We’re well into 2012, and I think we can all agree that the new trends and opportunities for public relations are continuing to develop on what feels like a weekly basis. At least I hope that I’m not alone in the weekly bout of panic I seem to suffer, as I survey the communications landscape and think “Ye gods, I really need to get a handle on [insert trend du jour here.] I suppose it’s all good news – with the advent of social media and the ever-increasing role of digital media in all our lives, there are a lot of opportunities for public relations. There new ways to find audiences, new mediums through which to convey messages, tons of opportunities to connect your brand’s fans and all sorts of ways to engage with influentials. And best of all, digital campaigns can be measured, and we all know that measurement is an age-old challenge for PR.
However, in my travels around the web and discussion groups, and in talking to our own customers, there seems to be some disagreement about the skill set PR pros need to succeed in today’s environment, and there are three points of view emerging:
- The traditionalist, who values the ability to write, build relationships, isolate and convey key messages and build publicity strategy above all else.
- The digital enthusiast, who values social media acuity, digital content production and editing and coding skills highly.
- The quant, which focuses on data, analytics and how PR integrates with business processes.
If you spend any time reading the viewpoints from the pros from a different quarter than your own, you’ll probably break out into a cold sweat as you think about all the work you need to do to bolster your own toolbox. (Personally, I swear that one of these days I’m going to learn HTML & CSS.)
At this point, it’s useful to look at some of the new trends in our business for guidance in determining what tools we really need to add to the PR toolkit.
- Storytelling (and “story selling.”) There’s decided difference between writing well and telling a story, and a good story is valuable currency today. Stories are sticky, stories are relatable and stories are effective: these are the reasons why stories are the cornerstone of the content marketing strategies and social media programs that are becoming meshed within public relations. But there’s more to storytelling than good writing.
Required skills: Curation. In order to develop a story that will gain traction with your audience, it’s necessary to spend a little time learning about their interests, otherwise, the risk of missing the mark is very real. Curate content (which is a fancy way of saying “find interesting stuff and share it) and see what sort of information (and format) resonates with your audience. Observe what they’re sharing (and re-sharing) too. The intelligence you glean will be invaluable to your writing process.
- Quantification. The measurability of digital outcomes requires communicators to dust off their analytical skills, because “big data” is here to stay, and it is strongly informing communications. Knowing how to organize and crunch data, correlate results and correctly interpret and apply data are core skills that enable communicators to turn the masses of data available to us into valuable business intelligence and ROI metrics.
Required skills: Data analysis & advanced spreadsheet skills. The good news, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while, is that today’s spreadsheet programs like Excel include powerful data analysis functions that make it things like correlation and statistics work fast and easy. Developing advanced understanding of the spreadsheet programs and the data analysis toolkits they contain is an important first step.
- Visual communications. The rise of the infographic and the emergence of platforms like Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram – all of which trade heavily if not exclusively in visuals – has accelerated the trend of using visuals in PR. Using multimedia and video to engage and attract audiences is rapidly becoming stock in trade for PR.
Required skills: Basic videography, photography and design are important, as is the ability to “think visually” and develop visual concepts to accompany and illustrate messages. Bonus: multimedia production and editing skills. Even if you have a design team at your disposal, learning how to think about messages visually is an important skill, because communications are becoming more and more visual. And if you don’t have a design team at hand, learning how to develop, edit and publish visuals to augment campaigns is crucial.
- Proactive & Predictive Monitoring. We’re in an age of radical transparency, which is fueled in part by the lighting-fast flow of information. Instead of monitoring “downstream” for media pick up that has been published, PR teams are switching gears, and monitoring conversations and trends in order to predict events and communicate proactively. In a nutshell, PR can influence outcomes, rather than simply measuring them.
Required skills: Social listening. Developing acuity with social media monitoring and understanding of social audiences is the cornerstone for good monitoring. Learn how to use a social media dashboard to evaluate what folks are talking about, and identify the recurring issues that are of persistent interest to your marketplace. Get involved in social media and industry discussion groups to observe first-hand how conversations work, and how ideas flow.
- Adaptability. Content marketing, SEO, video production – it doesn’t sound much like PR – or, more specifically, PR as we’ve traditionally thought of it. The truth is many public relations job descriptions are reading more and more like a catalogue of communications skills. The mushrooming demands on PR departments – and subsequently, on professional communicators – is in itself an important trend, and the successful PR pro will know how to navigate these changes with grace and aplomb.
Required skill: Learning. The ability to succeed in changing times is really part of the DNA for PR. After all, this is the department that cuts its teeth on curve balls. The only thing predictable about PR is change. Make time in your day to read, practice and learn.
In my mind, the requirements for PR blend aspects of traditional PR with digital tactics and quantitative skills. And these demands are ever-changing. Annette Pinder, associate publisher and M.E. at Buffalo Healthy Living, put it very succinctly in a related discussion of PR skills over on LinkedIn:
“I think that in a lean economy it is essential for professionals to be skilled in many different areas — and to essentially become a renaissance person. Important skills include writing, speaking, networking, research, and social media marketing and public relations. Being aware of what is happening in the community and globally is vital.”
Another commenter in the same discussion, Steve Leer, a communications consultant/senior writer at Purdue University Department of Agricultural Communication, detailed the varied requirements demanded of public relations professionals by employers today.
“Today’s professional communicator needs to know how to shoot and edit photos and video, be proficient in social media, create graphics, possess at least a basic understanding of Web design and know how to work with outside vendors for printed materials,” he observed, adding, “Now, it might just be that employers will demand all those skills and never actually expect their new hires to do them all on the job, but if the employer asks for the moon and stars you’d better be able to at least enter outer space.”
This is food for thought, without a doubt. And it’s useful to consider the drivers of these trends – namely, the influence of the digital domain on communications and the very measurability digital offers us. Will these influences be fleeting? Personally, I doubt it.
How is PR evolving from your perspective? What new skills have been most valuable to you?
Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president, social media. We’ve just announced The Crowd-Sourced eBook: The Definitive Guide to Social Influencer Engagement and invite you to contribute.