One of the most enjoyable hybrid academic-practitioner experiences I have had this year has been as course leader of the PR Academy Digital Communications Certificate course. The reason is that we have been able to incorporate a lot of contemporary thinking around ways of learning as well as the emerging field of digital communications and social media. This includes blended approaches to online and offline learning (with Stuart Bruce leading a face-to-face session, alongside my own direction of the web-based aspects, including guest webinar presenters).
Additionally, I include formative feedback on tasks completed throughout the course (leading to the final summative assessment – which is criteria based with the most relevant feedback form I’ve used to date). Finally, the course allows for the existing knowledge of participants, plus application to their specific interests, organisational requirements and practical experience. The input of students also helps us to develop the course, and their engagement and reflections benefit my own understanding and practice.
As a result of the recent course, I’ve been reflecting on how in 2015, professional use of social media and digital communications will be essential for anyone working in PR, internal communications, public affairs, marketing and many other functions, in almost every type of organisation.
Increasingly I note how communications practitioners are connected on a constant basis through their mobile devices. It used to be the case that those working in-house, as an example, were unlikely to respond to emails out of “normal working hours” let alone be contactable globally which they are of course today. Recently the death of the legendary former motor industry correspondent of the Daily Mail, Michael Kemp, led to recollections of how he used to telephone leading PR heads on their home numbers on Sunday evenings to source a story for the next day’s front page – and how on international car launches, he’d ask for a phone line (often no easy thing to find) so he could call in his story to be published and get a leap on his competitors. How different to the always-on, report-it-now journalistic method of today.
Also, today’s PR practitioners are on the whole familiar, either personally or in a work context, with the main ways of using social media and digital communications. Their big challenge is keeping up to date with trends and developments to be able to make informed recommendations in a variety of situations. This is the context in which we’ve developed the PR Academy Digital Communications Certificate online course. As well as its practical value, it aims to help communications practitioners demonstrate their competency in this emerging field through assessment across six core areas.
Taking each of these, I’ve been able to consider a trend that I believe is set to be increasingly significant in 2015.
1. Future demands smart personalisation
Mobile first is the default for 2015 with 4G, optimised websites, apps and device integration each contributing to an ‘always on’ communications environment. With the online world perpetually to hand, the demand is for smart personalisation of communications to deliver what people want, when, where and how they want it, without compromise.
Technology increasingly enables the selective ‘pull’ of information to meet personal needs, and also supports a targeted ‘push’ approach. Filtering presents opportunities, but also acts as a barrier, particularly for change communications when those with existing attitudes block out messages they don’t want to hear.
2. Tailoring the 4Ts – techniques, tools, technologies, terminologies
The past decade has seen incremental development of an ever-larger array of techniques, tools, technologies and terminologies (the 4Ts) becoming part of the professional communicator’s toolkit. In 2015, effective application must go beyond familiarisation with the latest shiny new gizmo or gadget, and involve tailoring the 4Ts appropriately for all online users.
Knowing what is required is critical – even more important is being able to justify a tailored approach to show why certain techniques, tools, technologies and terminologies are relevant in specific situations. Best practice is not a single solution but expert utilisation of what is right at this moment in 2015.
3. Building multi-dimensional profiles to rank key influencers
The promise that ‘big data’ could automate organisational communications has proved a fallacy. It takes people to understand people and gain sufficient insight to guide decision-making. In 2015, the trend will be to build multi-dimensional profiles to truly, madly and deeply understand our key influencers.
Rich qualitative and quantitative data that relates to individuals, not averages or generalisations, is required to understand who needs to be engaged, who will be valuable advocates, and who will emerge as activists and challengers. Our understanding of influence needs to be more sophisticated with a matrix of factors incorporated in ranking and relationship building.
4. Evidencing value from strategic planning
The era of employing a ‘digital native’ to churn out digital communications and social media content is over with recognition that this is a strategically significant function. Integration with top-line goals and plans is vital and evidence is required to secure the professional resources required to deliver value across the organisation.
Professional communicators are required to deliver verifiable evidence requiring ‘hard’ skills (research, analysis, assessment, forecasting, budgeting, etc), alongside ‘soft’ human engagement and technological competencies. The flow of tangible as well as proven intangible benefits arising from investment in digital communications and social media are becoming important key performance indicators in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
5. Securing a reputation for content leadership
Content creation and curation need to step up a gear in 2015 as only the best will secure a reputation for content leadership and cut through the morass of online clutter.
A focus on online marketing of content has seen aggregation, ‘cut and paste’ copying, superficiality and promiscuous pitching of uninspiring ‘storytelling’ dominate at the expense of relevant, informed, and meaningful material.
Those who secure a reputation for content leadership will be increasingly valued as influencers and trusted sources. These may be individuals, traditional media brands, organisations, celebrities – in fact, anyone – who applies a mindful approach in managing their online presence with care. Authenticity may be found in paid, owned, earned or shared media, but adopting a mindless approach to seeking coverage that’s more about saturation than satisfaction lacks any genuine credibility.
6. New approaches to risk, issues and crisis management
The old ‘certainties’ and ‘rules’ of identifying risk, issues planning and crisis management cannot simply be replaced with simplistic advice as the online world presents a more complex, dynamic environment. Readiness remains essential, but responses need to be proportionate and increasingly situational – ie being able to recommend and implement a considered solution, in a timely manner according to the particular circumstances.
The nature of online risk, issues and crisis continues to develop, from irritating Twitter trolls to more serious strategic hacking threats to corporate security. Communications insight is required alongside legal and technical expertise within cross-functional teams. Specialist understanding from a variety of perspectives enables clearer consideration of digital developments in the real-time, ever changing context that creates predictable and entirely unexpected threats and opportunities.
My position is that whilst the nature of digital and social media communications continues to evolve, it is vital for communication practitioners to develop the competencies that support organisations in staying ahead of the competition and to be able to weigh the balance between early adoption and being left behind. I’m a pragmatist, so tend to view digital hype and, indeed, forecasts/trend type posts with some cynicism. But having been involved with this course through two cohorts in 2014, I felt it was useful to reflect and look forward.
As the PR Academy Digital Communications Certificate course is primarily studied online (with one face-to-face day in London), it is ideal for global participation, and I’d love to see more students from different cultures to enhance our learning and development of the course. As I’ve said above, it is designed to focus on individual learning requirements, practical application to particular organisational circumstances, and incorporate emerging and established knowledge. The next class starts in February 2015; access full details here on the PR Academy site.