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.