Paucity of digital/social skill at senior PR levels is a threat to the industry

Posted on March 3, 2015 1:05 pm by | PR | Social Media | Technology

CIPR logoOn the surface, the public relations industry seems to be doing just fine. Clients increasingly see PR as a more effective alternative to advertising and marketing. Agencies are making more money than ever, with global growth rising 11% in 2013, the most recently reported period. According to last year’s GAP VIII Study, budgets and staffs are growing. A job as a PR specialist ranks 75th on the list of the 100 best careers for 2015 and is the best creative job available.

All in all, the future seems bright. Scratch the surface, though, and there is considerable cause for alarm. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) is out with its 2015 State of the Profession survey results. Industry leaders reading the report should be sweating bullets over some of the issues that stand to derail PR’s continued growth. PR leaders in the U.S. would be well-advised not to shrug off these findings; they’d probably be similar if any of the American professional bodies bothered to ask. (Are you listening, PRSA and IABC?)

CIPR’s 2014 president, Stephen Waddington, offers one of the bleaker views in a recent post on 10 areas of pain for public relations. One survey finding stood out for me, though, as especially troubling.

PR skills that will get you hiredDigital and social media are clearly critical components of almost any PR effort, and 59% of survey respondents agreed that issues influenced by technology and innovation represent one of the industry’s biggest challenges. No other issue was viewed as more significant. Twenty-two percent of respondents said that challenge will center on the changing social and digital landscape. The expanding skill set required to compete in that marketplace worries 13% of respondents. And the impact of 24/7 newsrooms and an always-on culture concerned 12%.

Neville Hobson’s discussion of the CIPR report on the March 2nd edition of The Hobson & Holtz Report begins at 14:57.

Even though the industry recognizes digital/social’s crucial role in the practice of PR, the skills required to execute don’t exist among the industry’s ranks. Technical and digital skills were considered the weakest among survey respondents. The skills gap worsens with experience; the more senior the practitioner, the less likely she is to have technical and digital skills. Even worse, nobody is seeking senior professionals with any digital/social competencies. While these competencies are the third most in demand for junior PR roles, they didn’t rank among the top five competencies across all sectors likely to hire a senior candidate.

Despite knowing that its future depends on the skillful and professional execution of digital and social communications, the PR industry views it as a junior activity and beneath senior practitioners.

This is dangerous thinking. For virtually every dimension of digital and social media, seasoned professionals have a clear role to play. It’s not only a mistake, but it is irresponsible to delegate the senior roles to junior staff. Have you ever wondered why the blame for so many tweet-induced PR incidents is laid at the feet of interns or junior staff?

Three levels for every digital/social competency

A couple years ago, my colleagues Richard Binhammer, Mark Dollins, and I undertook a study of the competencies required for communications practitioners to manage digital and social efforts for their employers and clients. For each of the 30-plus skills we identified, we found there were stages of expertise:

  • Minimal/foundational exposure—These are the skill levels for junior staff members, the younger hires leaders and recruiters believe are already well-acquainted with digital and social media.
  • Capable/mid-level—Being able to publish, engage, and respond on a day-to-day basis, supporting business and communication strategies without stumbling over avoidable obstacles requires more experience and a deeper set of competencies than a college graduate with a lot of Twitter followers brings to the table.
  • Advanced/mastery—These are the competencies required for more senior staff—exactly the skills the CIPR study tell us don’t exist. They are strategic in nature and often require the kind of status and connections inherent in senior leadership.

Let’s look at just one of the 30-plus skills Richard, Mark, and I found in our research: digital/social project planning.

  • Minimal/foundational experience—Consistently demonstrates tactical planning expertise that delivers measurable outcomes with social media efforts, such as increased traffic, brand awareness or affinity, or product sales. Demonstrates consistently effective use planning tools, and with some direction, can produce an plan that shows clear strategic concepts, a well-articulated goal, achievable milestones and reporting capabilities.
  • Capable/mid-level—With little to no direction, integrates social project plans with more comprehensive business programs to drive business results. Can drive multiple social media efforts using integrated planning, platforms and effectively sells-in plans to P&L owners. Consistently demonstrates capacity for not on designing plans, but flawlessly implementing them. Effectively anticipates roadblock and works proactively to mitigate/remove them without having to compromise on expected deliverables from the plan.
  • Advanced/mastery—Coaches and develops business project managers on how to include social business planning as part of their projects. Drives increasingly stronger planning capabilities (including new/evolving tools and processes) that deliver on expected results for the business and from the team. Provides counsel on actions, social platforms, digital assets to be deployed, timing, plans for engagement with key audiences and engages senior executives in their roles or as supporters of the plan, and drives that capability in others.

PR skills in demand by sectorNo PR agency is going to be able to deliver on the mid-level and advanced needs of clients—and no in-house PR department will be able to accommodate its employer’s needs—by continuing to insist that only junior staff need any of these skill sets. According to the CIPR study, only 12% of practitioners with more than 21 years of experience felt confident about these skills. Most senior practitioners—and the requirements listed in job postings for senior-level positions—are focused on leadership and management, strategic management, interpersonal skills, organizational skills, and traditional written communication skills. These are unquestionably important, but a thorough digital/social grounding—the know-how on which respondents said the industry’s future hinges, there will be few opportunities to apply these skills.

Failure among mid-to-senior-level PR practitioners to get up to speed in these competencies is one of the biggest threats looming over the industry. It opens the door to PR alternatives whose leaders are well-schooled in the competencies businesses need. It portends an eventual irrelevance in the profession if it’s not addressed soon.

