Future leaders need more than digital PR

Everywhere you look, those starting out on a career in public relations are urged to focus on developing skills in digital PR.  But as such competencies shortly will be little more than a commodity possessed by most young graduates and practitioners in the field (as well as many with years of experience), future leaders will need much more than an ability to craft a Tweet or build a network of Facebook friends.

Looking at the underpinnings of developing a successful career, here are some tips for those keen to get to the top:

1. Don’t build your talent solely on the basis of tactical skills. 
The real problem with a focus on digital PR – indeed arguments that digital communications is in itself a corporate discipline – is that attention is primarily on being able to implement at a tactical level, or to conceive a digital communications strategy.  This is typical of public relations where demands for writing skills are prevalent in job adverts and crop up continuously among those who criticise PR degrees.  If an ability to write – or use social media – is the primary skill we can offer to organizations, PR will never be respected as a strategic function.  Likewise, expertise in media relations, even when contributing towards achieving overall organizational strategy, has not earned PR respect – indeed, it is often a reason put forward for it being little more than a publicity function.

2. Look to gain a wider experience than simply communications. 
Debate in a recent edition of Communicate magazine concluded that it was more important to equip executives who have general organizational experience with communications competencies rather than see those with expertise in the field appointed to the board.  This implies that those who have opted for a specialism in PR are doomed to spend their careers facing a ceiling on their ambitions.  You can become head of communications – maybe as part of the dominant coalition, but only ever on the basis of knowledge of engaging stakeholders, protecting organizational reputation, handling crisis situations and managing media reaction.  These are important contributions to an organization’s welfare, but if you want to lead or contribute to the leadership of an organization and not just its communications, you need to become a generalist, not a specialist in digital and mainstream media communications.

3. Link your understanding of evaluation to organizational metrics
Recent attention paid to evaluation in PR (thanks to the Barcelona principles) do not seem to connect the function to a wider understanding of business or organizational metrics.  Anyone seeking to be a leader in the field of public relations in future has to get to grips with evaluation and all other aspects of planning if they are to have any credibility at the top – and this means going beyond planning campaigns, to running a department, and cross-functional projects.  If you cannot understand the measures that are critical to the organization’s chief executive, you cannot earn his respect.

4. Extend your knowledge base throughout and beyond public relations
Anticipating arguments that the Stockholm Accords are the key to a successful career as a leader in public relations, I concur this can provide a framework for practitioners to engage in their professional development.  However, such debates often remain within the field; largely being debated and adopted by relatively few practitioners.  To be a leader, you need to connect ideas as widely as possible – so look to other disciplines, academic and management literature, books, journals and online sources.  Attend conferences, network professionally and socially, but be eclectic in your choices and look to learn from every and any opportunity. 

5. Build a community of practice and find a group of challenging mentors
Professional development is a state of mind where the philosophy of kaizen (continuous improvement) helps you adapt to the dynamic world around us.  One way of fast tracking your development is to learn from others.  A community of practice is an effective process of collective learning.  As well as looking for online opportunities to share and learn from others, build networks in the real world at all levels.  This includes identifying four or five people who would be effective mentors.  Again, be open in who would make a good mentor for you – look beyond PR and review these regularly so that you can continue to be challenged.  At the same time, reach out and become a mentor to those following you along the career path. 

6. Be proactive in your career management
Many people I talk with seem to have stumbled through their careers – with lucky breaks, bad experiences and responding to job opportunities as they occur acting as critical turning points.  Or else they post-rationalise their choices, seeing patterns in hindsight rather than any direction influencing the tapestry of their career.  I’m not advocating necessarily setting out with fixed ambitions, indeed flexibility can be a virtue in recognising and taking advantage of opportunities.  But a process of reflecting on your abilities and current status, determining a direction to head, and setting clear achievable goals – particularly to gain competencies and realise career moves – can be an advantage.

The beauty of building your career around knowledge and skills gained in public relations is that you have transferable competencies that offer a solid basis for extending your career laterally or progressing upwards.  Indeed, the multi-direction potential is substantial – enabling you to craft a career tapestry that is individual and original.  Undoubtedly digital PR will be a thread weaving through organizations going forward – but if you are to look back on a successful and rewarding picture of your working life, I recommend, you don’t rely on this talent alone.

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22 Replies to “Future leaders need more than digital PR

  1. A very tiny comment about the nature of online public relations.
    Social media is top of mind now.
    The Web was top of mind in 2000
    Once, Usenet and BBS was top of mind.
    Data transmission was before that.
    The social media is already going towards what can only be described as digital wall paper. Just as were its pre cursors.
    A career built exclusively on 1970’s Usenet would be very limiting today.
    We really do need to see beyond the current digital fad.
    Now that the web has escaped the PC and laptop, the whole social media game has already changed.
    Now we can see the significance of strategy. Build on common values if you like but not with a one trick social media pony.

