The European Communication Monitor2013 (Part 2): Strategic Issues and Influence

Bill PaarlbergThis is the second in a series of IPR blog posts on the 2013 European Communication Monitor (ECM), an annual longitudinal trans-national survey of European communications professionals. The original post reviewed the overall demographics, methodology and results of the 2013 survey, which received 2,710 responses from 43 countries.

It’s clear strategic public relations is an important topic for the ECM. Lead author Dr. Ansgar Zerfass addresses strategic communication in his introduction, a chapter of the report is entitled “Strategic Issues and Influence,” and roughly half the rest of the chapters address strategic issues. For those of us excited to see PR move into more strategic roles, there’s good news here.

I’ve highlighted a couple of especially interesting results below. If you see anything that interests you, you can dig into the report. Remember it’s often difficult to interpret survey results, so, again, please go to the report before you get too excited. It’s well-written and easy to navigate.

Before we review the ECM’s findings, let’s digress slightly to discuss the term “strategic PR.”

Who Doesn’t Want to Be “Strategic”?
It has always seemed to me the term “strategic PR” is a little bit tricky. Strategic PR means proactive, far-thinking relationship building, right? But in practice the term “strategic PR” is often vague in meaning, and perhaps more accurately describes practitioners’ aspirations than their functions. In many cases it’s almost synonymous with “respectable PR.” I’ve heard it said that publicity and marketing are PR roles that are *not* strategic, and are often seen as minor, or less respected. But isn’t it true publicity and marketing are vital tactics in strategic plans? So, you can look down on publicity, but where’s your strategy without it?

The ECM report itself is very much devoted to strategic PR. It uses the term “strategic” 55 times. It does not include the word “publicity,” and uses the term “marketing” three times. Note that the ECM appears to use the terms “strategic issues” and “management issues” synonymously (see Management Issues below).

If You’re Strategic and You Know It, Clap Your Hands
To start out, here’s a bonus bit of inspirational insight you’ll only notice if you examine the chart (page 101) that shows career development as a function of professional role. Get this: The respondents who are most optimistic about their careers and most feel their influence and status have increased are those involved in the roles of “strategy and coordination communication” and “consultancy, advising, coaching, key account.” So, does that mean someone who works strategically becomes successful, or that if someone is successful, they get to work strategically? Or perhaps both.

OK, let’s move on to review the ECM’s results in each strategic area.

CEO Communication and Reputation
ECM respondents were in near-universal agreement that the CEO’s communication skills (93%), personal reputation (90%) and knowledge of strategic communication (84%) are important factors for the success of an organization. While 77% of communication departments undertake positioning of the CEO, only 57% worked on a specific communication strategy for the CEO, and only 55% actually monitor the CEO’s reputation. (These varied strongly with type of organization and country.)

Crisis Communication
Seven out of ten respondents had dealt with a crisis over the past year, and nearly half with more than one crisis. There were strong differences between countries – if you hate dealing with crises, consider moving to Belgium or perhaps Norway, where almost half of respondents had no crises at all. The most common crises were institutional, performance, or management. Almost 9% of crises were not real (because they were based on rumor or communication failure), and 6% were caused by natural events. Types of crises varied strongly with type of organization – it’s clear nonprofits experience more institutional, management, and not real crises, while government organizations deal with more natural disasters than others.

How did they handle the crises? 83% used information, 27% sympathy, 18% put up a defense, 17% apologized, and 9% did nothing. Three-quarters of respondents used traditional media relations for crisis communications, 38% used social media. Strategies to deal with crises, as well as the tools employed, varied with the type of crisis.

International Communication
68% of respondents agreed that communicating internationally was important for their organization, and 73% felt it will become more important within the next three years. Only 47% agreed they have “solid structures and strategies for international communication.” Almost half communicate internationally every day. Of those, most deal with more than five countries, and nearly a quarter with over 20 countries. Major challenges include developing sensitive communication strategies, monitoring public opinion, and understand structures of media systems and public spheres.

Gatekeepers and Audiences in the Digital Realm
Respondents mostly agreed that social media (SM) can change the perceptions of external stakeholders (73%) and employees (57%) about their organizations. And 62% agreed that SM changes their own perceptions of stakeholders and organizations. While a majority agreed that employees, consumers, and bloggers were relevant SM gatekeepers for their organizations, only 38% felt their organization had adequate strategies to communicate with gatekeepers. These numbers varied significantly with the level of personal use of SM. These findings also vary by country; why is it that countries in Eastern Europe seem to be more strongly convinced of the efficacy of social media, and prepared to deal with it? The importance of SM communication tools also varied strongly by country. Overall, mobile applications had the largest gap between perceived importance and actual implementation, and thus the most obvious challenge for future effort. After several years of growth, the perceived importance of social media tools is no longer growing, implying that SM has reached some sort of maturity in an organization’s media mix.

Management Issues
The ECM report includes a chapter entitled “Strategic Issues and Influence.” However, the major question discussed here asks about management rather than strategy: “Please pick those three issues which you believe will be most important for PR / communication management within the next three years.” It seems to me that a management issue might be different than a strategic issue, but the results are interesting, nonetheless. Respondents most often chose “linking business strategy and communication.” The report states that this is “…an issue that has been in the top 5 in the ECM surveys for years.” The next three most important issues were: Coping with digital evolution and the social web (42%), building and maintaining trust (38%), and matching the need to address more audience and channels with limited resources (35%). These choices varied by organizational type.

Not so fast: What are we to really conclude from these results? It might at first seem to be a good thing that the most important issue identified was “Linking business strategy and communication,” especially for those who like to see PR have more of a strategic role. But 43% is less than half… are we to conclude that less than half of European PR pros think linking business strategy and communication is important?

And to Finish, Some Good News: Perceived Influence of the Communications Function Has Never Been Higher.
Respondents indicate that recommendations of the communication function are taken seriously by senior management in 79.4% of organizations. In addition, the communication function is likely to be invited to senior-level strategic planning meetings in 75.7% of European organizations. After falling slightly last year, these measures are currently at their highest point in six years.

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