Thought leadership remains the most mainstream form of marketing for most professional service firms, so it’s no surprise that the PR industry produces a wealth of surveys and studies.

Excluding our own research, and emphasizing new initiatives or new findings over well-established pieces of intellectual property (particularly those that have made this list in previous years), we have selected the most important thought leadership studies of the past 12 months, to launch our 2023 Review.

It’s a top 10 list, but we’ve taken the liberty of grouping some studies together to capture the wide spectrum of research we saw over the course of the year, and we added one piece of bonus thought leadership we believed to be important.

1-3: AI comes of age

This review is (for now at least) still being written by an actual human, but by early 2023 the public relations business was being consumed by concerns about the growing power of artificial intelligence and the likelihood that one day, a substantial part of the PR professional’s job might be outsourced to a piece of software.

In April, the “AI in Communications: Industry Opportunities and Risks” study conducted by PRovoke Media and Sandpiper found surprising optimism, with 86% of communications professionals globally viewing artificial intelligence as an opportunity rather than a risk, with fewer than one third (29%) expressing concern that the rise of generative AI will see a reduction or replacement of their roles in the future.

By October, FleishmanHillard had produced its own research, with the agency’s report, ‘Will gen AI change the game?, addressing the hopes, fears and expectations of UK professionals and finding that 70% of decision-makers are now using generative AI and/or business process automation at work, with 86% saying that they know “a lot” or at least “something” about the technology. Its use is currently largely in research and efficiency-based tasks: gathering market intelligence (44%) and streamlining workflows (44%) being the most popular applications.

But in November, a note of caution was being sounded by Golin, which conducted its “AI Issues Trap” research in the UK and found that nearly 60% of communicators are yet to adjust their reputation management approach to AI, with two-thirds unsure how to do so — and 97% being concerned about the threat of AI to organisation or brand reputation.

4-8: A retreat from ESG?

After several years of research into the benefits of corporate purpose, sustainability, and political involvement, 2023 saw the backlash against this approach to “stakeholder capitalism” raise questions on the client side of the business about whether the risk of taking “controversial” positions on issues ranging from race to the environment was really worth the trouble — especially after right-wing critics began to use physical violence against the property and people of companies they deemed “woke.”

The first of several studies to address this issue came in February, when GSG issued its “2023 Business and Politics Report,” which found most Americans don’t support ongoing attacks against “woke capitalism,” with 77% of respondents saying companies should promote social change and 88% approving of those that have a positive impact on their communities.

Those results were echoed by Allison+Partners research released in May, which found that more than half of Americans (56%) said they have positive views of the term ESG and nearly two-thirds (65%) want companies to continue their environmental, social and governance action. The results skew even higher for millennials; 71% have positive viewpoints on ESG and 75% want companies to continue making progress.

SEC Newgate’s third annual ESG Monitor, released in October, took a more global view and found even more resounding support for corporate activism: a survey of consumers in 12 countries found a significant surge in community interest regarding ESG issues, with 67% of respondents rating their interest at seven or more out of 10, a rise from 56% in 2022. Moreover, an overwhelming 77% of respondents agreed that it is crucial for companies to take tangible actions on ESG issues, and 71% emphasised the significance of companies speaking out on issues vital to their employees and customers — suggesting that American conservatives are no more than a vocal minority.

A report by FleishmanHillard UK suggested that companies should be more interested in how to do ESG communications better, rather than whether to do it at all: the “Sustainability, Communications & Climate Confusion” report found that while 55% of UK consumers feel environmental sustainability is important when shopping, only 41% understand the term ‘certified carbon neutral’, for instance, on product packaging. Greater clarity and more context should be the priority.

Around the same time, European business strategy, communications and political engagement firm Boldt was unveiling its new report, “Does a Woke Reputation Increase Business Value?”, which found that for many companies so-called “woke” words and actions had a greater impact on reputation (with regulators, policymakers and NGOs) than it did on trust (with consumers), introducing some nuance to the debate about such activities.

9. Solving big problems

A deeper dive into the whole topic of stakeholder engagement was provided in November, when new research from Headland showed businesses that work more deeply with stakeholders can tackle the “grand challenges” facing society and reap financial and reputational value. The “Collaborative Corporate” study with systems specialist and behavioral scientist Dr. Ben Shenoy — my personal favorite out of all the new thought leadership this year  — suggests that tackling systemic challenges such the climate crisis, the rise of AI and social polarisation in partnership with other businesses and organisations can lead to improved relationships, reputations and, ultimately, revenue.
10. More with less

Edelman is, of course, best known for its Trust Barometer research, which has featured on this list many times, but its annual “Future of Corporate Communications” study provides equally interesting data, and this year’s iteration took the temperature of the industry, finding that half of respondents said they view themselves as strategic advisors or partners to their company’s top management — up from just one-third two years ago. The study also found, though, that expansion of the CCO role comes with challenges, as comms leaders are being asked to do more with less.

Bonus Thought Leadership: Africa

The first ”Africa PR & Communications Report,” developed by Nigeria-based agency BHM in partnership with industry bodies, raised concerns about a continental “brain drain,” with concerns over the emigration of African PR practitioners dominating issues relating to talent recruitment, development and retention. Nearly all PR practitioners (90%) believe that more professionals are willing to leave the African country in which they operate while 80% are convinced that even entry-level staff are already considering their exit from their countries. A lack of access to tools and resources, training and development and poor compensation are cited as critical factors driving the exodus of professionals and young talent in the industry.