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The Evolution of PR & Communications Roles

Posted almost 4 years ago by Rob Markwell
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Last week the Midlands CIPR invited me to come and speak on how the changing digital landscape means PR agencies/departments need to keep evolving the skills mix within their teams and recognise that new talent coming into the industry arrive with a different skill set to previous generations.

Why ask a recruiter?

Firstly, I’d like to think it’s in large part due to our longstanding work with the CIPR, whether that’s partnering with the PRide Awards in both the Midlands and the North, sitting on the judging panel for Young Communicator of the Year, or having hosted and run various seminars and training events over the years.

As a specialist recruiter, we’re also speaking to PR and Communications Directors on a daily basis, which means we have a broad window into the market that gives us real insight into how teams and skill sets are shifting and the impact innovation and technology is having on them.

“PR as we knew it is dead”

During a recent conversation with the head of a leading PR Agency, we were discussing her belief that PR as we knew it is dead. To give this context, the conversation centred on how she believes the PR industry is having to re-learn how to apply core PR principles in an era when everyone with an internet connection has the ability to self-publish and in which digital media has fundamentally shifted traditional approaches to issues and crises. This resonated with what we’re seeing in terms of talent requirements and felt like a good starting point for the talk.

Over the past few years, there’s no doubt that role requirements for PRs have evolved. What we’re seeing is that job titles have changed, job descriptions have changed, departments/teams have become more cross-functional and culture has shifted as a result.

As such, it’s not an exaggeration when we say that a high percentage of the roles we recruit for now, didn’t exist (or were in their very early infancy) five years ago. When I look back on roles we were recruiting for then, we weren’t talking about programmatic buying, augmented reality or data scientists and there was barely a mention of social media or SEO - now these roles are coming in weekly. With the pace of evolution in the digital/tech space, I’ve no doubt that roles we’ll be recruiting for in five years time will follow the same pattern.

“Digital Media has reached its adolescence”

This statement in Edelman’s 2017 Digital Trends Report resonated with me. Digital has grown up; it stopped being ‘new media’ years ago when digital consumption became second nature to consumers and mass adoption occurred.

As a recruiter, we see this on a daily basis - we no longer get PR/comms briefs that don’t require some level of digital PR experience. It’s now as much of a pre-requisite as traditional PR. This has shifted in the last couple of years, where digital skills were previously a nice to have, rather than a necessity.

“Social and digital are just the oxygen for great ideas. Everything starts with having ideas that are relevant.” Jo Leah, The Little Big Agency

What we also see is that Innovation doesn’t kill the fundamentals of the communications skill set and this remains at the core of most PR job briefs.

However, rather than contradicting our earlier statement, PR as we knew it is dead because, used intelligently and based on sound thinking, digital channels open a far greater world of possibilities than were previously possible. And that belief is what the best candidates we speak with exude.

What this means is that, far from being rendered useless by new technology, old-fashioned storytelling principles are more important than ever because, while we obsess over fixing the digital skills gap, there’s a risk that young PRs and communications professionals don’t know enough about traditional PR. So part of this ‘evolution’ is the importance of bridging the skills gap.

“Digital makes everyone more accountable for what we do. Measurement and evaluation will become more important for proving our worth.” Seb Thompson, Manchester Airport

Digital channels provide far deeper measurement and analytics, that allow PRs to demonstrate ROI, way beyond the now outdated AVE metrics. Developing a deeper understanding of this is, therefore, a crucial weapon in the modern PR’s armoury and increasingly an understanding of this is forming part of job briefs we’re receiving.

This all ties into the need for people, regardless of their discipline, to have a wide breadth of understanding. From an employability point of view and indeed from a career progression perspective, what employers now look for is people who are specialists in one area, who think broad and collaborate with other teams and departments.

So, just as effective campaigns have to work across all channels to engage consumers, today PRs must understand and embrace the different tools, tactics and strategies to help them continue to stay current.

Employers aren’t expecting people to be masters of all the tools and technology, but they are expecting employees to be current, curious and adaptable. The candidates who are snapped up quickly almost always have these traits; they’re always looking to stay current, always curious and always adaptable to any given situation.

This isn’t some gene these people were lucky enough to be born with, they do this by constantly learning, reading and seeking out information, which means that when someone - an interviewer, a client, a boss - asks something about SEO or paid social (for example), they have an opinion and are able to relate it back to PR objectives.

“Digital is always on. As PR professionals we now need to create campaigns that work around the clock. The challenge is how do you organise and maximise it?” Rik Guttridge, Smoking Gun PR

PR has always been ‘always-on’ to a large extent - but digital and tech means PR teams must now be faster, more nimble and more agile than ever to capitalise on opportunities and threats. And that mindset carries through into what employers look for, which, ties back to the need to be current, curious and adaptable to really strive ahead.

Ironically, however, technology can also inhibit communications. I would urge everyone in PR not to lose sight of what it means to be a communicator. Never lose sight of the fundamentals of building relationships, so don’t simply hide behind email with clients/journalists/partners; get out there in the real world and build actual social networks. Electronic comms are of course crucial to our everyday lives, but the point is that there has to be a balance. I personally believe this applies equally to everyone in any type of relationship-driven role (something I’m constantly reminding our team of!).

To re-enforce this point, here’s the view from a friend who’s a political journalist for the BBC:

“In my experience, most young PRs will fire off dozens of template-based emails hoping to grab a journalist’s attention. It rarely works. Most fail to remember that cultivating a personal relationship is essential to making contacts and coverage, whether digital or traditional, can be exponentially increased by targeting those you’ve bothered to speak to first.”

In summary, I don’t believe that digital skills are more important than traditional PR skills; the two have to co-exist. However, what this has meant is having to develop and understand new ways of communicating and this will continue to evolve, so it’s those people who have the curiosity to stay current, to adapt and learn, who will be at the forefront of the industry.

We have seen people who have chosen to move into more specialist social/content/search roles and that is definitely an option for anyone in the industry; digital opens up avenues, rather than closing them off.

Fundamentally, PRs are storytellers. Technology provides a far bigger platform to broadcast from, which gives significantly more opportunities than ten years ago. And that’s exciting.