How will PR pros invest their precious budget dollars in 2020?
In a recent survey, we asked more than 300 communications pros how they were planning for the coming financial year, and almost half the respondents said their budgets would hold steady. However, if the budget was going to change, it was more likely to increase than decrease.
Where are PR pros planning to increase their spending? Linda Rutherford, vice president and chief communications officer for Southwest, says it’s crucial for communicators to invest in new technology—however, that needn’t translate into a bigger budget.
“The last several years has brought significant investment in commtech as well as social/digital, so I believe that budgets will be status quo going into 2020,” she says. “The task for communications teams is how to fully leverage the tools and technology in which they have invested.”
Rutherford says the new spending can be offset by jettisoning activities that don’t offer enough return on investment.
“More investment in commtech,” she says. “The funds will be redistributed from other low-value activities that the teams have been shedding. The name of the game is efficiency.”
Michael Waterman, the vice president of communications for CHG Healthcare and a member of Ragan’s Communications Leadership Council, says he expects his department’s spending will rise as he brings in new team members. “We expect to increase our 2020 budgets,” he says, “primarily around new hires for key communications needs and expanded video production.”
In our survey, when we asked how PR pros would spend their money if they were given a budget increase, many indicated an interest in increasing video production capability.
Other topics of interest included social media, additional staff and brand journalism and marketing.
“Change is constant,” says Waterman, “and we’ve recently invested in change communications experts who are helping us navigate and effectively communicate changes within and outside our organization.”
Where PR pros can cut
Some programs will be getting less investment in 2020.
“We expect to spend less on physical events (news conferences, media events, media days, etc.),” says Rutherford.
For Waterman, an attempt to manage ballooning costs might prompt his agency to reevaluate relationships with outside contractors.
“We’ve increased the way we use freelancers over the past few years to generate content for our many brands,” he says. “The freelance model works well and we’re proud of the work we develop together, but as we continue to improve and expand our in-house talent, we may have the opportunity to reduce spend on outside vendors.”
Rutherford says technology is the biggest change for Southwest’s communications budget compared with prior years.
“The obvious callout in our budget, she says, “is the investment in technology: software as solution, digital platforms, social listening and visualization tools, measurement and analytics tools, etc. Keeping communication relevant requires more investment in technology as an enabler than ever before.”
Waterman agrees that technology has transformed the traditional communications budget.
“Today we’re using more social media and content-creation tools than ever before,” he says. “We also have a stable of excellent freelance writers who are helping us with brand journalism. And since CHG Healthcare senior leaders value communications, our internal and external teams continue to grow to meet ongoing needs.”
An exciting future
What can PR pros look forward to as they forecast their coming year? For Waterman, the increasingly available audience data offers dynamic opportunities to engage stakeholders.
“We’re excited about two areas,” he says. “The first is that we’re continuing to invest in collecting and analyzing more data to complement and strengthen the stories we’re developing and pitching to media.
“The second is that we’re heavily focused on video storytelling. We have an in-house video team, and we’re looking to triple our output and productions in 2020.”
No wonder Waterman predicts increased spending on in-house personnel. “Video storytelling works well for our brands and is a key part of our communications strategies,” he adds.
For Rutherford, newly available data is also an exciting development.
“In 2020, I’m excited about getting more in-depth with employee insights as we build out our employee experience roadmap,” she says. This move reflects what a recent Page Society report suggests is an important growth area for communicators. The report argues that communicators must develop a content/user experience, similar to the buyer’s journey already used by marketers to engage customers.
However, communicators can build journeys for all the stakeholders they want to engage, including their employees.
“We want to dial in to the moments that matter and ensure that we remove friction and pain points in the daily lives of our employees so that they can be the most productive,” says Rutherford.
Concerns to keep in mind
Not everything will be rosy for communicators in 2020. Though most departments don’t predict a decrease in their budgets and staff, there will still be challenges.
Rutherford and Southwest, who have a far-flung workforce and operating geography, have a wide range of concerns, some ripped from headlines in 2019 that don’t promise to go away anytime soon.
“I think that list is usually the same,” she says, “threats to our business, global unrest, and incivility that leads to mass violence. We are now a big enough business concern that not one mass violence event happens that we don’t find a member of the Southwest family involved or affected.”
Waterman’s concerns are a little more focused.
“Our customer’s desire to consume content of all types—articles, videos, infographics, research studies and analysis, email, and more—is challenging to match,” he says. “It requires us to be better organized and deliberate in our choices. But we like the opportunity to develop integrated content that helps us stand out. “
What about you PR pros? How do you expect your budgets and daily priorities to shift in the coming year?