Future of corporate communications research with 10 notable insights

Tim Bailey works across sectors, building digital-first organisations, encouraging innovation and improvement through the horizontal transfer of ideas between sectors. He is currently working on a digital transformation product for communications, that will be launched shortly.

The Future of Corporate Communications 2021 study by Edelman is a treasure trove of insights into the current state of corporate communications and offers many useful and actionable views.

10 notable insights on the Future of Corporate Communications

  1. The role of communications has become more materially important to CEOs, Boards, and the C-Suite.
  2. The modern corporate communications function is agile, multidisciplinary, and insights-driven.
  3. CommsTech is already ushering in a new era and communicators can use it to deliver quantifiable value to the business.
  4. An increased focus on the workplace, workforce, and well-being of employees isn’t a pandemic fad.
  5. Expectations around social issues have shifted the agenda — and there is no turning back.
  6. A modern organizational structure only gets you so far.
  7. Communicators are increasingly acting as change agents, enabling ongoing transformation.
  8. The lines between communications and marketing continue to blur, creating new challenges and opportunities.
  9. In an increasingly complex and activist multi-stakeholder world, the corporate brand matters now more than ever.
  10. While the importance of the communications function is increasing, resources to deliver are lagging.

The Edelman Future of Corporate Communications study looks at many aspects of the future of corporate communications, but I want to focus on some of the insights around the use and adoption of technology. It has been understood for some years that new technologies offers challenges as well as opportunities to the communications sector. I’ve been involved directly and around these changes for much of my career so am familiar with identifying and resolving these challenges.

The study reports that investment in communications related technology (CommsTech) was a top five investment priority for 70% of surveyed organisations. This is encouraging as there are clear opportunities for increased efficiency (automating processes and tasks), better enabling of staff (team collaboration software) and the introduction of innovative activities (using technologies to create novel processes or outcomes).

The specifics of the technology investment, however, are disappointing. Respondents were asked to rank the top five items they would be prioritising for investment. The responses are uninspiring: 50% rank social media and the corporate website as their top investment priorities. It is difficult to get excited about these as technology investments – it feels more like business as usual. Those could both of have been ranked as the top priority ten years’ ago. Has the corporate communications sector really progressed so little in embracing digital transformation?

Closely behind comes data analytics and dashboards, which is more encouraging as data analytics should be the heart of your planning strategy. A number of other entries are for technology that has already made big inroads in other sectors, such as CRM and collaboration technologies (think MS Teams and Zoom). Useful, but more in the essential to work effectively category rather than technology that is going to drive innovation.

The Future of Corporate Communications study also reports that only 49% of organisations surveyed plan to invest in skills and training. This represents ALL skills and training, not just in the area of CommsTech. Even if all the training was aimed at creating expert CommsTech users, there is a still a 21% gap between those investing in technology and those training staff in how to use it. In reality, it is likely to be far bigger. This lack of investment in training is depressing as it could have been written years ago and things still haven’t progressed… in fact Stuart did write about another study showing the same thing five years ago.

CommsTech is identified as the largest share of budget allocation for in-house corporate communications with a 35% share. However, the way the report identifies this is to define ‘Measurement and Monitoring’ (12%), ‘Digital Marketing’ (12%) and ‘Communications Analytics’ (11%) all as CommsTech tech. However, if a large proportion of the digital marketing spend is advertising then it isn’t really CommsTech, which is more accurately the tools and services used to do it effectively. CommsTech is still likely to be the biggest budget allocation because it will also make up, or should also make up, a proportion of some of the other categories such as ‘Multimedia Content Development’, ‘Salaries and Related’ and ‘Fees to Agencies and Other Service Providers’.

Another challenge is that the term MarTech is widespread and is recognised as having revolutionised marketing practice, whereas PRTech and CommsTech aren’t part of common parlance because the adoption of technology by communications and public relations has been more limited.

This fragmented approach to looking at CommsTech means corporate communications will be unable to leverage the most value out of these investments. A digital transformation process would enable those teams to align objectives, tools and people to ensure they deliver maximum value for the organisation.

The Future of Corporate Communications Study identifies the top five most significant barriers to increasing the use of technology, data and analytics as:

  1. Investment justification.
  2. Challenges educating and engaging corporate IT functions.
  3. Internal team adoption challenges.
  4. IT and/or marketing function conflicts.
  5. Collaboration values.

These are similar barriers to those you would find in most sectors and are the ones I help clients to overcome. There will always be a challenge to justify large tech investments. The ones around engaging with IT and marketing are ones where it is important to be able to talk in their language. Corporate communications teams need to understand the technology enough to be able to overcome arguments against it, which is where outside expertise can be invaluable.

It’s not surprising that 47% identify a significant barrier is their team struggling to adopt and leverage technology. One of the biggest reasons technology projects fail is because there is too much emphasis on the technology and not on enough on cultural change and providing the learning and training necessary to make it successful.

Communications functions and organisations can use technology to create operational efficiencies, enable better collaboration and create innovative new products and processes. We need to value not only the investment in technology solutions, but also the investment in the staff who use it. The survey suggests that a minority are currently taking this path.

I’m both inspired and dismayed by the results of the Edelman Future of Corporate Communications study. Dismayed because it paints such a dismal picture and shows how the corporate communications sector is lagging behind other sectors such as finance, legal and marketing. Inspired because it indicates a huge opportunity for the corporate communications sector to embrace digital transformation and revolutionise its working practices to improve its effectiveness. All things that I’ve done in both other sectors and in communications.

Future of Corporate Communications study methodology

The research consisted of a quantitative survey of 200+ participants who were mainly (85%) in North America with just 7% in EMEA, 4% in APAC and 4% Latin America. Edelman supplemented this with 35+ interviews of senior communications leaders, but those were all in the USA. It was very US focused as not only were 85% of respondents from North America, but 39% of all respondents were just US companies with 61% of all participants being multinationals.

The lead authors of the Edelman Future of Corporate Communications study were Geren Raywood (executive VP of business transformation) and Kari Butcher (managing director of Edelman Data x Intelligence US). The research and editing team were Lindsay Hanson (SVP, global corporate practice strategy), Alayna Van Hall (SVP, corporate growth and innovation, CommsTech) and Stephanie Lesser (consultant, Edelman Data x Intelligence). It’s important to acknowledge the authors as I didn’t realise they were the authors until I got to the very end as the study is fronted by two men.

If you want to know about how digital transformation can be effective for improving the future corporate communications then please get in touch either via Stuart or I’m on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Guest post by Tim Bailey who helps build digital-first organisations.