Email or Slack? A look at how PR professionals communicate

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Communications are the bread and butter of public relations. How well PR professionals connect with their audiences ultimately hinges on their abilities as writers, speakers and masters of specific domains, such as the press release and the company mailing list. Plus, agency revenue will vary in turn according to their communications abilities.

In a previous post, we examined some of the essential tools of modern PR, along with how they are used in communicating a PR strategy to the public. However, there’s still the question of how today’s PR teams best communicate with each other. What platforms do they rely on, and how are their preferences are evolving alongside recent technological changes?

Someone checks a Slack notification on a smartphone.

Email overload: Why traditional communications habits should be reconsidered in PR

Like employees across most office-oriented positions, PR workers are inundated with email. A McKinsey report once found that professionals spent over one-quarter of their work weeks — or about 1.5 days — managing their inboxes. Separately, Atlassian pegged the average number of weekly emails per employee at 300.

In workplace cultures that prize “inbox zero” and rapid responses, are there any real consequences to such email overload, despite seemingly everyone being used to it by now? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Many PR agencies rely on time tracking, via timesheets or software, to bill their clients. The considerable time their workforces spend writing and reading emails should be accounted for, but nevertheless it often goes overlooked.

Financially, the stakes are high for ensuring all work is documented. According to Gould+Partners, through 2015 the mean hourly billing rate for PR firms was $197, up from $190 in 2014. The ClickTime Blog also estimated even a PR agency with only two full-time employees would squander $200,000 yearly in untracked revenue related to account over-servicing.

Email communications are not the only contributor to this cost, but they can be a significant one considering the numbers from McKinsey and Atlassian. Accelo has provided additional context on the scope of the problem for PR workers and others:

    • • Its survey of professionals found approximately 36 percent of them never tracked email — the most commonly cited behavior, more than double the runner-up, which was “always track email.”
    • • Based on that percentage and the assumption an individual spends 2.5 hours daily on email management, 350 hours of his or her email-related work is going unaccounted each year. This missed revenue alone would be enough to pay someone a salary above the national median.

    • • On top of the loss of potentially billable hours, the combination of email overload and insufficient or nonexistent time tracking decreases employee utilization. For PR businesses, lower utilization means diminished productivity, profitability and sustainability.

Still, email is virtually inescapable in modern PR, especially in light of the ongoing efficacy of email marketing. Email is also one of the easiest ways to communicate with a wide range of clients. While not everyone can be assumed to have video conferencing equipment, VoIP-enabled phones or online collaboration tools such as Asana and Trello, email is everywhere.

What could replace email in PR comms? A look at some of the contenders

In addition to its ubiquity, email also benefits from appearing to be more professional than other forms of electronic communications. Pitching a new PR strategy via an emailed PowerPoint deck is not going to raise eyebrows the way describing it with an emoji in an SMS or iMessage conversation might.

All the same, real email alternatives are finally emerging. Can they reduce the inefficiencies and lost revenue related to email overuse?

A May 2017 webinar hosted by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) spotlighted probably the best known would-be email replacement: the popular chat application Slack. Available on both mobile and desktop platforms, Slack has rapidly become an essential business tool. The company announced at its September 2017 conference it had 6 million daily users as well as 2 million paid subscribers worldwide. Included in those latter figures are more than 40 percent of the 100 largest companies by revenue in the U.S.

While the full scale of Slack’s operations is still small compared to global email use, its importance to some organizations is comparable to email’s. Slack’s official statistics reveal that paying users spend 2 hours a day actively working in Slack, with the Slack application open for a total of 10 hours. That means Slack is in effect open all of the time.

Slack is not the only game in town for intracompany chat and collaboration. The aforementioned Atlassian offers the similar HipChat. The most significant long-term competitors might be Microsoft Teams, which is baked right into corporate productivity staple Office 365 (85 million users as of mid-2017), and Facebook Workplace.

