Dramatic Changes Are Coming to the Communications IndustryRagan has released its annual Communications Benchmark Report, which analyzes the major trends in the communications industry during the last year.

During that time, communicators have been called on to develop and distribute messages on new policies that affect internal and external stakeholders alike.

Our role has become more essential as we helped keep organizations focused and moving forward. We’ve seen access to the C-suite increase throughout 2020, and we’ve forged important new alliances with peers in other departments, including HR, finance, legal, and workplace wellness.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that communicators have an unprecedented opportunity in front of us—and the Ragan report provides data to back up that point. 

Today, let’s talk about that and:

  • The outlook and priorities for the next three years
  • Communications budgets
  • Technology trends and product rankings
  • Trends in communications planning and measurement
  • Crisis communications policies
  • Trends in both internal and external communications channels
  • Team structures
  • And lots more.

The Communications Industry Is Evolving

It’s no surprise the communications industry has experienced a transformation in stature and scope during the last 15 months, as the public health, economic, and social-justice crises that engulfed the country underscored the need for messaging management and strategic direction from communicators at organizations around the world. 

We’ve talked recently about that and about the need for organizations to lead with values to keep engagement high and to evolve culture, especially as we all consider what the new workplace looks like.

With all of this happening, communicators have been called on to develop and distribute messages on new policies, new changes, new expectations, and new benefits. 

Our role has become more vital as we helped to keep organizations focused and moving forward. 

It has been noted that the pandemic accelerated business change within organizations by as much as five years.

The pandemic remains a communications priority as organizations adapt to the next phase—vaccination planning and what the new workplace might look like.

While the Ragan report shows 66% anticipate remote or flexible work arrangements to be a permanent option going forward, that number is higher than the national average.

Communicating what will be required of employees as childcare and vaccination rates remain erratic is one of the top priorities for communicators today.

Some of It Is Led By New Organizational Dynamics

It also has led to some valuable new organizational dynamics.

When asked to describe how COVID affected the department, 42% of respondents said they’ve forged stronger relationships with other departments, and a quarter said they’ve gained a seat at the table in strategic decision making. More than 20% said they now have better access to the CEO. 

The report surfaced a variety of other communications priorities as well: a focus on workplace wellness, what to say about vaccination requirements, and how to communicate when/if/how employees will come back to work. 

This is all on top of the diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies that are also at the top of the priority list.

Complicating these efforts is the fact that many organizations have a global footprint and need strategies that account for distinctions among the countries and populations they serve. 

Then there’s technology.

It was already the fastest-changing aspect of global work life, but 2020 accelerated adoption and now there’s no looking back.

Communicators see an increased reliance on mobile communications going forward. They see an increase in virtual communications and in the use of artificial intelligence.

Technology, communications professionals believe, will sometimes play a disorienting role in how they ply their craft.

With Dramatic Changes Ahead

Unsurprisingly, there are dramatic changes coming in the next three to five years, and not just a few.

There will be:

  • An increased focus on communicating with remote workers. 
  • A greater reliance on social media. 
  • Workplace wellness will occupy a large role for communicators, though a shared role with other departments. 
  • There will be more personalization.
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion will increase as a focus. 
  • Technology will change the landscape in dramatic ways. 

When it comes to DE&I, it is incumbent on the communicator to find their leadership spot with these efforts or risk being sidelined by counterparts in other departments.

And virtual communication has already transformed the industry. More than 40% of communicators believe it will continue to drive change in the next three to five years. Artificial intelligence will rise in importance, as will mobile communications.

As for crisis communications, nearly half (46%)  said they did not create a plan in 2020, but 69% said they had a crisis plan prior to last year. This suggests they moved forward with their existing plans to accommodate for everything that happened last year. 

I’d also be willing to bet it made them realize the pre-pandemic crisis communications is a relic and they need to build a “crisis ready” organization for the next big thing that happens. 

But Not Without Its Obstacles

Now, as the vaccine rollout accelerates, there’s widespread uncertainty about implementation. Asked if their organization will create a vaccine-related communications plan, only 45% of respondents said yes, while 42% said they didn’t know. 

For companies with 10,000 or more employees, 60% said they will have a communications plan for the vaccine. 

Similarly, asked whether employees will be required to be vaccinated before returning to work, 55% of respondents said they didn’t know. About 40% said no, and just 4% said yes, employees would be required to have been vaccinated before returning to work. 

Among organizations with more than 10,000 employees, the percentage of those requiring a vaccine as a condition of returning to work drops to 2%.

Respondents are increasingly pleased with their organizations’ communications efforts.

This year, 52% rate their efforts as above average or excellent, which is an 11 percentage-point gain from last year. But some saw room for improvement. 

“We need more integration of internal and external efforts, was a typical response. “We need to be more focused on storytelling,” was another. 

Overall, 78% of respondents measure their communications effectiveness and communicators are also more satisfied with their measurement efforts—41% say they are satisfied with their efforts this year, compared to 28% in 2020. 

For respondents, there are many obstacles to producing more effective communications, but the most significant is too many last-minute requests. I don’t think the last 15 months have changed that—we’ve always joked that Thursdays and Fridays are a client’s favorite days. 

Other obstacles include lack of staff, lack of budget, and too many distractions. 

Leading to an Exciting Time for the Communications Industry

All-in-all, the report isn’t super surprising, but it’s nice to have data prove what we’re seeing in real-time.

I said just a few weeks ago that it feels like the new business heavens have opened up.

Everyone is ready to communicate again and executives have learned a very valuable lesson during all of this, which is…you can’t just send an email and expect people to go along with it.

Someone with communications expertise is needed to help with positioning, messaging, risk evaluation, and writing before hitting send.

It’s a crazy exciting time to be working in the communications industry!

If you’d like to learn more about how to capitalize on this fantastic opportunity, join us in the Spin Sucks Community.

It’s free, it’s fun, it’s smart…and you might just learn a thing or two from your peers. 

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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