Interview Ansgar Zerfaß: Empirical Findings on the Digital Transformation of Communications Management

The European Communication Monitor (ECM) 2022 has recently been presented, and CommTech occupies a separate chapter in it. Ansgar Zerfaß Professor of Strategic Communication at the University of Leipzig and head of the international ECM research group, takes a closer look at the topic in an interview with Thomas Mickeleit.

About the interlocutor: Professor Dr. Ansgar Zerfass, Jg. 1965, has been researching the digitization of corporate communications for 25 years on the basis of his interdisciplinary background (strategic management, communications science, business information technology). His first book on “Interactive Corporate Communication” was published by F.A.Z. Verlag in 1998, followed by books on “Digital Value Creation” (1999, 2002), “E-Content” and “Weblogs” (2005), and the “Online PR Handbook” (2012, 2015). Most recently, this year saw the publication of the third edition of the standard work “Corporate Communications Handbook” (edited with Manfred Piwinger and Ulrike Röttger) by Springer Gabler. With a doctorate in business administration and a post-doctoral degree in communications, he has been a board member of the International Public Relations Association (ICA) in Washington, D.C., since 2021 and currently heads the Public Relations Division at the discipline’s academic umbrella organization.

Thomas Mickeleit: Many people are already familiar with the term MarTech. But what characterizes CommTech and where are the differences and similarities to MarTech?

Ansgar Zerfaß: There are different definitions for CommTech. We understand this to mean all digital technologies that can be used for corporate or organizational communication. On the one hand, this involves supporting core activities such as communicating with internal and external stakeholders and advising management and internal clients. But this also includes workflow support in communications departments.

In terms of communicating with stakeholders, there is a lot of overlap with MarTech, which is digital tools for marketing. For example, the same software and services are often used. Accordingly, there is not only an overlap in terminology, but also in the underlying technologies. However, MarTech also involves aspects of product design, pricing or sales that are not needed in corporate communications – for example, automated pricing using artificial intelligence.

Thomas Mickeleit: Why did the debate about CommTech come up so late, comparatively speaking?

Ansgar Zerfaß: The current debate about CommTech is based on a very broad understanding. Science and practice have been shedding light on some of these areas for a long time. This includes, in particular, the use of technology in social media communication and the analytics debate. So far, however, the focus has been on individual applications rather than on the technologies behind them, their introduction, and their use. In other words, the debate about CommTech was already taking place in parts, but the big picture was not considered for a long time.

Thomas Mickeleit: One striking feature of the ECM 2022 results is the considerable regional variation. How can these be explained?

Ansgar Zerfaß: First of all, it can be stated that Germany is relatively far ahead in comparison when it comes to the question of how intensively the topic is discussed in the industry. 51 percent of respondents perceive it that way. 42 percent also say they personally follow the debate. Accordingly, there is no lack of attention for the topic in Germany. However, there are differences in whether people believe CommTech has an impact on their department and their work. In my estimation, however, these differences are not so much due to cultural factors. Rather, this is due to the different levels of maturity of the organizations and the individual level of reflection of the communicators.

Thomas Mickeleit: In the previous study, ECM 2021, 88 percent of respondents across Europe said they found digitization very important. However, the results from this year show that only about one-third take care of the issue themselves. How can this difference be explained? In the end, is the debate perhaps not as relevant as we think?

Ansgar Zerfaß: You could see it that way – if you assume that the practice is always right because it thinks very foresightedly and strategically. My observation, however, is that communicators are often bogged down in day-to-day business and tend to lack a view of the big picture. So the topic is discussed, opinions are formed, but often no consequences are drawn. As a result, the percentage of those asking questions like “What does this actually mean for me personally?” and “What does this mean for my communications department, my profession?” has not been large. This is something that will only develop over time and that is also the essential difference to marketing, where the topic has been on the agenda for some time.

Thomas Mickeleit: Among those following the debate, one-third believe CommTech also brings disadvantages when communicating with stakeholders. What risks do respondents see here?

Ansgar Zerfass: The risks were not specifically surveyed in the ECM 2022, but can be explained based on other studies. On the one hand, the ‘quality’ aspect plays an important role. Especially when communicating with internal and external stakeholders using chatbots or automated content production, there is often a concern that corporate communications will deteriorate. On the other hand, automation can lead to endangering one’s own competencies, one’s own influence or even one’s own job.

Many communicators are considering whether their own skills and activities will still be needed in the future. While some can handle it well, others tend to close their eyes because they can’t or don’t want to imagine what the development means for them. However, based on our study, it must also be said that those who are more involved with the topic see more advantages than disadvantages and have discovered a wide variety of use cases for themselves.