How Slack and company stack up against email

The PRSA talk on Slack highlighted some of the platform’s specific advantages over email, but similarly advantageous features are already available in, or being added to, most other modern chat clients. Some of the most important areas in which Slack et al. one-up email include:

Conversation segmentation

With Slack, it is easy to ensure that conversations stay on topic. Channels can be configured as either public or private, with designated focus areas for each one. This solution is more efficient than managing multiple inboxes and custom email labels. Each channel is like its own chat room, file sharing repository and mini note-taking app, all in one convenient interface.

Useful integrations for PR
Slack is well-known for its straightforward compatibility with a broad spectrum of other internet-enabled services. It is easy to connect the application to major platforms such as Twitter and Dropbox, not to mention highly specialized tools like Zapier and Screenhero. These combinations put a variety of applications at PR professionals’ fingertips, saving them the time of switching between programs. Email has many integrations, too, even if its underlying technology is so old it was not originally built with such connections in mind.

Easier awareness of company news and developments
It can be hard to decide who needs to be included on the recipients list of each email. The workaround — sending the email to everyone in the company — is potentially disruptive, if only because of the potential for endless reply-all chains that set off alerts, consume inbox space and often distract from the original topic. With a chat app like Slack, a general company channel can provide rolling updates, allowing PR workers to take a quick glance without getting too distracted from their regular activities.

Simplified feedback loops
How do you know if your proposed PR campaign is a good idea? You might try techniques such as focus groups or A/B testing. Slack is tailor-made for such workflows. You can invite beta testers, influencers and collaborators to a specialized channel to collect their feedback. This setup is much more efficient than playing email tag and risking a critical message getting sent to a spam filter or buried in a general inbox.

Easier onboarding for new team members

Slack maintains an easy-to-search archive of chats. A few simple commands within Slack itself, or from a third-party solution such as SlackArchive. That makes life simple for new hires who need to comb through materials that would be more difficult to locate in a traditional email account. Since Slack is Software-as-a-Service, it is hosted on cloud infrastructure, which simplifies the issue of how to manage the growing amounts of data it generates — a common problem in email management.

There are many benefits to using Slack instead of email. That said, email still retains at least a few advantages, starting with its universality. It is also generally a superior forum for long questions and inquiries requiring a higher degree of privacy than the typical Slack channel affords.

While it is difficult to quantify, Slack and similar solutions might also amplify the fear of missing out (FOMO) phenomenon. FOMO is closely associated with social media applications, in particular, meaning that many PR professionals have already experienced it. It drives compulsive re-checking of Twitter, Facebook, etc. to ensure that no status update or story, no matter how trivial, goes unchecked.

Slack is not social media per se, but it creates a similar FOMO effect, especially since it does not have the same implicit filters as email. Whereas you might think a while before hitting “send” on an email, a Slack chat can become a free-flowing stream of ideas if not properly monitored. Staying on top of multiple concurrent chats, whether for FOMO reasons or other purposes, also takes a toll on overall focus and productivity.

An email notification is read from a smartwatch.

Picking and choosing the right tools for your PR team

There is no right answer to “email or Slack?” Everything depends on the particular needs of your PR team and what tools work best for their responsibilities.
Communications tools are a means to an end. They complement your skills as a PR professional. You can develop these key abilities by earning a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations from the George Washington University. Learn more by viewing the main program page today.

Recommended Readings:
Top Tools Today’s PR Professionals Can’t Live Without
Using Social Media to Accomplish Your Communications Goals

3 Ways PR Pros can Use Slack to Get More Done
Slack Passes 6 Million Daily Users And Opens Up Channels To Multi-Company Use
Email Sign Out: Why Some Communications Teams Are Switching to Slack
Do You Track Time Spent on Emails? If Not, It’s Costing You $50,000 Every Year.
5 Must-Know Stats for PR Pros
Is Email Marketing Dead? Here’s What the Statistics Show
Why Agencies Should Track Time
2014 Billing Rates & Utilization
Gould+Partners Billing Rates/Utilization Report Should Concern PR Agency Management
Civil War: Slack vs Email (Part 1)
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FOMO: How the Fear of Missing Out drives social media ‘addiction’
9 Slack Hacks We Couldn’t Live Without
Slack, an Upstart in Messaging, Now Faces Giant Tech Rivals