10 skills for the future PR practitioner: "get on or get out"

10 skills for the future PR practitioner: "get on or get out"


The Public Relations (PR) Show took place at the Business Design Centre in London today. The event is an innovation in learning and development from the CIPR. Three speaker streams throughout the day addressed organisational structure and culture, government communities and society, and technology, platforms and the future of PR.

These were accompanied by an exhibition comprised of a variety of PR services, media and tools, and an advice clinic hosted by my own firm Ketchum.

It has almost become a sport whenever PR practitioners get together for the profession to beat itself up about its lack of progress in areas such as digital communication and measurement.

In my view the profession is polarising between those practitioners that are cracking on and using new forms of media to engage publics in a two-way dialogue and those that continue to spam journalists with press releases. The former have a great future in the business. The latter will be out of job within a generation.

The story of the PR Show was a celebration of the progress that the profession is making on a number of fronts. I ran an education session on the future practitioner and so had the opportunity to tackle many of these issues head-on.

Deck and podcast

Here’s my deck and the issues that I covered. The session was recorded by the CIPR and published as a podcast.

#1 An academic and historical perspective

One of the characteristics that mark out an industry from a profession is a memory and body of academic work. Other professional disciplines such as management consultancy firms aren’t shy about incorporating theoretical models into their pitches but when it comes to PR more often than not we rely on instinct rather than academic rigor and data. Practitioners joining the industry should have, or quickly acquire, foundation knowledge. There’s a related point, the role of universities isn’t to turn out industry ready graduates. Instead there needs to be a period of training as there is in any other profession. The simple fact is that academics and practitioners need to work better together. In the UK people such as Richard BaileySimon CollisterAlister FoyeDavid Phillips, and Heather Yaxley are all working hard to make a difference.

#2 Big data, little data

We have access, unlike ever before, to data to understand audiences and listen to what they thinks about us, our products and services, competitors and a market. This is big data.  In this sense the social web is a massive market research exercise that no has ever commissioned. Increasingly there are tools to enable us to cut these large amounts of data down to size. We’re also able to understand how an audience engages with our content because every action and reaction on the social web leaves an audit trail. That’s little data. I’ve started doodling charts every time that I come across some useful data. Lookup my #doodlechart Pinterest board.

#3 Insight and creativity

Altimeter published data early this year that suggested that we are exposed to more than 3,000 brand messages per day. Most are corporate bollocks that don't resonate with their intended audience and are lost in the noise. Those that reach their intended audience and resonate are almost always based on a creative idea that is integrated and engages with its intended audience across multiple channels. Campaign winning ideas are based on an audience insight, typically emotional, and are executed consistently across all channels.

#4 Content development

Content in all its forms is the drum beat of PR campaigns. We need to get out of our comfort zone of text and images. A modern practitioner needs to be confident in working, and ideally producing, all forms of content.  We all carry devices with us capable of creating audio, images, text and video.  Experiment with creating these different forms of content and applications such as Instagram and Vine. Once you’ve mastered how to do all these things get in front of the camera rather than behind it.

#5 Social and digital

The fragmentation of media and shift to social forms of media is the narrative of the last decade for the PR business. We’re shifting from broadcast as a means of communication with an audience to two-way communication. New forms of media are complementing old. Traditional media organisations are producing their own media, and journalists and other influencers connect via Twitter. It is incredibly daunting, but the best way to get to grips with social is to be social. Create accounts on social networks such as Facebook Google+, Snapchat and Twitter. Only then will you understand the challenges that organisations face in adapting to new forms of media.

#6 Earned, shared, owned and paid

We operate in a broad media environment yet frequently limit our campaigns to owned, shared and earned channels. Typically these will be siloed rather than integrated.  The audience makes no such distinction. Practitioners need to be able to work across all forms of media. The changing nature of media means that increasingly campaigns need to include a paid component. If you want to maximise how many people in your community your content reaches on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, you’ll need a paid element, and whatever your view of paid media, native advertising is often the best way to maximise return on investment from earned media. If you’re a PR purist that believes that paid media isn’t something that we shouldn’t consider please thing again.

#7 Social sciences

Ever since the era of Edward Bernays, PR has been about putting psychology and the understanding of human nature at the heart of our work. My Ketchum colleague David Gallagher believes that we’ll see social science take on increasing prominence in our strategic work. Concepts like nudging and framing are increasingly common in the way agencies are planning and designing strategy. Candidates with credentials in psychology or anthropology are increasingly sought after. There’s a great blog post on the Ketchum site  by maslansky + partner’s Keith Yamir about the differences between what communicators say and what an audience hears.

#8 Understand how to make money

The PR business has traditionally been lousy at proving its value. Rather than addressing this issue head on we’ve relied of faux proxies such as advertising equivalent value. That’s changing thanks to the work of the Association of Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) and a rigorous focus on setting and measuring objectives. If you haven’t investigated AMEC’s work I suggest that you do. It has produced template models for every conceivable type of campaign. Understand how to define measurable objectives and tie them into business objectives. Ultimately if you don’t understand how a business makes money you’ll always struggle to justify your position.

# 9 Confident communicator

We work in the business of communications. We need to be good at communicating. If you want to get on you need to be confident in producing your own content and presenting. You need to be able to persuade senior managers or clients of your view. I used to be lousy at formal presentations and it remains my least favourite form of communication and an area of my own professional development. TED is a good place to start if you want to observe masters and work and learn how to present.

#10 Never stop learning

The final point, like the first, relates to learning and professionalism. Continuous learning, like foundation knowledge, is an attribute of a profession. Our business is changing fast. The value of our services is increasingly recognised and appreciated by organisations. Set yourself personal learning objectives each year to tackle the areas covered in this blog post. There are a stack of courses and materials available via the CIPR and other organisations. Finally, sign-up to the CIPR’s continuing professional development scheme to record your progress and get on the path to accredited and chartered practitioner.


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