Corporate communications departments are taking more work in-house. It’s a trend that mirrors similar patterns seen broadly in the marketing for the last several years, where CMOs have slashed agencies in favor of in-house teams.
Some 47% of respondents said they’ve observed more PR work being taken in-house, according to the 2019 JOTW Communications Survey (full report embedded below). This year’s survey polled 223 communications and public relations (PR) professionals. Some 68% of respondents report holding in-house communication roles and 90% have 10 years or more experience in the industry.
The second annual survey was conducted by yours truly in collaboration with Ned Lundquist. Ned launched “Job of the Week” (JOTW) email newsletter in 2001 as a free resource for PR and communications professionals looking for work.
While the PR community has heard inklings of in-housing anecdotally – Richard Edelman recently cited it as a cause following disappointing earnings for the year ending 2018 – to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve seen this trend surface in a survey of the communications industry.
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Reasons for Hiring or Firing an Outside Agency
If the in-house trend continues to develop in PR, the agencies that will be best positioned to grow are those that execute well or maintain some specialized capabilities. According to the survey, the top five reasons for hiring an agency are:
1) execution (64%);
2) niche or vertical expertise (58%);
3) strategic projects (38%);
4) transactional or short-term help (38%); and
5) planning and strategy (37%).
Understanding why agencies get fired is just as important as why they get hired. The survey identified the top five reasons for firing an agency as follows:
1) cost (81%);
2) poor client service (47%);
3) inability to measure ROI (41%);
4) too much “hand-holding” (32%);
5) taking more work in-house (30%)
In my assessment, the first and fifth reason are closely related. A similar trend has unfolded over a decade in the legal market between in-house counsel and outside law firms. My hypothesis is that PR agencies – and its siblings in marketing and advertising – are entering the early stages of a similar trend.
Indeed, the parallels between these two service sectors are striking in many details. For example, one open-ended comment about a PR agency submitted by a JOTW survey respondent who works in-house, could easily have appeared on a survey by an in-house attorney about a law firm:
“Too slow or suggests stupid ideas just to make money off of me or bills creep up over time. I once asked for help in an emergency and the agency I was using ($1M a year) wanted to charge me $800 for a poster. Their contract came up at the end of the year and I didn’t even consider them. They had an opportunity to help me and they took advantage. Bye Bye.”
Media Relations is Hard and Getting Harder
A majority (68%) of PR professionals say media relations is getting harder or much harder. This is up 17% from last year where 51% said media relations was getting harder.
The caveat is this year we listed possible answers on a five-point scale, whereas last year it was three. It’s conceivable if this survey had listed the answers the same way as last year, more respondents would have selected “about the same” but I don’t think that’s likely.
This is because the open-ended comments around this question overwhelmingly said media relations was overwhelmingly more difficult and cite hard hitting reasons why. Respondents cited reporter turnover, veteran reporters being replaced with junior ones, and “in-your-face-journalism” as contributing causes.
Here are a few of those comments:
- “Journalists are increasingly strident toward, instead of partnering with, PR professionals. It’s virtually impossible to have an actual conversation with a writer.
- “Journalists are no longer objective, they are much more subjective and if you do not fall within their lane or their bias, they are not interested and you are left by the wayside. The days of objectivity are gone and the days of combative, aggressive, argumentative ‘in your face’ journalism has taken its place.”
- “It’s harder to know who is media and who isn’t. And there used to be rules of engagement – behavior, fairness. Now, it’s say whatever you want about whomever you want.”
Indeed, PR professionals are not the only ones feeling the decline of professionalism in media relations. Last summer, Washington Post Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist Steven Pearlstein lamented about the “sorry state of corporate media relations” after a major company declined to produce an executive for an interview for what he described as an easy story.
The complete survey report explored some of these in greater detail – and also looked at a broader number of areas. Below are some of the findings that I found especially noteworthy.
1) Storytelling, analytics and thought leadership are the top PR tactics and trends.
The respondents identified the tactics, techniques and procedures as (combined) “more important” or “much more important” as follows:
- storytelling (76%);
- data & analytics (75%);
- thought leadership (70%);
- measurement (66%); and
- content marketing (64%)
While not a majority, those with the most votes for less important were:
- press releases (33%);
- award programs (31%); and
- white papers (36%).
These tactics are all complementary and perhaps interrelated. They also fall well within the PR bailiwick. These selections are consistent with the same survey last year, where storytelling, thought leadership and content marketing ranked as the top three.
Almost half of the respondents (48%) say they have measurement programs in place. That an additional 41% “sort of” measure is understandable given the effects of communications – tying efforts to a direct result like a sale, vote or behavior change is hard. – is notoriously difficult to measure
About one-third (29%) think they do an adequate job of PR measurement while 46% say it needs improvement. The most common metrics comms pros said they track includes:
- web traffic (73%);
- impressions (66%);
- estimated site traffic (60%);
- mentions (57%); and
- email open rates (52%).
The comments here help place this in context:
- “Ours is a business where business usually comes in via referrals or business development efforts. PR is the ‘icing on the cake’ but no PR on its own is going to convince a client to ask us to build a $100 million project.”
- “Impossible to draw a solid connection between our outcomes and business outcomes. We can only show alignment.”
- “People within organizations have their own agendas and this translates into what gets measured and how. Determining the value of these focal points to the organization is sometimes suspect.”
3) More communicators report to the CEO than to marketing.
More respondents (38%) say the comms function reports to the CEO, versus 35% that say they report to marketing. This was followed by the chief operating officer (COO) (9%), strategy (7%) and human resources (5%).
A few respondents wrote in to say they report to the Chief Communications Officer (CCO), who I’d imagine in turn reports to the CEO more often than not. So, it’s my suspicion that the percentage of PR people reporting to the CEO could be a few points higher.
These findings surprised me a bit. As I look at the world through B2B marketing and PR lenses, I would have thought a reporting structure through marketing would have been most common.
Still, no single reporting structure earned a majority of the votes. This demonstrates the wide variety of ways organizations integrate communications and PR into the structure.
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Other areas the complete report examine the top challenges, budgets, employment levels and job mobility in PR and communications, takes a deep look at trends and tactics, and explores differences with influencer marketing
The full report is freely available on SlideShare and is worth your while to peruse. You are welcome to use the data or slides, but like Creative Commons, please share and share alike, and including attribution to Ned’s JOTW and Sword and the Script Media.
Finally, whether you are looking for your next gig or are seeking to fill a communications role or PR position, you should start by subscribing to Ned’s JOTW. You can subscribe for free by emailing him at email@example.com.
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