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Comms Challenges: Accepted and Confronted

There comes a time when a corporate discipline needs to step up for the health and future of not only itself, but also the organization and sector it represents. Perhaps more than ever, that moment for comms is now. PR is being asked to rise to that challenge — and is doing so, suggest the findings of the fourth annual Comms Report from PRWeek and software and services company Cision.

Entering 2020, PR had already established itself as a trusted adviser to top management. That status, however, is reaching a new level this year. Of the 314 survey respondents, all U.S.-based professionals, 85% said the C-suite sought the counsel of comms even more after COVID-19 hit our country.

The challenges are formidable. The novel coronavirus has left employees anxious about how to safely do their jobs (not to mention whether they will continue to even have those jobs). Meanwhile, consumers are worried about how to conduct themselves in a pandemic world.


“I don’t know if the pandemic has changed the mandate of comms, but it certainly has highlighted its relevance,” says Alberto Canal, VP of strategic comms at Panasonic North America. “Priorities have had to be rebalanced. There has been a shift to new strategic imperatives.”

“More than ever, PR has been connecting with so many other parts of the business, from HR and sales to IR and marketing,” he adds. “This is one of those incredibly challenging times in history where we have been given a platform to show our value and the ways in which we can support the organization.”

Marisa Bradley, internal comms director at Ford Motor Co., agrees.

“As we have had to grapple with so many unknowns, the role of communications has been elevated, in particular internal comms,” she explains. “It has underscored our need for really integrated partnerships, including with the C-suite and HR teams. Only if we are united can we deliver a clarity and consistency of message, which is so critical right now.”

And the survey data indicates comms has answered that call from above. More than 95% of respondents said their relationship with the CEO is positive, which is surely a testament to how comms has stepped up. It is equally a recognition of the more powerful force it has become internally.

This advancement is not relegated to in-house departments. Agency pros have gained more access to the C-suite, too.

“We are certainly being elevated to a level within the client’s business beyond the marketing and comms team, with whom we typically interact,” notes James Wright, global chairman of Havas PR Collective and CEO of Red Havas U.S. “Now, we are talking to the C-suite more often. That’s because the issues we are being brought into address and help communicate about, such as business continuity and transformation, play a big role across organizations.”


In a constantly changing world, intelligence is not only needed, but it’s also needed in real time. Only then can actions be well informed, decisive and timely.

The survey results highlight this, as 38% of respondents identified “real-time alerts from high-priority messaging” as their clear top earned media monitoring goal. (No other option was chosen by even 25% of the survey pool.)

This is made more noteworthy by the fact that “real-time alerts” ranked fourth in last year’s report behind options such as “We want to compare coverage for our brands and our competitors” and “We want to ensure we never miss an external mention of our brand.”

Canal says “one of the first things we did” when he joined Panasonic from IBM in 2018 was to start real-time alerts.

“It is critical to being able to identify issues early and to know what to focus on,” he notes. “This is especially true for a company such as ours that services so many industries — including food, retail, automotive and immersive entertainment — and supplies computing devices to frontline workers and in other critical environments.”

The comms function curates the alerts to various internal stakeholders based on what they need to know “in as much real time as possible” to do their jobs, continues Canal. This includes the C-suite. For example, he says real-time alerts informed Panasonic to “move quicker” on the development of their smart locker and mobile payment retail solutions.


Ford’s Bradley shares another important reason “real-time alerts for high-priority mentions” are so important. She says while Ford has significantly ramped up internal comms channels, employees still consume mainstream media.

“We are followed and covered closely by mainstream and automotive media,” explains Bradley. “Sometimes our employees get information about what we’re doing from media first. So real-time monitoring becomes very important for us to ensure accuracy and that we are getting our messaging out. We also want real-time conversations happening with our journalist contacts.”

Sticking with information consumption, the survey also reveals that online features are deemed the most effective at influencing consumer purchasing behavior. (Online features scored higher than seven other options including social media posts, broadcast features and brand videos.)

Bradley notes that Ford has embraced online features as a way for its vehicles to be promoted (including two new models launched this summer), especially given how pandemic restrictions have curtailed traditional media test drives and auto shows.

“We are looking at creative tactics to keep the business going and our story told in the media,” she says.

Helen Shelton, senior partner at Finn Partners, believes consumers today are looking for richer, deeper content online.

“There is a place for all content, especially now with people having more time to discover things on the internet,” she suggests. “Every piece of content has the same potential to be shared.”

Online features can originate from mainstream media, but Shelton says it can also be owned media, such as a blog or LinkedIn post.

“It is incumbent on us to give it the same level of critique and analysis, approvals and all that, as we would for a mainstream media article,” she advises. “Audiences aren’t as forgiving about mistakes.

Above all else, agree the industry leaders who took this survey, is the importance of cohesiveness between brands’ earned, owned and paid media strategies. Maximum impact — including the potential to influence consumer behavior — demands that balance.


When it comes to the type of influencer who has the most impact on consumer purchasing behavior, the mainstream journalist ranked at the very top, just as it did last year. The big change this year is how employees catapulted up the list, while celebrities, who at one point ranked high on the survey, continued to dip.

Red Havas U.S.’s Wright attributes that to the thirst for authenticity. Employees bring a high level of it to their comments, he says, while “there were just too many celebrities out there trying to push messages across that were essentially fluff. There is a role for fluff and distraction, but that is not what people want to hear about right now.”

With the “right influencers” seeming to change all the time, a key challenge for communicators is identifying them in tandem with cultural trends and consumer sentiments.

And the metrics by which to evaluate influencers have changed, reports Shelton. In fact, they have become so advanced that it allows brands to identify celebrities who possess the unquestioned authenticity consumers now demand.

She points to a trilogy of music video PSAs her agency launched for Hip Hop Public Health featuring R&B singer Raheem DeVaughn and rappers Doug E. Fresh and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. The spots encouraged urban African- Americans and Latinx individuals to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, especially as research indicates these groups are disproportionately impacted by the disease.

“Consumers want to feel a sense of trust and a shared commonality as we face the pandemic and extraordinary social unrest,” she concludes. “So, while influencers and celebrities still play an important role in brand storytelling and in engagement strategies, it’s their appeal to things such as a deep love for cultural heritage, family, and community that matters. It’s their authentic community ties and proven track records of serving the interests of everyday people.”

PRWeek partnered with Cision on this survey, which was sent via email to both communications and marketing professionals in the U.S. A total of 314 senior-level professionals, from both agencies and in-house, completed the online survey, conducted by PRWeek, between August 12 and September 14, 2020. Results are not weighted and are statistically tested at confidence levels of 90% and 95%.


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