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Skills future PR people will need

By Andy Getsey
Co-founder, Atomic
Feb 7, 2013

I was invited to talk at  a round table discussion last night about the Future of PR sponsored by PRSA Silicon Valley.  The panel was moderated by Steve Barrett, Editor in Chief of PR Week and included David Swain, director of technology comms for Facebook, Kelly MCGinnis, VP comms for Dell, Burghardt Tendrich, formerly Text 100 and Bite, now associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism.  And me. Here’s a mashup of my thoughts, and those of the panel and audience - about the critical skills PR practitioners need to acquire as the field advances.

Excellent writing and storytelling skills.  More than ever, good thinking, writing and storytelling skills are critical.  Brands are now self-publishing all sorts of content, the journalistic media world is more hard pressed for time and bandwidth, and these core professional communications skills are getting more important.  Still, many people in the audience feel that people with these critical talents are harder to find than ever.

A healthy understanding of how powerful “traditional” media really are, still.  It’s popular among many of the digerati, as well as many social marketers (both groups to which I belong) to propel the idea that traditional media don’t matter any more (a myth I don’t support).  Our agency has monitored and analyzed every campaign we’ve ever done over a twelve year period, and I can tell you that we have never had even one single instance where a client’s web site has crashed because of traffic generated exclusively from online buzz.  We have dozens and dozens of client sites crash from traffic generated by exposure in traditional media.  Sure, their business models are under siege in many cases, but their ability to deliver massive audiences and persuasive impact is still real.

Transmedia skills.  People with bright intellect, solid experience, good writing skills, and solid media expertise are always in demand. Add social media, SEO, graphic design, video production, event production and other skills and you are going to another level.  If you know how to tell stories and engage audiences in various ways, written, visual, experiential, through search returns, media, social etc, you can write your own ticket.  Since the lines between PR and advertising are blurring a bit at the edges – a stint working at an ad or digital agency wouldn’t hurt you either. 

Branding expertise.  Most of us in PR feel we understand branding, but it’s actually a bit more of a formal discipline than many PR people like to think.  Future PR pros will be wise to have some formal education in branding.  A good way to get it, especially for students, is to take courses and intern at a pure branding consultancy.  For others, there are a number of great books, books on tape and videos about what a brand is and how brands are managed.  PR work gets better when it’s informed with a knowledge of the principles of branding that CMOs work with every day.  Lack of real understanding shows.

Business savvi-ness.  As communicators, we’d all like a place at the table in the C-suite.  But business is the language of the C-suite, and we need to understand business in general, the specifics of the client or employer business at hand, and specifically how various communications strategies, programs or events might or will impact the business itself. We need to be able to counsel C-level execs at this level to provide real value at the table.  Too many practitioners lead with pure PR- or publicity-driven thinking.  Business education or hands-on management experience is usually what it takes to build the knowledge needed to succeed at the table with the C-people.

Sophisticated knowledge of and application of analytics for planning, consulting and program measurement.  Most of the conversation about analytics in our industry is about reporting in order to defend the value of programs. Or it’s about listening in on social conversations. That same basic focus was in effect at the PRSA event.  There is actually so much more value in applying analytics to forward strategy and planning, in addition to simple listening and reporting.  With the volume of noise and data increasing dramatically across all channels, practitioners can elevate their skills considerably by becoming educated in a variety of communications analytics, statistical principles, and especially how to apply analytics and insights to strategy and planning.  Don’t just justify to senior execs – lead!

Aggressive curiosity.  The industry is changing so fast that we will all do ourselves a big favor by being boundlessly curious, and stretching beyond what we know to acquire broader knowledge, more skills and a wider network. Don’t settle into a groove.

Is the future easier for PR professionals?  I’m afraid the answer is no.  the present and future are becoming more complicated and demanding.  But as a PR professional that started in the industry just as the landscape and dynamics got way more complicated, I can tell you that for those that possess innate curiosity, drive, the willingness to master new skills and adopt new perspectives as the industry evolves, PR and social media offer an incredibly interesting and rewarding career.

What do you think? Ping me at andy(at), or @andygetsey on Twitter.

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