In today’s rapidly changing, globally connected communications landscape, several questions are often raised in discussions with global partners. We decided to try to answer some of them: What is the best way to allocate communications resources around the globe? How is the public relations industry shifting to adapt to the changing marketing mix? How are clients’ needs and expectations of their agencies evolving?
For insight, we spoke to 10 global communications professionals— senior executives responsible for corporate communications in large multinational companies. These executives represented companies with world-class communications — with corporate brands recognised worldwide as admired and with award-winning communications programmes.
From our conversations, we drew five lessons.
Lesson 1: Invest for the future, with an eye toward measurable results
For many corporate communications teams, the annual budget dance can be complex. Project teams, functional teams and geographic teams all spin and skip and jump to defend their enterprises; allocators work to balance competing goals within their enterprises while protecting their overall budget allocation. Often, these negotiations occur around the margins; most funds are allocated automatically based on the prior year allocation or based on current revenues, then adjusted down or up to reflect current priorities.
In speaking with these communications leaders, it quickly became clear that getting the geographic allocation right means considering two things:
First, the question is not just “how important is a given region to the company now?” but equally “how important is that region to our future?” Nearly every company considers its current revenue footprint in setting communications budgets. However, participants also told us that they equally consider what the company wants the revenue footprint to be five or 10 years ahead. In other words, they see communications as part of what will help their organisations achieve their future footprint and revenue growth. These companies do not believe that revenue comes first, communications second. They work together instead.
Second, the question is not just “what do we want to accomplish this year in that region?” but equally “what do we need to deliver this year in that region?” While most companies will fund specific projects in specific countries and regions, participants insist that the projects they fund be attached to specific, measurable results. Thus, these executives are focusing their budgets on winning the winnable; a project or objective must not only make strides towards the future, it must also be demonstrably and quantifiably achievable.
As global communicators, we provide the greatest value if we can help ensure that communications plans (for both regions and projects) are firmly rooted in business objectives for now and ahead, and tied to specific, measurable results that directly meet those business goals. If we fail to present solid, forward-looking strategic plans, we have no one to blame but ourselves if communications is
Lesson 2: Expect emerging markets to cost more, not less
Those of us in global roles have all been there: We are asked to expand a project into a new market, then are expected if the assignment relates to media outreach to deliver as much coverage as we’re securing in the U.S. or Europe for
a fraction of the budget. This reflects a common assumption that large emerging markets are somehow “cheaper” for programme development and execution. The frequency of this assumption is borne out by a recent survey Weber Shandwick and Spencer Stuart conducted of 142 senior corporate communications professionals for international companies. These individuals reported that while their companies saw an average of 18% of their annual revenue coming from Asia, only 13% of their communications budgets are spent in Asia.
Communications leaders in our survey see the world differently. These executives rarely adjust budgets based on market-by-market cost differences. All recognise that where communications is concerned, there is no such thing as a “cheaper” place to do our work. In any market around the world, if some are less expensive, inevitably other things will be more expensive.
What drives budgets for these leaders has almost nothing to do with relative labour costs or the strength of currencies. What drives their budgets is the strategic importance of the work. And because for many of these companies, emerging markets are of paramount importance to their future growth, the budgets for these markets are growing rapidly.
Most global communicators have encountered frustrating assumptions about how far the dollar or euro will go in developing countries, encountering executive decision makers who expect full blown communications support in China or
India for substantially less than they invest in the U.S. or Europe — which are less than half the size.
Rectifying this requires taking a lesson from the communications leaders we interviewed: To secure appropriate budgets around the world, we in public relations need to understand global business strategies and objectives and need to present clients with realistic plans, attached to achievable and measurable deliverables, with budgets rooted in the strategic importance of that market in the years ahead. We also need to listen carefully to our local markets to appreciate how the nuances of those markets impact how work needs to get done.
Equally important, as public relations professionals, we need to train our local team leaders and managers to think more holistically — to put their plans and
budgets in context, rather than presenting them in a vacuum and to always be clear about what their plans will deliver.
Lesson 3: Globalise strategies and standards, but keep tactics local
“Global integration” is a common buzzword today, and the communications leaders we interviewed agreed it is important. What “global integration” means to them is that their corporate brand is positioned consistently, with disciplined messaging around the globe. Secondarily, “global integration” means that knowledge transfer is both ongoing and seamless within their teams, between their teams and across their agencies — that is, best practices, knowledge and skills-sharing must flow quickly around the globe and infuse all communications. Third, for some, global integration also means that objectives and metrics are consistent from place to place — that teams around the world have a shared and common understanding of what communications should achieve and how it should
Notably, there are two things that global integration does not mean to these leaders: First, it rarely means using the same content around the world. Occasionally, they may commission a multi-national study to publicise in multiple markets. What they almost never mean is replicating certain tactics in multiple countries. This is where the world remains very local to the leaders we interviewed. This basic tenet of respecting global strategies but being mindful of local cultures is widely supported in these communications officers’ domains.
Lesson 4: “Digital” is a false category
The past several years have seen an explosion in the number of PR firms who describe themselves as “digital” or “social media” agencies. But increasingly, employing a separate digital agency is like a restaurant having a separate department for stirring. It’s not really something you can do separately from everything else you do. This was the clear message we heard from our corporate communications leaders.
Furthermore, these leaders said that any PR agency that did not have digital thoroughly integrated into everything they do probably lacks the kind of strategic savvy that clients need to effectively navigate today’s communications landscape. Indeed, they told us, in the 21st century, you cannot engage with media if you are not literate in the content, cultures, tools, technologies and analytics of digital communications.
Lesson 5: The PR discipline is expanding in scope and moving up the strategic ladder
When we asked these corporate communications leaders whether their PR teams are starting to do things traditionally done by other disciplines, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Several told us that they increasingly believe in the importance of integrating historically separate disciplines under one umbrella — erasing the divides between traditional and digital/social media, internal and external messaging, brand and corporate reputation, government and investor relations, and legal and crisis communications.
The reasons they gave for this expanding scope of public relations is straightforward: In a porous world, where news and events can race across time and space, the global integration of public relations increases communications efficiency, strengthens brands and counters disruption and detractors. The broadening strategic role that PR is increasingly playing is helping to better position brands among stakeholders and making them more competitive for the long-term.
Because PR practitioners are increasingly responsible not just for disseminating information through the media but also for deepening relationships with stakeholders by engaging them, the profession is increasingly being recognised as the fulcrum, lynchpin and axis around which the best brand and reputation programmes are built.
In conclusion, our experts suggested that the definition of “public relations” is also expanding. Conventionally, to some “public relations” has connoted media relations. Today, however, world-class communicators acknowledge that public relations offer a fully integrated approach that has moved up the ladder and has earned a legitimate “seat at the table.”
Today’s corporate communications officers and PR professionals are no longer simply responsible for media mentions and placements. Instead, they have a higher strategic purpose and role in their global organisations — they are builders and protectors of brands and reputation, no matter where their company’s good names are under attack. They are also increasingly responsible for understanding how to engage key audiences through their brands’ footprints, no matter where in this world or when.
Tim Fry, global client services, EVP, Weber Shandwick
Jennifer Sosin, senior counsel, KRC Research and Weber Shandwick
Stan Stein, global account director, EVP, Weber Shandwick