  2. I guess it will not help to add that the PR industry needs to be a multi-layered activity with some practitioners able to grasp the breadth and depth of available strategic and tactical opportunities available.

    In addition, there is a huge need for wider experience in industry generally. I was appalled to hear Dick Frederico claim due diligence was part of the employment of Neil Wallis by The Met. Had Dick ever bought or sold a company, he would know just how detailed a due diligence investigation really is.

    It is that kind of wider education and experience that we need to bring to the PR industry over and above tactics and strategies and helps our involvement in vision, mission and corporate objectives without looking naive.

    1. David – agree with you entirely. I’m not convinced about “multi-layers” if that means a hierarchical approach as from a career/employment perspective, the world is getting flatter, but if I could swap for “multi-dimensional”, the I support the principle.

      I have also been looking at the need for PR practitioners, particularly senior ones, to have wider experience, knowledge and competencies as part of my PhD thesis. Although I’m not sure Dick Fedorcio wasn’t being a bit disingeneous this morning over due diligence. Asking a senior colleague to vouch for someone wouldn’t even comply with the internal procurement process in my view – and anyone who’s ever looked at public sector PR contracts knows there’s normally at least 60 pages to complete, including detailed financial company information. That’s without the claim that £1,000 a day was the cheapest quote for an interim deputy or consultant (depending on which version of the role you think is true).

  3. Thanks for thoroughly interesting read Heather and all who have furthered this discussion. I only recently found PR conversations and will be sure to stay tuned and share my thoughts. Having been a UK-based agency practitioner for the past 10 years, plus 4 years studying this field at Bournemouth University, in many ways I continue to feel like I’m just starting out. It must also have either been a busy or lazy 10 years, as I’ve rarely found myself at the end of discussions such as these 🙂 (Perhaps at the beginning but all too often any moments of inspiration have been followed by a return to the daily grind). Therefore, for me an important take away from this post is tip No. 5. Irrespective of what I aim to achieve in my career, it is only improved by learning from others outside my immediate world and likewise encouraging the up and coming to look beyond their daily grind.

  4. Sean, I’ll play devil’s advocate. If Clausewitz were still alive, I would hope he’d comment here that PR strategies and corporate crisis plans (not to mention business plans) in the hands of an expert should almost certainly be deleted at the first encounter with reality. He’d state, I believe, that anybody who thinks they have developed a sustainable strategy underestimates the ability of others and events to spoil the show. I’m sure that is why tacticians in chess see themselves as more creative and talented beings than those who play strategically. I rather warm to Eric’s insight into the game of chess… though business is not the same as chess, it requires similar agility and flexibility and almost as much risk taking. I might write about this issue on my online review.

    1. Paul = glad to see your perspectives. I think there’s a semantics issue too… Many people I’ve worked with have a reflexive dislike for the term, “strategy.” They envision a straitjacket. As one boss said, “strategy is a waste of time. It’s just a way for people to tell you you’ve failed.” However, as the HBR piece from a few years ago said, there’s no reason why strategy can’t be a set of simple rules.

      I’d also differentiate between strategic plans and strategic thinking — outcome-orientation and connection to business objectives is strategy, even if the plans we write wind up being best case than not. I’ve worked on eight mergers and most of them had little strategic thinking and a lot of lists. That was fine for project management, but not for harnessing creativity and being sure we all worked to the same objectives.

      When a (internal or external) client says, “we need a newsletter,” the tactician starts laying one out and writing copy. The strategist asks, “what do we want people to think, feel or do as a result of our communication?”

      Tactics and strategy go hand in hand, and they’re not in opposition to one another.


    2. Paul,

      The war strategy you allude to by referring to von Clausewitz is ver enticing in marketing and other related disciplines. But everyday reality is more mundane and doesn’t deal with matters of life and death. The issues of the day aren’t settled by “blood and iron” as Bismarck put it but rather by subtle persuasion. Look forward to your post, that you invariably seem to announce in this forum.

  5. I can’t say that I agree with your premises here, Heather. First, a digital communications “strategy” is just that – a strategy, not a set of tactics.

    Second, as a once-tournament Chess player who achieved a ranking just below Master level, and who has learned quite a lot about the difference between Strategy and Tactics from the many chess books I’ve read over the years – it is telling to me that the majority of history’s world chess champions were known as great tacticians and not great strategists.

