PR / Communications Report: Promise and Peril

A new report on the PR field shows a profession that is getting richer, faster and more strategic. But it also shows a sector fraught with hesitation, and a seemingly paralyzing inability to measure its performance and provide solid returns to clients.

For example, PR leaders saw the adoption of new technologies (4.1 on a scale of one to five) as the biggest driver of change, followed by increased demand for content (4), the expansion of communications channels (3.8), increasing use of data and more demand for specialized services (3.5), according to the first Global Communications Report, which conducted by the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations in conjunction with the Holmes Report.

However, budgets are not following suit. Client-side budgets increased by an average of just 3 percent last year and respondents expect budgets to increase even more slowly during the next five years, to roughly 2.5 percent per year.

PR agency executives predict that the worldwide PR agency business will grow from its current estimated size of $14 billion, to $19.3 billion, by 2021, the survey said. To accommodate that growth, agency leaders anticipate their headcount will increase during the same period, by about 26 percent.

What's your agency's threshold?
What’s your agency’s threshold?

“Both agency and corporate executives agree that the ability to attract and retain the right talent is the greatest challenge preventing them from achieving their future goals,” the survey said.

Shift away from earned media

By 2020, agency leaders expect to see their revenue streams shift away from earned media, but it will still be the dominant revenue driver at 36%.

Meanwhile, all of the other media categories will grow: Owned media, to 25 percent, shared media, to 24.2 percent and paid media (ad buys), to 12.9 percent.

In total, PR executives predict 63 percent of all media outlets will offer paid placement opportunities in the next five years. However, only 8 percent rank media buying skills as an important staff skill for the future.

“The pace of change in public relations has never been faster than it is today, but at the same time, it will likely never be this slow again,” said Paul Holmes, CEO of The Holmes Report, in a statement. “Both agencies and their clients recognize that change is occurring, but it is not clear that they appreciate the extent, when it comes to finding non-traditional talent or developing non-traditional services, particularly outside of earned media channels.”’

The survey, which took the pulse of more than 1,000 senior public relations executives, was released earlier this month.

Despite PR execs being in thrall to digital media and marketing, traditional PR skills remain  the most important tools needed to succeed in the business.

According to the report, writing ranked as more critical than strategic planning (84 percent), social media expertise (76 percent) and multimedia content development (76 percent).

For a PR standpoint, the last point should not be underestimated. You can have multiple distribution channels, but unless agencies employ quality writers, it’s unlikely that all the content being distributed will be read and shared.

It won’t come as much of a shock that the PR field continues to struggle with measurement (Groundhog Day for the industry).

Current measurement models are still alarmingly focused on measures of output—such as total reach or total impressions—rather than on business outcomes, the study said.

In a rather remarkable stat, 30 percent of the respondents said they used advertising value equivalency (AVE)—which many PR pros consider a discredited metric within the industry—most or all of the time.