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What the USC Annenberg GAP Study Tells Us About Public Relations’ Success

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Burghardt Tenderich, Ph.D., associate professor and associate director of the Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Burghardt manages the development of the biennial Generally Accepted Best Practices for Public Relations study, which assesses the scope of the public relations industry.

Corporate public relations budgets are mostly up, and the scope of the profession is experiencing growth in areas such as internal communication, customer relations and social media. These are some of the findings of a new study published by the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center.

GAP VII, the seventh biennial Generally Accepted Best Practices for Public Relations, shows some of the most significant findings in the area of measurement and evaluation: On average, corporations now spend 9 percent of their total PR budget on research-related activities, a sharp incline from 4 percent in the previous GAP study. This pronounced rise speaks to widespread adoption of social media monitoring tools and increasing use of primary research in program planning and evaluation.

The GAP VII research team, led by Jerry Swerling, Kjerstin Thorson and me, surveyed 620 senior public relations practitioners. This makes GAP VII the largest and most comprehensive study ever of the most senior communicators in public and private corporations, government agencies and non-profits in the United States. USC Annenberg conducted the study in cooperation with PRSA and other professional associations: Arthur W. Page Society, Institute for Public Relations and International Association of Business Communicators.

GAP VII aims to provide PR practitioners with actionable information they can use to better manage the communication functions in their organizations; identifies best practices against which they can benchmark their own organizations; and pinpoints trends to be aware of as they plan for tomorrow.

Some of the high-level findings include:

  • Public corporations on average reported higher public relations/communications budgets than respondents did two years ago.
  • While companies have distinctly different approaches to measurement, those measures tend to group into two categories: “Outcomes” and “Outputs.” Companies utilizing “Outcomes” measures such as influence on stakeholder attitudes and opinions, the bottom line, etc. are much more likely to say they have a good external reputation and are successful than are companies that rely on traditional PR “Output” measures — such as clips, impressions and advertising equivalency.
  • Public relations has its seat at the table: In nearly 60 percent of responding companies PR and/or communications reports directly to the “C-suite” (chairman, CEO, COO, etc.), reflecting today’s increasingly transparent, communication-intensive environment.
  • Social media has become mainstream for PR practitioners. Seventy percent of departments report budgetary responsibility for social media monitoring and 66 percent for social media participation. This reflects a 17 percent and 13 percent growth, respectively, over two years ago. Further reflecting a shift to Web 2.0 communication is a rise in responsibility for search engine optimization (SEO). However, PR departments appear to be mostly taking on increased social media responsibilities without additional budget.
  • Some social media tools are hotter than others. The most widely used social media tools by corporations are social networking sites such as Facebook, microblogging (e.g., Twitter), search engine optimization and sharing and producing online videos. Meanwhile, the use of wikis and virtual worlds has become nearly extinct.
  • There has been a substantial decrease in the emphasis on traditional marketing/product PR. This could be attributable to an increasing reliance on social media to promote products.
  • Agency-of-record (AOR) relationships are vanishing. Over the last 10 years, the use by client organizations of a single outside PR agency of record has consistently decreased. In 2002, more than 50 percent of public corporations reported an AOR relationship. This number decreased continuously and has now shrunk to just over 15 percent for public companies. At the same time, the number of agencies used by corporations on an ongoing or project basis continues to increase. This is likely the result of a need for specialized and/or regionally focused agency services.

The study is available for free download at the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relation Center’s website. The same location hosts the GAP VII Insight Base, a comprehensive online catalog of detailed findings. This is where PR practitioners can gain insight into specific topics of interest to their organization.

Many of the senior practitioners surveyed for GAP VII are members of PRSA and have greatly contributed to the success of the study. We’d like to thank everyone for participating!

GAP VII Report

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