And the lack of urgency around obtaining appropriate competencies at all levels is not the only hazard the industry faces, according to the CIPR report. Among other things, there is a lack of professional qualifications among practitioners, the definition of professionalism is vague and inconsistent, we’re still too focused on media relations as a synonym for PR, and a lack of diversity in the ranks of practitioners can hamstring our effectiveness.

The PR industry’s current success may be the very reason there’s no sense of urgency to rectify these issues. If they’re not addressed, though, the pain that is usually a prerequisite for self-examination and change won’t be too far off.

If you’re interested in identifying which competencies your organization has, which are missing, which are needed to execute your strategy, and how you can best obtain them, get in touch with Richard, Mark, or me about a competency audit. We saw this coming when we created SME Squared and we’re prepared to help your agency or company get ahead of it.

Infographics courtesy of CIPR.



  • 1.I'd settle for an individual competency audit so I could work out how decent I was, never mind organisations!

    (A very good read, hard to disagree with it)

    Craig McGill | March 2015 | Glasgow, Scotland

  • 2.That's a terrific idea, Craig. Maybe we should talk to the professional groups about offering an online assessment. After all, if Buzzfeed can quiz you which Disney princess you are, IABC should be able to quiz you on where a practitioner's skills are deficient.

    Shel Holtz | March 2015

  • 3.Excellent post.

    A couple of quick questions/points...first, how is "digital" being defined? This, to me, is one of the most important and trickiest components to answer. Clearly, it's more than social. But does it include basic HTML programming? What about understanding how huge data sets are processed? SQL vs. noSQL? I have a considerable background in social communications, but I'm not sure I'll *ever* self-describe as "feeling confident"--mostly because the older I get the more I realize how much I have to learn and also partially because this area seems to shift daily.

    I was asked recently which is more important, traditional PR skills or social/digital skills. My answer was that I didn't think they should even be separated. PR is about communication. Digital and social is how people are communicating. Separating the two into "more important/less important" buckets is not thinking of what the long-term picture is.

    Jen Zingsheim Phillips | March 2015

  • 4.Great questions, Jen (unsurprisingly).

    Yes, I think "digital" includes all those things. It doesn't mean a communicator should know how to set up an SQL database, but he should know why one would be used instead of something else, assuming such databases map to the company's digital communications strategy. Similarly, community management would be important if a company's communication strategy included community engagement. If not, then it's not a necessary skill.

    Here's an analogy. When I started in this business, it was incumbent upon me to learn printing. I never had to operate an offset press (or even a sheetfed press), but in order to deliver publications that met my requirements, I did have to know enough to communicate with designers and printers. So understood what it meant to go four-up, two-over-four, with a spot varnish and a saddle-stitch. Most communicators did, but it seems we have abdicated that knowledge when it comes to the printing presses of the digital age (servers, etc.).

    Shel Holtz | March 2015

  • 5.One big problem: There's no easily consumable curriculum for seasoned PR veterans to learn these advanced skill sets--only various short-form "boot camps." That's been my big frustration. It's a jungle, and self-teaching is very time-consuming and hit-and-miss affair. I agree professional trade groups need to step up with thorough, sequential remedial education, packaged in an achievable way for the typical short-handed PR Director. If you're occupied in mastering an industry's subject matter such as humanitarian aid or higher education (with small non-profit staffs) in order to be an able counselor, the default is simply understanding the importance & strategic use of these channels, but delegating much of the execution, including the technology of metrics--as a matter of day to day survival.

    Holly Donato | March 2015 | Minneapolis, Mn

  • 6.But, Jen, wouldn't you agree that "digital" is about tactics and strategy rather than goals and objectives? Communicators must understand the strategic goals and objectives before putting together the plan for how and through what means to reach the various publics.

    What I think is often missing is the articulation of the objectives as we get caught up in the over-emphasis of digital or other tactical means to communicate. Strategic PR communicators must always keep in mind what they are trying to communicate and to whom.

    Teresa Dougherty | March 2015 | United States

  • 7.Holly, in May I'm spending two days with the senior leadership team of a financial services company to bring them up to speed on digital media. These aren't communication professionals; they're the C-suite, but they're taking the time away from the office because they recognize that having a common base of understanding is important. if they can do this, why can't the leadership teams of PR agencies and corporate communications departments?

    Teresa, of course PR leaders have to be grounded in strategy. But I guarantee you, every one of them could knock out a press release or pitch a reporter if they had to; they have self-reported in the CIPR study that their traditional PR skills are just fine. I would argue that digital alters strategy at a number of levels, and if you don't grasp that, you can't manage strategy effectively -- or, at least, you're managing it from a 1990s perspective.

    Shel Holtz | March 2015 | Concord, CA

  • 8.Totally agree on the training priority. What is the best source/method you'd recommend? In other words, best solution to the problem the report points out?

    Holly Donato | March 2015 | United States

  • 9.I'm not sure there's a single best solution, Holly. Culture drives a lot of considerations. It could be a reverse-mentoring program. It could be a concentrated training effort, like the one I'm doing in May. It could be a list of reading resources. At PepsiCo, members of the social media team met at the homes of senior execs to tutor them for a series of dedicated sessions. Whatever works best, as long as the result is an adequate grounding.

    Shel Holtz | March 2015

  • 10.Quickly.
    The mere fact that anyone and everyone, INCLUDING public personalities, can express themselves to the world with the click of a button, should be a major yellow flag to PR bosses that their roles have changed. Before, we would almost fully control where and when a representative/client would speak yo the public and HOW. The only means of communicating with the public was via the media - THAT HAS CHANGED. It's quite simple. Most things are if you are willing to face reality.

    Soraya Mangal | March 2015 | Toronto

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