NEW YORK—There is little sign that the growth opportunity for public relations firms in the digital and social media space has reached anything approaching saturation point, according to a survey of agency principals from around the world, conducted in conjunction with our 2011 Global Rankings project. Even more encouraging, firms in the most mature PR markets—particularly North America—see the greatest opportunity in the digital space, suggesting that for markets often considered to be “behind” the US in terms of social media adoption, the best is yet to come.

When we asked agency principals to identify the greatest growth opportunity for their firms over the next 12 months, 61.6 percent identified digital and social media, up from 53.7 percent last year. In North America, more than 70 percent said the digital and social media presented a significant growth opportunity for their business.

At the same time, many firms around the world continue to see plenty of growth opportunity in more traditional areas. More than 40 percent identified marketing communications (42.6 percent, up from 38.9 percent last year) and corporate reputation work (41.6 percent, down from 45.9 percent) as leading sources of likely growth.

There was also some enthusiasm for the growth potential presented by public affairs (21.6 percent), corporate responsibility (19.5 percent), word-of-mouth communications (14.7 percent), and employee communications (13.2 percent)—although considerably fewer agency principals envisage growth in the financial communications/investor relations space (7.9 percent).

Most of those numbers are similar to last year’s responses, with word-of-mouth (up from 11.1 percent) and employee communications (up from 9.6 percent) the biggest gainers.

Healthcare leads sector growth

As far as industry sectors are concerned, healthcare moved into first place, identified as a major growth opportunity by more than 50 percent of respondents (50.6 percent, up from 46.3 percent last year), moving ahead of the consumer goods and services sector (47.4 percent, down slightly from 48.6 percent last year).

There are signs of a recovery in the technology sector, cited by 38.9 percent of respondents this year, up from 31.6 percent last year.

There is less opportunity seen in areas such as financial and professional services (22.6 percent), food and beverage (22.1 percent) and industrial manufacturing (20.5 percent)—although all three sectors have improved their ratings since last year.

That’s not the case for the public sector, which was cited by just 10.5 percent of respondents, down from 12.4 percent last year. And agency heads remains most skeptical about opportunities in the not-for-profit sector, cited by just 4.2 percent (4.1 percent last year).

Regional differences

There were some significant regional differences in outlook, however.

Eastern Europeans are most optimistic about growth in marketing communications (cited by 72.7 percent of respondents, ahead of digital and social media, which was cited by just 45.5 percent—the lowest level of any of the five regions.)

The UK and Western Europe see the greatest potential for growth in corporate reputation (48.1 percent and 46 percent respectively), while Eastern Europe sees relatively little growth in that area (36.4 percnet).

The Asia-Pacific is most bullish on corporate responsibility (34.8 percent), while North America and the UK (14.8 percent each) are least optimistic about growth in that arena.

Agency leaders in the Asia-Pacific region are also the most enthusiastic about the consumer sector (60.9 percent) and the food and beverage business (30.4 percent).

A good deal of the excitement about healthcare comes from North America (62.5 percent) and to a lesser extent Western Europe (52.1 percent). There is significantly less optimism in the UK (25.9 percent).

The UK is also least optimistic about the public sector, with zero respondents seeing the potential for growth—compared to 22.9 percent in Western Europe.