Digital and visual

The 2017 European Communication Monitor shows that the strategic communication function is undergoing a fundamental transformation

 The 2017 European Communication Monitor shows that the strategic communication function is undergoing a fundamental transformation

(Photo by Lux Interaction on Unsplash)

Executive summary: survey highlights

  • Professionals working in communications are fully aware of the trend towards increased visualisation in society, however every second professional has limited visual competencies.
  • Social bots are seen largely as a threat for society and organisations – an explanation why only a few organisations already use social bots.
  • A cultural turn towards hyper-modernism changes the way organisations communicate with their stakeholders.
  • Quality management and continuous improvement is less common in communication departments and marketing, compared to other organisational functions.
  • Communicators in Europe consistently put two issues at the top of their concerns: linking business strategy and communication and coping with the digital evolution and the social web.
  • Strategic contributions of communication still lag behind their operational features.

Information and communication technologies and the digital, social and mobile media that grow from them/develop from them are fundamentally changing strategic communication. This is far more than an instrumental development – today’s economic, social and business environment forces us to rethink the mission and contribution of communication in organisations.

The results of the 2017 European Communication Monitor present this transformation in many domains, four of which are presented in this article: visualisation of communication, automatisation and robots, the need for strategy taking precedence over operations, and that communication quality must become certified, i.e. evidence based and not only implicitly assumed. Communication management has entered the 21st century as a recognised function, but its full affirmation depends on its ability to take the lead in embracing hypermodernity (as an era following postmodernity) and its communicative features.

From word to pictures

For millennia, western civilisation has been based on words. Our education is about reading and writing. Whatever social problem we have, we expect to solve it with higher literacy (‘health literacy’, ‘financial literacy’, ‘media literacy’ and so on). This era may be over. 94.4 per cent of the communicators interviewed for the 2017 European Communication Monitor witness a trend from verbal towards visual communication. Seven out of ten communicators experience rising demand for visual communication from their stakeholders.

89.5 percent agree that visual communication requires new competencies by practitioners, but only ever second believes specific management processes are needed to master the upcoming challenges (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: Prerequisites for handling visual communication in organisations

The problem is that, for decades, the most sought competency in communication was written language, first native tongue and later also English. It is therefore not unusual that every second communication professional admits to have limited competencies in visual communication.

The fastest growth in visual communication is in the use of online videos (e.g. web clips), infographics (e.g. explanatory content), instant photos (spontaneous, unedited) and business graphics (such as tables and figures) – all directly related to advances of digital, social and mobile media. With mobile taking the pole position, this trend will only accelerate.

As digital natives (people who were born in the digital age) grow older and become the majority of customers, employees and other stakeholders, visual may take precedence over literal with unforeseeable consequences. Professional communicators must catch up.

From analogue to digital

Artificial intelligence and robots are becoming normal parts of our lives. We can talk to our smartphones who predict our needs, and our cars can park without our attention. As machines have replaced many manual workers, so will artificial intelligence replace many intellectual workers – communicators included. Software robots, also known as social bots, produce many sports reports that in the past were compiled by sports journalists. Press releases about financial data can be automatically produced and distributed by software tools.

Social bots were used in political campaigns in the United Kingdom (in the run up to Brexit) and in the United States (during the 2016 presidential campaign).

And although it is obvious that social bots are influencing ever greater part of social, commercial and political communication, the 2017 European Communication Monitor shows that many communication professionals in Europe neglect the trend. Only one in three follow debates about social bots, and 16 percent have no idea about the topic at all. This might explain why only six per cent of organisations use social bots and only 8.5 percent plan to use them in the near future.

            However, knowledge and ignorance are not equally distributed around Europe. Professionals in Northern and Western Europe are much more attentive to the social bots phenomenon than their colleagues in Southern and Eastern Europe (Figure 2).

Fig. 2: Attention to the debate about social bots in key countries across Europe

From operational to strategic

While coping with the digital evolution and the social web, together with linking business strategy and communication, tops the list of the most important strategic issues in Europe, professionals in Europe still contribute to overall success of their organisation more with operational than strategic activities. In such a context, it is no wonder that top managers are not aware of the full range of contributions provided by their communication departments.

Fig. 3: Perceived contributions of communication departments to organisational success

The European Communication Monitor divides communication departments between excellent and other departments. Approximately 20 per cent of communication departments are ranged as excellent (based on influence they have on top management and their performance, success and competence), and they are more proficient in visual communication, more acquainted with social bots and their perceived contribution of both strategic and operational activities (and the demand for them by their top management) is higher than in and for the other communication departments.

From assumed to certified quality

Strategic communication has historically attracted ‘soft’ people, people who like people and not numbers. On the other side, the core top management disciplines attracted ‘hard’ people who were comfortable with numbers. And still today, communication management is steadily but slowly gaining recognition as equal among management disciplines, moving from operational expenditures into investments. But for that journey to end successfully, professional communicators must learn benchmarking against the best, ensuring and measuring quality, and calculate the return on investment where possible.

When it comes to quality management, the communication function is lagging slightly behind marketing, sales and fundraising, but substantially behind services and customer relationship management, and even more behind production, distribution and purchasing.

Fig. 4: Prevalence of quality management in core organisational functions

“The times, they are a changin’” sings a Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, and, as always, there will be winners and there will be losers. Strategic communication (in all its denominations such as corporate communication, communication management, public relations, etc.) must not only jump on the wagon of recent progress, but it must find a way to its steering wheel. Communication and its features (digitalisation, visualisation, software robots for automated communication and similar) are at the very core of contemporary organisational and social transformations. Who else should own this brave new world if not professional communicators?

About the European Communication Monitor 2017

In July 2017, the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) and the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD) published the results of their eleventh annual study on the state-of-the-art of communication management and trends within the profession across Europe. The European Communication Monitor 2017 is based on responses from 3,387 communication professionals in 50 European countries. The monitor is the largest annual empirical survey in the field worldwide; it provides country-specific analyses for 20 key markets across the continent. The ECM is supported by partners PRIME Research, a global leader in strategic communication research, and Communication Director magazine. Authors of the study are five university professors representing leading academic institutions in the field, led by Professor Ansgar Zerfass from the University of Leipzig. A wider board of professors and national research collaborators ensure that the survey reflects the diversity of the field across Europe.

Full results are available in a free PDF report (136 pp.) at and as a booklet: Zerfass, A., Moreno, Á., Tench, R., Verčič, D., & Verhoeven, P. (2017). European Communication Monitor 2017. How strategic communication deals with the challenges of visualisation, social bots and hypermodernity. Results of a survey in 50 Countries. Brussels, ISBN 978-942263-47-4.

Dejan Verčič

Professor Dejan Verčič heads the Department of Communication at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is a former president of the European Public Relations Education and Research Association (EUPRERA) and since 1994 organiser of BledCom.


Ansgar Zerfass

Dr. Ansgar Zerfass is professor and chair in strategic communication at the Institute of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Leipzig, Germany. He is also professor in communication and leadership at BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, as well as editor of the International Journal of Strategic Communication, USA, and, inter alia, Plank Scholar at The Plank Center for Leadership and Communication at the University of Alabama, USA. Current projects include, amongst others, the European Communication Monitor and Asia-Pacific Communication Monitor and Value Creating Communication, the world's most extensive research program on corporate communications conducted by with several universities and global companies.