Why a lack of digital skills among senior leaders is a threat to PR

PR executives largely agree that digital communication and social media are increasingly important, so why don’t more know how to do them?


On 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 percent 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.

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 as especially troubling. Digital and social media are clearly critical components of almost any PR effort, and 59 percent 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 percent of respondents. The impact of 24/7 newsrooms and an always-on culture concerned 12 percent.

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 he or 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.

No 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 percent 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 without 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.

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.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog.

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