Europe’s Communications Professionals: Power Players or Just Piano Players?

How do the corporate communications managers for Europe’s largest companies see their place in the business world? The European Communication Monitor 2011 – billed as the world’s largest project to survey these professionals – finds a mixed, not to say schizophrenic picture.

Reducing matters to today’s all-defining “like” or “unlike” buttons, the answers in the 131-page report launched June 30th suggest a big “don’t know.”  The report polled 2,209 professionals from 43 countries, drawn from the ranks of the European Association of Communications Directors.

While it’s still warm and fresh, here’s a rough and ready take on the headline numbers in today’s report launched at the European Communication Summit in Brussels.

The report was structured around six big themes. Overall, it’s clear that the old “set the message machine to transmit and stick strictly with the PowerPoint” approach is fading. “If you speak out and just build images, you will have less influence than if you advance your listening skills, and use these to help shape long term strategy in the C suite,” said Prof Ansar Zerfass of the University of Leipzig, one of the report’s authors.

Strategic issues and trust. It appears that – just as the rise of social media has decimated the ranks of professional journalists and forced traditional media organisations to renegotiate their licence to operate, so social media is also forcing their opposite numbers in corpcomms to take a fresh look at their roles and the labels they live by.

54.9% of respondents put their top issues as “dealing with the digital evolution and the social web.” That compares – amazingly – with just 9.6% who are concerned with properly positioning their CEOs. Since 2009, “social media angst” has been rising steadily. Yet 50.8% of respondents confessed they’ve still to implement in-house training programs for social media, while 48.3% of departments have no key performance indicators for measuring social web activities. And 30.2% don’t have any guidelines at all for in-house bloggers or Tweeters.

Amazing! No wonder, says Zerfass, “we’re just not there yet in terms of defining what is success in social media. We need to find out, otherwise this won’t make any difference.” He’s right: although 82.2% of communication professionals expect strong growth in social networks, almost 50% of them neglect to check in themselves online more than a few times a week, and 4.7% never use social media!

PR Credibility. While 25% of the 2,209 communications directors polled in 43 countries saw the power of communications rising in corporate life, 73% found that the negative connotations of the PR industry were decreasing trust in the work of communications professionals. Out goes “PR” and in come “strategic communications” (favoured by 61.3%). ‘Integrated Communications” gets a thumbs-down with just 45.9% approval.

Decision-making Styles. There may be a 24/7 tweeted news cycle out there, but Europe’s comms professionals still prefer the reflective approach. 85% take a considered approach, while 68% are guided by best practice. Only a minority of 45% are prepared to take risks when making decisions. And in Europe shared decision making (56%) trumps the individualism found in similar US surveys (53%).

Power of Comms departments. Though executives have a seat at the top table – in Northern Europe 24% have board seats – there’s a mood of insecurity or pessimism lurking the ranks: 25% of respondents don’t believe the communications department plays an important role in the financial performance of the company and fully 30% think their department is replaceable! Where can this anxiety come from, given the rising influence of communicators? 77.9% say they are “taken seriously” by senior management and 76.9% say they’re likely to be invited to top level meetings to organise strategic planning.

ROI of communication. Perhaps the answer lies in the ambiguous response to the question “how does your department add value?” Somebody’s still hoping the CFO and his beancounters won’t look their way. Although half of respondents (47%) say that ROI is built into their comms plans, there’s an argument still to be had about exactly how you measure it. Fully 83% prefer to state that measuring ROI properly is about achieving communication objectives, or a similar number believe the non-financial value of communications. Just 38% of respondents believe that ROI in communications is all about delivering cash.

Inevitably this is a “snap” analysis of the Corpcomms report. More stuff from the conference floor will follow. But if you’re not in the ranks of these professionals, don’t feel too concerned about their existential concerns: a quarter of their ranks have entered the EUR 100,000 plus band in terms of basic income. And 5% (fewer of them female executives, alas) will get more than EUR 200,000.

The bottom line seems to be that strategic communications is on the rise. But a goodly number of communications professionals still privately believe that, if the bad-reputation cowboys ever burst into their saloon bar with guns blazing, they can still try the old line: “don’t shoot me – I’m only the piano player.”

Richard House


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