More than half (56%) of PR professionals globally believe they are extremely competent or competent in their use of communications technology, according to new research, but this contrasts with the number who are failing to use even quite basic technology in their work.

The Global CommTech Report, by Purposeful Relations and PRovoke Media, shows many PR practitioners are still using spreadsheets for business-critical processes such as project management (41%) and tracking and managing contacts (39%).

The gap between in-house and agency practitioners is stark: 64% of agency practitioners claim to be extremely or very competent at using their existing communication technology stack, and 67% claim the same for their ability to identify and adopt new technologies. In contrast, just 44% of in-house practitioners claim competency in using technology and 52% in identifying and implementing new technologies.

But agencies aren't as far ahead of in-house teams as their confidence implies: only 60% of agency respondents said they recognise the importance of task and project management software, compared to 84% of in-house practitioners.

The Global CommTech Report reveals that communications technology is one of the highest investment priorities for PR teams, ranked first by agencies (34%) and second by in-house (28%). Within this, data and analytics (60%) is the main area of investment, followed by content creation and management (53%) and AI (39%). The challenge with investing in technology is that 64% of respondents also say budgets are their biggest challenge.

Time efficiency (88%) and cost efficiency (66%) are seen as the two main benefits of using communications technology, but many practitioners still lack understanding of how technology can improve their work for clients. For instance, just over half (55%) recognise the ability of AI to authenticate the accuracy of information and just 53% recognise the usefulness of AI and analytics in modelling and predicting possible outcomes.

Purposeful Relations co-founder Stuart Bruce said: “The results reflect my personal experience of working with clients. Although some are embracing new technology, knowledge and use of emerging technologies remains stubbornly low. The PR and communications sector has always been slow to innovate and it still is. Despite confident talk about the opportunities from AI, I have doubts about the industry's profession to innovate fast enough.

“The research shows that much of the public relations and communications profession hasn’t even cracked basic workflow, collaboration and planning technology yet. It’s critical that the profession urgently gets to grips with both data and analytics, and the revolutionary advances in artificial intelligence.”

The main barriers to using communications technology cited by respondents were their team’s ability to use it effectively (59%), followed by the difficulty of integrating systems (56%), identifying and choosing technology (46%), and resistance to change within the organisation (36%) or team (30%).

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft dominates the technology market, with Microsoft 365 being used by 70% of respondents. However, it’s clear that many communications professionals are not using all of the software’s functionality: just 6% use Microsoft Planner, with 41% still reliant on spreadsheets.

For an industry that is based on stakeholders and relationships, the use of contact relationship management (CRM) software is low. A quarter (25%) use media database and just 21% use either specialist CRM software for PR, or other CRM systems, with 39% relying on simple spreadsheets to manage contacts.

Most respondents to the Global CommTech Report (95%) think the biggest opportunity is analytics and data, and 71% believe AI is an opportunity for the industry. This is a similar response to the recent AI in the Communications Industry research by Sandpiper and PRovoke Media, which found 86% of global respondents see AI as an opportunity.

The most important skill for the future is seen as measurement and evaluation (78%), followed by data science and analytics (71%), and behavioural insights (69%).

Anne Gregory, professor emeritus of corporate communications at the University of Huddersfield and a director of the CIPR said: “The increase in the use of data and analytics indicates a move towards more informed decision-making and more accountability in evaluation.

“Given our role as the ‘holder of the ring’ in relationships with stakeholders and of organisational reputation, this is to be welcomed. The more we know about stakeholders and how to engage with them and the more we can track their developing relationship with our organisations, the more central our role becomes in strategy and governance. The challenge then becomes: are we equipped to step up to that plate?”

The report includes 10 action points for in-house and PR agency teams to improve their use of communications technology, data and analytics.

The Global CommTech Report is supported by ICCO, CIPR, AMEC, WCFA, NewsWhip, Presspage and PRophet. The research was conducted by Stickybeak between December 2022 and March 2023, and surveyed 329 public relations and communications professionals from Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, North America and South America.