    Before I began playing in tournaments regularly, I used to play recreationally with other tournament players. My belief at that time, which I would try to argue for among them, was that “strategy was more important than tactics, and therefore a great chess strategist would outplay a great chess tactician every time.” I found little agreement with this point of view among the more seasoned players. And when I started playing in tourneys, I soon realized that those who tended to earn the highest scores and win the most often were those with more keen tactical sense than strategic ability. That’s when my view that Strategy trumps Tactics started to erode.

    So, I don’t know that I agree with your statement, Heather, that a focus on tactics over and against strategy is a problem.

    To your point about PR profs needing to be able to do more than craft a tweet or build a network of Facebook fans, I’d like to point out that, while tweeting and facebooking may not be rocket science, it is not that easy to devise a winning Twitter communications strategy or an effective Facebook marketing strategy. It has taken our firm a number of years of daily trial, error and course correction to truly understand the ever-evolving social media ecosystem and master that system to our benefit. This skill – social media marketing or social media PR – shouldn’t be downplayed or devalued.

    Eric Bryant, Director
    Gnosis Arts Media Group

    1. Eric – thank you for your comment, but you need to consider what I am saying in the context of career advice. My main point is that a focus on tactical implementation is not enough to get into a leadership position in today’s world. A digital communications strategy is all too often just that – a strategy for digital communications and hence still tactical rather than necessarily being of strategic value to the organization. If you do not understand the wider aspect of the organization’s operations and how digital communications, media relations and other specialisms in PR contribute at this level, then your strategy runs the risk of not being strategic where it counts.

      Picking up on your analogy of playing chess, you highlight my point exactly. Your chess players are trying to become expert specialists (ie best in a field)I am advocating that PR people should not focus simply on being Masters in PR (ie concentrating on getting the skills and knowledge of both tactics and strategies in this field), but extending their competencies so that they are valued at board level – and indeed, can lead organizations not simply become a Head of PR. This means being a generalist not simply a specialist.

      I believe that it is a limitation for PR practitioners and the function itself that PR practitioners (as your chess masters) focus on being great tacticians and not great strategists. A focus on tactics may make you an excellent PR practitioner, but it won’t make you a leader who gains the respect and opportunities that other functional heads achieve.

      Of course it is not that easy to device successful strategies in social media or any other specialist area of public relations. I have never denied that there is a need to learn the craft or apply continuous development approaches to keeping competencies up to date. Indeed, my whole career and ethos is built exactly on that. Greenbanana – which is my online persona stands for the notion of ‘if you are green, you are growing’ ie advocates ongoing development.

      What I am saying is that practical competencies are not enough – and young practitioners in particular need more than a focus on digital PR if they are to develop sustainable careers that involve becoming leaders – beyond that specialism.

      1. Ok, I see your point. If you’re saying tactics alone are not enough to thrive in the C-Suite, as CEO, I’d be inclined to agree with that statement.

    2. Eric – let’s not present strategy and tactics as individual silos. The fact is we need to be both expert strategists and expert tacticians. This isn’t to say that we must be Jacks/Jills of all trades and masters of none, but we really cannot afford to be seen only as the folks who push the buttons. Even in your own examples, the “tactical sense” of when to move what and where is usually based on established strategies — particularly defense. It may be true (you’d know better than I) that creative approaches to tactics might overrule established protocol, but even in the midst of planning a series of tactics, one is likely to discover a strategic course.

      The flexibility of strategy — the ability to see around corners and establish a sense of what to do when is also called technique — another of the inseparable skills a senior communicator needs to be an asset to his/her organization.

      To bring it to a personal level, I might be an expert writer, but a poor counselor. Each of those tactics has value to someone, but the consultative skills will more often win the day over the writing because of its broad strategic value.

      It’s not a zero sum game.

      1. Actually, in the game of chess, tactics tend to operate somewhat independently of strategy, at the higher levels. If you’re not an avid chess player, this may be difficult to understand, but I’ll try.

        In Chess, all tactics actually have names – Knight blockades, Outposts, Combinations, pins, forks, skewers, decoys, windmills, etc. The greatest chess players, like Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy, Steinitz, Capablanca – made a good living, fortunes even, educating, writing and explaining what these tactics were, cataloguing them, and designing elaborate, complex mathematical puzzles to teach their students how to spot them and execute them. Such materials were essential to the development of the game of Chess, precisely because they’re a monster to grasp and even more a monster to execute. There were great strategists, too, people like Nimzovich, Euwe and Petrosian, who achieved great fame and are considered among the best there ever were as well. However, Strategy in chess is actually a factor simpler than tactics in many ways (with the exception, perhaps, of Endgame Strategy).

