoring and participation have significantly increased and can now be considered a mainstream responsibility of [PR and communications],” the study noted.

Among respondents, 30 percent are from public companies and 25 percent are from private companies. The remaining participants are from nonprofits (21 percent), military/government organizations (17 percent), and the “other” category (7 percent).

You can download and read the full study here.

Here are 14 takeaways from the report (when indicated, the results are unique to corporations):

PR budgets to (mostly) hold steady in 2012. Although PR/communications budgets increased modestly from 2009 to 2011, more than 50 percent of respondents expect them to remain steady in 2012. Roughly 25 percent expect an increase.

Social media as a “core responsibility” is on the rise. When asked about their chief responsibilities, respondents said corporate communications remains No. 1, with 88 percent indicating the task takes up more than 50 percent of their time. That’s followed by executive communication, internal communication, crisis management, and social media management, and social media participation. The social media categories represent 70 percent and 66 percent of the respondents’ time, respectively—a significant bump since 2009.

Marketing/product PR takes a hit. Curiously, the category of marketing/product PR took the biggest dip from 2009 to 2011, with 50 percent indicating it’s a core responsibility, down from 61 percent. Among corporations, this category also saw an 11 percent decline in money allocated to its budget.

More dollars flowing to social. In terms of budgets at corporations, social media monitoring and participation saw the biggest boost in dollars allocated from 2009 to 2011, followed by SEO and internal communications.

More dollars flowing to measurements. Money allocated to measurement and evaluation is up 5 percent, increasing to 9 percent in 2011. Here are the top 10 tools for measurement:

Measurement is on the rise. According to the study: “Growth is concentrated in more sophisticated, objective, quantitative techniques that are likely to provide strategic insight to guide campaigns and evaluate campaign outcomes.”

How you use it is key. Companies that measured outcomes—such as stakeholder opinions, bottom line, etc.—are more likely to be successful than those measuring outputs, such as advertising value equivalencies, clips, impressions, etc.

More money, more problems. The study also noted that with more money means greater responsibilities. Respondents indicated they’re accepting more tasks.

“Social networking sites” ranks as the top digital tool. Here are the top 10 digital tools, according to respondents from corporations:

Interest in Facebook and Twitter up, Wikis down. No surprise, the use of Twitter, Facebook and blogs was on the rise since from 2009 to 2011. Wikis and virtual worlds (such as Second Life) were on the decline. Twitter, Facebook, and SEO are most frequently used by public companies:

PR owns social media. Half of respondents from corporations indicated PR/communications controls social media, following by marketing, customer service and information systems. PR/communications also has the most strategic control of social media, according to the survey respondents.

Money for agencies declining. The amount of money corporations are allocating for agencies has dropped since 2009, although the study indicates that the fall might be exaggerated because of a change in reporting. The study further noted: “As corporate communication/PR budgets have increased, the decline of actual agency budgets was modest.”

Nearly all large-companies work with agencies. Among large public companies, the use of agencies “remains almost universal” with 95 percent indicating they employ them. The number of agencies retained by corporations continues to increase, the study noted. Here are the top reasons companies retain agencies:

Access to C-suite increases worth of PR. As expected, the PR departments with access to the C-suite saw their recommendations taken more seriously, along with a greater role in strategic planning and a more significant contribution to their companies’ bottom lines. Among corporations, 60 percent of respondents said they strongly agreed with the statement: PR/communications attends senior-level strategic planning meetings. Eleven percent strongly disagreed and 29 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. Moreover, 69.2 percent believe their recommendations are taken seriously. A mere 4.4 percent said they don’t.

You can download and read the full report here.

The Annenberg school partnered with The Arthur W. Page Society, the Institute for Public Relations, the International Association of Business Communicators, and the Public Relations Society of America for the study.

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