PR skills – good and bad news

There are often times when the blog feels some despair about the PR industry, the people who run it and the skills of those in it.

The latest was when the Issues Outcome newsletter’s Tony Jaques sent him a link to the latest US Holmes Report research report on talent in the industry which demonstrates some insights into structural changes in the industry and, more importantly, some strange findings on the skills employers looked for in that talent.

The Holmes report found that client (ie non-agency people) respondents ranked the ability to ‘retain the right talent’ as their biggest challenge and finding the right talent as next. Agencies also saw the ability to retain and recruit top talent as their most important obstacles to growth. The ratings were on a scale of one to five and the contrast between client and agency concerns about talent were revealing. For clients the talent responses were in the three to four range, while the agency ratings were between four and five.

This is understandable in terms of the structural changes in the industry with clients paying higher salaries and offering more opportunities than agencies can. This is changing the structure of the agency business with fewer very large agencies and a proliferation of small niche players – with both large and small finding the competition for staff from corporates getting tougher and tougher.

Clients were ‘more sanguine’ about the availability of competent management, tightening corporate budgets and shortage of quantifiable measurement techniques than they were about talent availability. Agency responses were similar although concerns about tightening budgets and skills availability were higher than for the corporate responses. This too is consistent with the structural changes in the industry.

Agencies were also very concerned about the industry’s ability to source talent from ‘non-traditional’ areas – although looking at corporate and public sector corporate affairs departments the corporate side is much more likely to feature people with non-traditional backgrounds. Both agencies and clients, however, did show some shrewdness about communications industry competition by being relatively unconcerned about competition from marketing and advertising.

But the finding that astonished the blog was that: “Writing—which might be considered a ‘price of admission’ ability for a communications department—was ranked as more critical than strategic planning (84%), social media expertise (76%), and multimedia content development (76%) and a long way ahead of things such as business literacy (62%), analytics (62%), research (48%), search engine optimization (41%), and behavioural science (32%).

The report also found that other critical skills rankings were: social media expertise (76%), multimedia content development (76%) and media relations (63%).

Paul Holmes, the Holmes Report CEO, said about these findings: “There are two possible explanations for the focus on written communications, and neither of them is particularly encouraging. The first is that many respondents still don’t believe that the ability to write well—which really ought to be a ‘price of admission’ to the industry—is still in short supply. The second is that respondents are underestimating the rise of visual communications—infographics and animation and video more broadly—and the other new skills we need to attract.”

There is little doubt that the ability to write clearly and powerfully in different media is a skill which every PR person should possess. Equally, as the blog has discussed previously, the visual display of information is increasingly important as Holmes suggests. Like Holmes the blog thinks the first, writing, is so fundamental that it ought not be worth mentioning unless of course it’s not, which is then a big worry and well worth talking about. The second may be partly a function of age and experience as the blog’s generation took writing much more for granted than skills around visual information. A new generation may be different – hopefully – unless all that time scrutinising screens has been wasted.

Of course, in terms of any writing deficit employers tend to blame universities and schools – claiming interminably that they don’t teach people to write. Realistically schools and universities can provide the basic building blocks for good writing but the only way to get really good at it is by lots of reading (eg internalising George Orwell’s principles for good writing and learning from bad writing) and lots of practice. The theory of 10,000 hours of practice is as apposite for good clear writing as it is for any other pursuit of excellence.

It is inevitable though that in an industry as big as the PR industry the range of practitioner skills and capabilities are wide-ranging from excellent to abysmal – even if a majority of practitioners have the PR chutzpah and innumeracy to believe they are above average. But that’s good news for the best and brightest in the industry. Years ago, walking away from an industry meeting, the CEO of a successful consultancy said to the blog: “Some of them are idiots.” The blog can’t remember what prompted the comment but the blog remembers replying: “Don’t knock it – they’re your competitors after all.”