        Nevertheless, in Chess, tactics tend to operate somewhat independently of strategy. The only purpose of a tactic, is in a nutshell, to gain an advantage in force. Why? Because, for two grandmasters, more or less equally matched, when one gains an advantage in force, however slight, that one is 99% of the time impossible to beat. By contrast, in Chess, strategy isn’t necessarily about gaining an advantage in force, but about trying to gain an advantage in position, tempo or psychology (think poker).

        In Chess, strategy has pretty much been developed and set as it is for over a century now. Strategy is not where most of the complexity, subtlety and nuance of the game of Chess is, after you reach a certain point. Where the complexity and novelty have really been discovered – and where they’re continually being discovered – is in the realm of Tactics.

        To your point about whether the consulting skills will more often win the day over writing – not sure I can agree there either. I know corporate bloggers making six figures twice over, simply from writing blog posts for companies! No kidding. An excellent writer can “win the day” over an excellent consultant just as often as the other way round.

  6. Heather, the truth is, I think, that in many ways PR is the ‘MacGuffin’ in the corporate plot. A reputation is intangible and it is not really what the audience cares about or the organisation itself exists to generate. Yet what would Citizen Kane be without Rosebud? PR is perhaps, then, the most important – yet most illusive – ingredient of all at the heart of any institution’s success.

    The difference between PR and IT (beyond the obvious ones of function and form) is that the latter can be measured by its contribution to improving worker out put per hour. Though, you are correct to say that email is an enigma in that its specific contribution to improving workplace productivity has proved difficult to measure – though nobody really doubts its value.

    1. Heather,

      Thanks for a thought provoking post. My assumption is that the advice is primarily meant for young people setting out on their PR career. Secondarily it may be useful for those “craftsmen” who migrated from journalism and ther functional specialisms editing and layout.

      Yes, there are those who still think mastering Microsofts Powerpoint is a bid deal. And yet they bemoan the fact that they never make it to the C-suite. For these, a strategic detour back to the organizations mission, values and core business is a good place to start. But it will be very difficult for them to make such a mental transistion — for their mental models are built around the “functional/craftsman” paradigm.

      This is indeed what you advise in your first point — just to emphasise the point; tactical skills are necessary but not enought to advance to the C-suite.

      Now, back to the young men and women who are starting out on their PR careers. A good starting point is a solid first degree grounded in either the liberal arts, social sciences or economics (or even wait till you’ve your MBA) before specialising in PR.

      A grounding in a good first degree helps one think holistically about issues in relation to his/her particular specialism — PR in our case.

      Finally back to what I sometimes feel is a professional inferiority complex among PR folks. There is this tendency to think that because we haven’t got inside knowledge about say economics and and accounting we’re not worthy of membership to the C-suite. The issue is that we’re not articulate enough to communicate PRs contribution to averting potential crisis scenarios that could have occurred without PRs proactive input.

      PR has to prove it is worth a place in the C-suite. Moaning alone won’t get us anywhere.
      On a positive note and for inspiration to young PR professionals, here is a link to Simon Sineks website “Start with why”: http://www.startwithwhy.com/

      1. Don – thanks for your thoughts. The matter of whether PR should be a career starting point as a degree choice or a post-graduate decision is interesting and one I am exploring in my PhD on career strategies. I believe there are arguments in favour of both options – but the same considerations about being broad minded and eclectic in your learning and understanding apply.

        I think you raise an interesting point about PR’s inferiority complex. I agree that we need to articulate better the merits of being skills in our functional areas of expertise – and ensuring these are valued at the top, particularly by those who are more used to the numbers and other harder metrics. I am always bemused by the idea that there is this either/or concept in respect of being good at maths or good at English (at its basic level) as I am sure I am not alone in being competent in both.

        The argument that senior execs need to be good communicators and good at business should be enough of an incentive to ensure that PR people look at their abilities in the first and develop competencies in the second. And, that they ensure the communications arena is not seen as an easy to acquire option compared to understanding finances and other aspects of organizational management.

      2. Don:
        I quite agree with your educational prescription, but there are hundreds of university programs that seem to be training people for their first job in PR, and that is button-pusher, not strategist.
        And the universities are hiring professors who think that way. Because teaching the other stuff is really kind of taxing, and leaves less time for writing articles placed in journals nobody reads.
        I also agree wholeheartedly with David that those specializing in social media today are setting themselves up to be tomorrow’s equivalent of a Linotype operator (yes, I started back then).

