Thinking about the recent conversation regarding the merits or otherwise of studying public relations, I am reminded of Karl Fisch’s statement in his fascinating Shift Happens presentation (now available at The Fischbowl as a pdf or word file) that: “We are currently preparing students for jobs and technologies that don’t yet exist . . . in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet”.
What should we be doing in PR to prepare for this unpredictable future? Paul Holmes recently speculated about the requirements for future PR practitioners in his Manifesto for the 21st century public relations firm
“…the ideal candidates to help grow the public relations agency of the future will possess rare and perhaps even contradictory qualities.
For example, it should be clear that anyone dealing with the blogosphere should be blessed with exceptionally good judgment, since any lapse is likely to carry severe penalties. Such judgment typically comes with age and experience, which suggests that firms will need more senior people and will need those senior people to be more actively engaged with the media.
But at the same time, the blogosphere is a young medium—and this is an generalization that may be unfair to some senior practitioners—best understood by younger professionals. So firms will need to find either young people with exceptional judgment and wisdom beyond their years, or senior people with tremendous enthusiasm for the new and exciting.”
Many of the skills that are part of the DNA of public relations will continue to be vital; such as effective communications, building relationships, creative problem solving, and managing risk and crises. Indeed, such capabilities will be even more widely sought (which Holmes also recognised).
The question about PR jobs of the future applies not only to the individuals who will be forging new careers, but to employers as well. Are they taking up the challenge – will we see smaller marketing departments and larger PR ones as traditional promotional tools decline in effectiveness? Or will new functions emerge – and if so, what might these be? Anyone for the “boundary-spanning” department?
Of course, we can only speculate about what the future will bring – but, if nothing else, we should be inspiring young practitioners to forge new paths. They should not be content with their current jobs – whether as PR technicians or managers – but look for ways to create innovative roles. It is not about using education and training to be better at what you are doing today, but having the vision to be a PR pioneer.
We hear a lot from older PR practitioners about how they honed their craft without the benefit of training courses and higher education qualifications. That’s true. Ironically, we are now teaching principles and practice based on their ground breaking work – they gave us a history and “best practice” models. We shouldn’t forget this, but it isn’t enough.
Already we can see PR practitioners need new principles and practices. I believe today’s students, practitioners and academics should be as pioneering as our predecessors – challenging the theories and ways of working that have become the norm. That applies equally to those who champion learning in the workplace as those who advocate the benefits of academic studies.
The way in which we practice PR needs to be confronted as much as the way in which we think about underlying principles.
In my own area of automotive public relations, the tradition has been much more about refining and improving our modus operandi, particularly in areas such as launching new vehicles. It is almost a formula, a recipe for a successful product launch. There might be variations in implementation, but the basic approach has changed little over the last 40 years.
When Bob Sicot “invented” the format in the late 1950s for Renault, he was a pioneer. Foreign travel was exotic and part of the narrative. Car launches made front page news. Every new car was an innovator; safer, faster, bigger, better.
Many of the jobs in automotive PR still focus on specialist media relations; primarily supporting marketing efforts to promote new models. Of course, there are strategic roles and functions focusing on government relations, internal communications, corporate social responsibility and so on. But the heart of the automotive PR department has changed little in decades.
I have developed a model that challenges the status quo, which I will discuss in another post shortly. Within the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) we are also developing a career framework that will underpin our future training initiatives. It will be vital to look ahead with this and not just focus on improving current competencies.
We also cannot simply look the requirements for existing job functions as already we are seeing new opportunities – without obvious candidates to fill them. For example, BMW UK is the first in the UK automotive industry to appoint a new media public relations manager. Finding the right candidate will be a challenge with the ideal combination of strategic corporate abilities, a passion for automotive matters and proven experience in new media.
One of the strengths of public relations has been its adaptability to new trends and opportunities. We have accumulated some wisdom, plus many bad habits, along the way. So surely, PR of all disciplines should be preparing practitioners for the career challenges ahead. The question is, are we?