Thomas Mickeleit: What are the risks of communication not following the CommTech path?

Ansgar Zerfaß: The risks arise from the fact that the technology will be available anyway, even if you don’t deal with it. There are two threatening scenarios here: One is that digital tools are indeed used, but by others – for example, by other departments or by agencies. Among other things, the experience is already there in marketing. Communications departments are then threatened with a loss of significance. Another scenario is that digital applications for corporate communications, as a fairly small area in the overall context, receive no attention and CommTech is not used at all. Then communication services may be too inflexible, too expensive, not good enough in the future. Even then, there is a threat of a loss of significance within the organizations.

Thomas Mickeleit: The ECM 2022 results show that communications departments have difficulty adopting CommTech primarily due to internal structural barriers. What advice can be given to communicators to drive their digitization?

Ansgar Zerfaß: These findings indicate once again that internal communications departments are always part of an organization and not isolated units. Nevertheless, in practice one often actively differentiates oneself from other areas such as sales, marketing or IT. But in the digital transformation, it is precisely this isolation that poses a problem. Without the support of IT departments, the introduction of CommTech will not succeed. For this to happen, the self-image and thinking of communicators must change. It must be clear to everyone what tasks and processes need to be managed, what improvements want to be achieved, and what software, services, and infrastructure are needed for each. This is the only way to determine what exactly is to be digitized. All of this structured, process-oriented thinking and experience with IT implementations is often lacking, and it shows quite clearly here.

Thomas Mickeleit: And how can that be overcome?

Ansgar Zerfaß: For this, it is particularly important to rethink one’s own role in the company. For example, it can be helpful to rethink the business model of your own communications department. We recently presented a frame of reference for this elsewhere (in the PR magazine 8/2022 ). As soon as one reflects holistically on one’s own actions, one inevitably thinks specifically about what services are provided and how they are created. This gets you to look at the operating model in the engine room of the communications department and the technologies behind it. In this way, a new perspective on the topic develops and people no longer talk about required competencies and software in such an isolated way. It is essential to bring communications departments out of isolation and fit them into the organization. This type of thinking is not as historically developed in the PR profession as it is in other fields. Therefore, there is now a great need to catch up. Those who know what is important in digital transformation and who know their own processes have a clear advantage.

Thomas Mickeleit: In your experience, are communications departments able to manage such processes and drive this transformation on their own, or do they only manage it with external help?

Ansgar Zerfaß: My impression is that they can’t do it alone. There is nothing wrong with that either. Most decision-makers in communications departments have not yet implemented such projects themselves; instead, they tend to think of transformation in terms of ‘soft’ aspects such as change communication. Rarely is there experience with large-scale technology rollouts, investments in hardware and software, or dealing with IT service providers. But this is urgently needed. The know-how for this can be acquired externally in the short term, but should be built up internally in the medium term. This is best accomplished by working with other departments and internal consulting units.

The key question is often whether you have built the relationships necessary to do this. This includes, above all, the relationship with the IT department in order to gain informal and indirect access to transformation knowledge and know-how. However, it should be borne in mind that working with a communications department that is after all quite specialized and small in the overall context seems rather less attractive to business IT specialists at first glance. Therefore, it is important to highlight win-win opportunities in collaboration and to inspire IT specialists to do their own work. At the same time, sufficient time should be taken to take another look at one’s own processes in order to uncover optimization potential.

Thomas Mickeleit: Are there organizational, process-related, cultural prerequisites that have to be created in organizations in order to be successful with CommTech? Are there hurdles that we first have to remove in order to take this step?

Ansgar Zerfass: At the organizational level, the main thing is to see the perennial topic of ‘What are the tasks, what does the communications department contribute to the overall success?’ as part of a holistic process and not to isolate yourself. As soon as you go down this path, you are directly in the process landscape of value creation and digitization of the entire company. Then it quickly becomes clear that all the challenges of digital transformation – competence development, technology development, software selection – can also be found in other areas. If you succeed in positioning yourself clearly, you can see which know-how can be used at which point and who you can look to for guidance. It is important to realize that not everything has to be reinvented, but that one benefits above all from internal collaboration with others.

This means that the first step would be to reflect on one’s own set-up and to disclose parallel challenges in the organization. The second step is to take a closer look at individual performance and support processes. Stakeholder journeys in particular are special processes that differ depending on the company and the reference group. In order to be successful with CommTech, it is therefore important to take a holistic view and to exchange ideas with others. Initiatives such as AG CommTech also help here. On the other hand, however, the introduction of CommTech will only be successful if there is also individual reflection and the insights gained are broken down to the company’s own needs.

Thomas Mickeleit: Thank you very much for the interview!