        1. Bill – thanks for your comment. I fail to understand why anyone needs to go to University to learn to push buttons (and incur substantial debts along the way), but recognise that’s the direction it is heading. Karen Russell’s post: Are all our students above average? (http://www.teachingpr.org/teaching_pr/2011/08/are-all-our-students-above-average.html) covers the same trends. I still maintain that without knowing why you are doing something (so the strategic perspective), doing is nothing more than learning a craft under instruction. And, as David Phillips pointed out on Twitter the other day, computers are rapidly developing the capability to do more than tactical tasks, making more of the routine PR tasks likely to be redundant in the not too distant future.

  7. Much of what you say I agree with. PRs need to read widely and to draw on other disciplines. I agree that evaluation and measurement are acts of corporate ranking and resource allocation for PR as much as for marketing and logistics. Moreover I agree that we PRs must be savvy about all the important metrics that are used by CEOs to calculate success within an organisation. But PR itself has a dilema. Much of what we do is difficult to calibrate. How do we measure, for instance, a media crisis of unfathomable potential for damage that we ensure never develops? Even linking our value to the market value of a reputation (or stakeholder perceptions) could see us in the dog-house come the next leaking oil well or exploding nuke plant or product recall, none of which will probably be our fault. That makes me wonder, however, how we can claim responsibility for good reputations while we don’t, except rarely, accept responsibility for bad ones. Though, however we resolve that conundrum, I’m certain that PRs are most valuable to an organisation when the chips are down. Last, I’ll spare making too much of what you say in point 4, beyond saying that I don’t “concur”.

    1. Paul – I agree that much of what public relations is engaged with is difficult to calibrate, but actually that’s true of much of what goes on in organizations (do most organizations really evaluate use of the telephone or email by those outside of call centre operations?).

      This brings us back to discussions over whether metrics are developed that measure what can be measured, or if more sophisticated understanding of complexity is required to look at alternative ways of understanding. So much more qualitative research – indeed, I understand some organisations are engaging with anthropology and trying to gain a wider picture than simple surveys etc.

      In the case of reputation – I agree that this is a gestalt matter, so bigger than the sum of the parts and PR alone cannot claim to be the custodian of reputation (particularly when it comes to crisis scenarios where there are other forces at work – not least operational as I’ve noted many times before). Again, I call for more sophisticated assessment that looks at the holistic perspective rather than trying to break down the contribution of each element. Surely as humans we are influenced cumulatively and holistically not demonstrating a cause and effect response to individual communications or activities.

      What I also think that PR functions can do better is communicate internally what they are doing, the outputs of their work and the outcomes. This includes being able to monitor and report on crisis aversion. I remember routinely handling customer complaints via the media without ever reporting on these to senior management. It may have been possible to put a cost on the consequences of a negative outcome should a publication have reported on something that I resolved, but I’m not sure that the customer relations department evaluates in this way either.

      Indeed, this shows the complexity of people as I recall that the JD Power surveys in which Toyota did well revealed that it wasn’t necessarily about building perfect cars but about the way you responded when things went wrong. Again, when I worked for a car breakdown organization, the happiest customers were those who’d called on the service and had a good experience.

      I totally agree that the most value that PR provides is often in the crisis avoidance situation – so we need to raise the profile of what we are doing to prepare. I remember an IT guy at a Motor Show once telling me he had the same problem as people wondered why they paid him to stand around doing nothing – but if the IT system crashed, he earned more than every penny.

  8. Heather – this is great advice, and it mimics what I tell my students. On my list of Twitter chats, for example, I include #HBRChat and #KaizenBlog — both of which reach beyond communication topics. I still enjoy #MeasurePR (though not lately — client assignments have precluded much involvement, though I’m guest hosting on 12 April) — and #PR20Chat.

    The idea that we’re businesspeople who happen to apply communication as our primary skill is one that we PR/Comms folks should embrace. Similar locution hasn’t prevented accountants and lawyers from rising beyond their functional specialties, provided that they apply themselves to broadening their horizons. For us, that means less reading of PR trade pubs and more reading of business — finance, organizational development, management and leadership, especially.

    Thanks for this — very valuable.

    1. Sean – thanks. I’m keen to promote entrepreneurial skills also in PR. The ability to spot opportunities for clients and employers (not simply to generate media attention) to improve reputation, generate goodwill, boost business and so on are invaluable going forwards. It also equips practitioners with the skills they require to manage their own careers as if they are the ‘brand’. I like your thinking that PR practitioners need to think more like accountants and lawyers to rise beyond a functional specialty. One other source I like to recommend is TED – some fascinating videos of great thinkers (some bizarre stuff too, but again can always learn something).

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